A League of Legends tournament in Taiwan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A League of Legends tournament in Taiwan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The 2018 Asian Games kick off in Jakarta on August 14 but one of the most eagerly-awaited events does not start until August 26 when Esports makes its Asian Games debut as a demonstration event. If all goes well, gold medals will be on offer for computer gamers in 2022.

Critics may complain that video games such as Overwatch and League of Legends are hardly sport, but with industry revenues predicted to reach $1.65 billion by 2020, nobody can deny that the genre is here to stay.

A survey in the United Kingdom in the first week of August that targeted fans of football and gaming, revealed that 72% preferred playing the beautiful game in the virtual world rather than on grass.

It is fitting however that the Asian Games are ready to take the sport to the next level as the continent is something of a hotspot. There have been television channels devoted to games, especially Starcraft, in South Korea for years and countries like Japan and China are catching up. In August, Saudi Arabia’s Mosaad Al-Dossary won the two-legged FIFA eWorld Cup Grand Final 4-0 to take the world title as well as $250,000. Twenty million people entered qualification for the event.

Pro Evolution Soccer and Starcraft are two of the six games that were chosen by the Asian eSports Federation (AeSF) to be played in Jakarta. They are individual games, as are Hearthstone and Clash Royale. The other two are team online battle games, Arena of Valor, and League of Legends, the latter taking place over three days.

“In the selection of Asian Games Esports, we exercised stringent criteria, i.e. the game must adhere to our vision of promoting integrity, ethics, and fair play,” AESF President Kenneth Fok said in a statement in May “Esports will strive to inspire and motivate the youth of the world to be the best they can be through educational and entertaining interactive challenges.”

Ahead of the Asian Games, participating countries have been busy holding events to select their representatives for Jakarta. What happens in the sprawling Indonesian capital in the seven days until September 1 will be closely monitored by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Adding Esports to the Olympics would certainly add something a little different. It would also likely be welcomed by sponsors due to the prospect of younger fans getting involved in a tournament that has become increasingly watched by older viewers (the median age of viewers in the United States for the 2012 London Olympics was 48 and 55 for the Winter Games in 2014). There are obstacles to be overcome, however.

“The Olympic Games are always open to new sports without forgetting our roots and if you don’t open up to new sports that the younger generation practices, then you can lose relevance,” said IOC president Thomas Bach in April. “But the question of e-games is completely different,” the German added.

One issue relates to the fact that in some games, the objective is to kill enemies as Bach pointed out. “We have to draw a very clear red line in this respect and that red line would be e-games which are killer games or where you have promotion of violence or any kind of discrimination as a content,” added Bach “They can never be recognized as part of the Olympic movement. They would be contrary to our values and our principles.”

Yet while those who work in the business side of the industry see being in the Olympics as a door to a new market, that may not be the case among fans. “Among the esports community, there is opinion that there is no need for esports to be adopted by the Olympics because esports don’t fit the stereotype of traditional sports,” said John Borini, Intel Vice President. “Now is the time to deepen mutual understanding.”

More than the issue of violence, however, is for Esports to be recognized as a sport. This was officially done by the IOC last November but divisions remain.

“I still see no unity on the question ‘is it even sport?’” Bach said. “In my personal evaluation, these professional players prepare and compete in a way that can be compared to those who play more traditional sports. You need concentration, quick reactions, tactical understanding, you need to be mentally and physically fit. But I cannot say my personal opinion is shared by everybody.”

There may be a little more unity after events in Jakarta in August and September.