Liam Morgan

The International Olympic Committee's (IOC) relationship with esports has been the subject of near-constant discussion since it became apparent the organisation would have to work with the multi-billion-dollar industry in one way or another.

Fearful of being left behind by the boom in esports and virtual gaming, the IOC yesterday announced the launch of the Olympic Virtual Series (OVS), considered its most significant foray into the movement’s biggest previously untapped market.

First, the particulars. Five sports - baseball, cycling, rowing, sailing and motorsport - have signed up for the inaugural edition of the competitive virtual events, set to be held between May 13 and June 23 and which will offer prizes for the winners.

The mass participation competition will include titles such as eBaseball Powerful Pro Baseball 2020 and Gran Turismo.

Cycling events will use the Zwift platforms, while rowing will use an open format and a virtual sailing regatta is also set to feature.

The International Federations governing the sports are all backing the project, with FIFA - more on that organisation later - among those to have expressed an interest in being involved in later versions of the OVS.

While the future OVS events will not necessarily follow the same format, the launch of the maiden edition is undoubtedly the start of something - it is the IOC dipping its toes into the vast waters of competitive esports for the first time.

Gran Turismo is among the games set to feature at the first Olympic Virtual Series ©Getty Images
Gran Turismo is among the games set to feature at the first Olympic Virtual Series ©Getty Images

Few would have been surprised at yesterday’s announcement, accompanied by a typically glossy, platitude-filled IOC press release. After all, at the IOC Session last month, its members unanimously voted for "closer ties" with esports and virtual gaming communities, and it is not difficult to make a connection between the OVS and that "decision".

Yet the OVS itself marks a departure from a favoured mantra of the IOC and Thomas Bach, this idea of "getting couch potatoes off the couch".

Esports has been tipped by the IOC as one way they can achieve this rather lofty aim, but only two of the five sports included in the new format - cycling and rowing - require any physical exertion.

In fact, this is the case for most of the esports titles the IOC has said it would be comfortable partnering with - those which are not "killer games", in the words of Bach.

FIFA, NBA2k, Madden NFL and the NHL games, for example - all of these do not involve the physical activity Bach and the IOC have trumpeted throughout the esports conversation.

Bach said the OVS will "encourage sports participation". But where is the evidence and where are the concrete figures to back this up?

While there is a symbiotic relationship between the two, it is equally too simple to say playing video games will make that person want to go out and play actual sport.

IOC President Thomas Bach has insisted the organisation will not partner with violent video games ©IOC
IOC President Thomas Bach has insisted the organisation will not partner with violent video games ©IOC

Given Bach and the IOC’s refusal to engage with games where "violence is glorified or accepted", it is no great shock the organisation has chosen to work with Dreamhack Sports Games as its main partner for the OVS.

Dreamhack’s core mission, according to the company’s website, is to provide and develop sports games, what it calls the "fifth genre" of esports, with the others being fighting, first person shooter, real time strategy and multiplayer online battle arena - words as far away from the IOC’s lexicon as can possibly be.  

The OVS launch also reminded me of the IOC’s first esports forum, held in Lausanne in 2018.

During the forum, where a host of professional gamers sat side-by-side with Olympians, an idea not too dissimilar to the OVS - an "esports Olympics" -  was mooted before being dismissed by Bach without a second thought.

"If you speak about Olympics, it is us - it is that easy," Bach said.

"The industry knows this very well because they have very good experience when it comes to intellectual property.

"Why should we sponsor a commercial event for an industry? This cannot be the future that we are sponsoring something to make an industry richer.

"We are coming from different angles - here is an industry with a clear interest to make money."

Ironically, the main reason for the sudden creation of the OVS events from an IOC perspective is seemingly financial.

The IOC is wary, to say the least, of the need to find new sources of income, particularly as there is no guarantee Tokyo 2020 goes ahead as planned in less than 100 days’ time. How much money the IOC will generate from the Games in the Japanese capital is also unclear.

Against that uncertain backdrop, the IOC will undoubtedly have taken serious note of FIFA’s accounts for 2020, which revealed the worldwide governing body generated more revenue from video gaming than from football.

FIFA’s financial statements showed that $158.9 million (£114.4 million/€133.2 million) of its $266.5 million (£191.9 million/€223.3 million) in total revenue for the year came from licensing rights.

It has long been an aim of the IOC to devise a way to tap into the esports cash cow, a fact the organisation refuses to admit publicly, instead favouring throwaway lines about connections between virtual gaming and physical activity to justify its actions.

Perhaps the coronavirus pandemic more generally has also accelerated the IOC's need to join forces with esports.

As the gates to physical sport have been closed due to COVID-19, doors into the world of esports and virtual gaming have been flung open to millions across the globe, who have sat confined to their own homes for days and months on end. With that in mind, there has arguably never been a better time to get involved with it.

Whatever the motivation, the "esports Olympics" many have suggested, and criticised, has moved a step closer - albeit a tentative one - to becoming reality.