Orcs and wizards at the Olympics? Terrorists winning gold medals? Rocket-powered cars chasing giant balls?
It may sound fantastical, but that all depends how badly the International Olympic Committee wants to tap into the elusive young audience that esports – or computer games to you and me – has captured. And, more to the point, if the biggest esports games and stars can be convinced to join the Olympic Movement.
Esports is at an important juncture as it bridges the gap between the digital and the traditional world. When three video games were piloted at the 2022 Commonwealth Games it was considered a major step towards legitimacy. It was hoped this could lead to inclusion in the Olympics.
However, Commonwealth chiefs decided not to incorporate esports into the 2026 edition and while the IOC has decided to stage a separate esports Olympics, the athletes will compete in virtual iterations of traditional sports, as opposed to popular video games.
It leaves esports in a transitional period that still divides its communities. Do they want to bend to the will of traditional sporting institutions deep-rooted in the structures and ecosystems of the past? “It’s a debate that still rages in esports itself,” Alex Inglot tells i.
Inglot, 41, has worked on the traditional sports side – at integrity company Sportradar, then as a member of tennis’s ATP board (his brother, Dominic, was a professional player) rubbing shoulders with the likes of Andy Murray. And since August 2020 he has been the commissioner of the ESL Pro League, the professional league for the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
“There’s a significant chunk of the esports stakeholder map who think it’s important they take that ‘next step’ being embraced by traditional entertainment and sport,” he says. “They want to be on ESPN. They want to be at the Olympics. They believe this is a marker of evolution and progress.
“But for every one of those there’s someone who says, ‘Well hold on we built this, we have something that’s unique, we don’t want to bend to the conditions or preferences of traditional media or sport’.”
Inglot explains the current biggest games in esports include CS:GO, League of Legends, Rocket League, Valorant and “maybe Overwatch”. Some of the hugely popular games, such as Fortnite and Fifa, have large player bases but their professional leagues and tournaments are not as well developed or followed.
Video games under the esports umbrella have already fostered fans in the tens of millions, attracted billions of pounds in investment and have professional leagues spread across the globe. All created, largely, without any mainstream support.
Star players compete in sold-out arenas, earning millions in prize money, and are adored by legions of predominantly young fans.
“The average age of an esports audience is 26. The average age of a traditional sport is 50-plus,” Inglot explains. “Golf and tennis looked at some of the numbers and were terrified. The numbers were going up one each year – they weren’t picking up anyone off the bottom.
“In esports, I dug deeper and while the peak age of fans is in the 20s, 32 per cent of esports fans are over 35. Esports has been going for 10 to 20 years now, these people have grown up, they’ve got kids, and they apply the filter of how they watch esports.”
It seems unfathomable that something as large and lucrative as the Premier League could ever be toppled by esports. But could it?
“Fans don’t want to be watching the same thing their dad is watching,” Inglot adds. “It doesn’t feel modern or responsive. Everything is bespoke, it’s data tracked. Where’s the data tracking in Match of the Day? It’s: ‘This is what you get, we hope you like it.’ The generations coming through are like, ‘That doesn’t work for me.’”
And the gap is closing between the traditional and the new. Claire Hungate, former CEO at Warner Bros UK, is president of Team Liquid, an esports team with more than 60 competitors. Craig Edmondson spent 14 years at the Premier League and has joined Fnatic, another leading team with offices across the world, as chief commercial officer.
Recent sponsorship deals have been struck with BMW, Mercedes, Intel. French president Emmanuel Macron has been photographed in a Team Vitality hoodie – a popular team based in Paris – and made bringing esports tournaments to France a pillar of his last election campaign. Professional gamers now have rigorous training schemes, work with nutritionists, dieticians, coaches and get injuries, akin to traditional sports.
Still, being accepted by the Olympics feels some way off. Inglot predicts it will happen in some form, but believes some games will never be welcomed. Starting with his own.
“There are inevitably going to be games that are never considered,” he says. “Probably my game first on the list. CS:GO is five terrorists against five anti-terrorists. That’s pretty much right outside the focus of Mr Bach [the IOC president] and his friends.”
However, he adds, “If they just stick purely to virtual iterations of their traditional sports I don’t think they’re going to get a huge amount of mass pick-up. How much further do you go in? Do you go into League of Legends with orcs and wizards? Where do you feel like you’re losing the thread to the principles and the centre of gravity that is the Olympic movement?”
Regardless of that outcome, esports will undoubtedly be a major player in the fight for eyeballs and attention spans taking place over the coming decades. Could esports be bigger than traditional sports?
“People are spending more time on computers and phones, whether it’s social, gaming, entertainment. If people are becoming more digital-first, it stands to reason they’ll socialise more and therefore game and entertain more. Fifty years’ time? It could. It will be interesting the amount of disruption that will happen.”
A grin spreads across his face, as though he wants to say it but isn’t quite sure he should, before concluding, “It feels like it’s heading that way.”