Duncan Mackay

An "historic milestone, a celebration of the best of virtual sport and esports" was how Olympic Esports Week, which concluded in Singapore earlier this week, was described by International Olympic Committee (IOC) vice-president Ng Ser Miang.

It featured 10 virtual and simulated sports, including archery, baseball, basketball, chess, cycling, dance, football, sailing, taekwondo and tennis.

The Olympic Movement went into full overdrive to present the event as a success. "We have built bridges between the physical and the virtual worlds of sport," said Ng. "We have seen the sports and esports communities meet and share ideas. Together, we have discussed opportunities and challenges.

"The first Olympic Esports Week was a remarkable celebration of inclusivity and diversity. New friendships have been formed, and old friends have been reunited. 

"We hope these bonds continue to grow. While celebrating these successes, we will build on this new momentum to move forward."

But there was criticism from those involved in gaming that titles like Dota 2, League of Legends and Counter-Strike were omitted from the Olympic Esports Week at the expense of Tic Tac Bow, a free-to-play mobile game only released in February and which currently enjoys a rating of 1.9 out of 5 on the Google Play Store, or Tennis Clash, whose most recent reviews criticise it for "malicious and predatory" loot box mechanics.

In fact, none of the titles selected were games that anybody in the industry really considered to be esports.

The Olympic Esports Week in Singapore was hailed as a success ©Getty Images
The Olympic Esports Week in Singapore was hailed as a success ©Getty Images

Instead of choosing established titles that fans of professional gaming have seen over the years, the IOC instead seemed to pick those designed to alienate the community that it is trying to attract. 

While the titles contested in Singapore clearly had some memorable contests and kept a crowd allowed free entry entertained, the events will most likely have no interest from fans of games like Dota, Valorant and CS:GO.

But the IOC has made it clear from the start that their aim is support and promote the development of virtual sports that are already part of the Olympic Movement. This is why they have focused first on virtual and simulated sports games, partnering with International Federations who have proposed game developer partnerships.

Ever since the titles to be contested in the Olympic Esports Week were announced, the gaming community has been disparaging about the event.

Among those to have been most critical is Rowan Crothers, an Australian who was an professional esport player in Valorant before concentrating on swimming, where he went on to win two gold medals and a silver at the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

Crothers, who suffers from Cerebral Palsy, believes the titles chosen for Singapore excluded a large proportion of esports players, many of whom have been able to compete at the highest level even if suffering from a physical disability.

"I’m a Paralympic champion and the fastest swimmer with disability in the world," Crothers wrote on social media. "But I’ll never be good enough to be an Olympic swimmer. 

"In esports, I can compete at the highest level, with and against able-bodied players. But this isn’t esports. This is virtual traditional sport.

"I can’t balance on a Zwift bike. I can’t coordinate my body to dance. I definitely couldn’t compete at a top level. But I can use a keyboard, mouse, and microphone. I can compete in CS:GO and Valorant. So, I did. And I was one of the best players in my region.”

There has been criticism that traditiional sports in a virtual format were prioritised over more popular esports ©Getty Images
There has been criticism that traditiional sports in a virtual format were prioritised over more popular esports ©Getty Images

There was criticism that some of the games chosen required using equipment not easily accessible, while titles like PUBG Mobile can be played by anyone with a smart phone and an internet connection.  

There was an International Shooting Sport Federation Challenge featuring Fortnite and motorsport was included in Gran Turismo 7. 

They were at least two titles recognisable to gaming fans, even if Fortnite was a modified version without its Battle Royale mode.

But, unless there is a dramatic change of direction from the IOC, do not expect them to ever embrace titles like Call of Duty, Arena of Valor or Halo

The IOC is interested in expanding into esports, but only with "games that align with Olympic values", so ones with violence, the majority of endemic titles and which are the most popular, are out, and sports stimulators are in.

Chester King, vice-president of the Global Esports Federation and chief executive of British Esports, claimed the list of games was "a very sensible first approach" and claimed Singapore was a positive step helping gaming establish itself at Olympic level.

"This is the first event and we've got to make sure all the stakeholders in the IOC accept it and like it," he said.

Even though the IOC were happy with the event in Singapore and have hailed it a big moment in them having esports as part of the Olympic family, it still seems too big a step at this time to imagine them being a medal event at the Games themselves. 

It is more likely that tournaments like Olympic Esports Week will be developed and expanded as a standalone event.

"At the moment we’re not looking at e-sports themselves being in the Olympic programme," IOC sports director Kit McConnell told The Straits Times. 

"We see it as having its own identity and its own property, as we’ve seen here and that gives a real identity to it.

"There is the possibility for the physical virtual sports like cycling to be open in the Olympic programme and that will be a decision for Los Angeles 2028 that we will make after Paris [2024].

"But we see overall, esports having its own identity and event moving forward within the Olympics Movement."

It was noticeable that exhibition matches for games like Street Fighter 6 proved popular with crowds who attended the event in Singapore.

Daryl Ng, head coach of esports team Bleed Esports, a Singaporean esports organisation that competes in Valorant, was among those who went along to watch at the weekend. 

"It’s the first one, so it’s hard to tell [the success of it]," he said. 

"But if we’re going down the same path for future editions, people in esports might find it hard to support."

The Asian Games is due to feature esports that popular with gamers, but some have been modified to make them less violent ©Krafton
The Asian Games is due to feature esports that popular with gamers, but some have been modified to make them less violent ©Krafton

Interestingly, organisers of this year’s Asian Games in Hangzhou have been much more willing to listen to the gaming community when deciding which titles to include when esports is included as a medal sport for the first time.

PUBG Mobile, Dota 2, League of Legends, Dream Three Kingdoms 2, FIFA, Street Fighter and Arena of Valor are all on the programme, albeit some in a version especially modified for the Asian Games that excludes the more violent aspects of the games.

Even if the IOC were to perform a major volte-face and accept games like Dota 2 and Valorant, they would face a major challenge in building relations with the publishers of popular titles.

The publishers are commercial enterprises which own the intellectual property that their games are built on and therefore have an unlimited amount of influence into who hosts events and how this is done. They would exert much more influence and control than the IOC is probably prepared to cede.  

Until now, esports and traditional sports have been seen as mutually exclusive types of events, but in recent years, there has been an increasing overlap. 

The IOC will see Olympics Esports Week as a positive development, but it not a guarantee that esports will ever be included in the Olympic Games.

It did, though, provide an opportunity for the Olympic and esports communities to come together and explore the potential of esports in the Olympic Games. 

There is certainly growing interest and momentum toward its inclusion. 

But the two sides will remain a long way apart unless the IOC changes its policy on accepting esports that are the most popular.

The race to include esports in the Olympics will not be a sprint but rather a marathon. 

Now there is an idea for an event in the next Olympic Esports Week.