[co-author: Eng Han Goh]
Esports and traditional sports have in the past been seen as mutually exclusive types of events, but in recent years, there has been an increasing overlap between the two as esports continues to grow in popularity, especially since the pandemic. Do they have a shared future and will we see a greater role for esports in the Olympics?
Small steps through the years
In some cases, traditional sports leagues, teams, venues, and arenas feature an esports tournament or exhibition match as part of their programming, and this can attract a dedicated esports audience. For example, the NBA 2K League has partnered with the NBA to host esports tournaments during halftime of basketball games, and the League of Legends Championship Series has held events in sports arenas like Madison Square Garden in New York and Oracle Arena in Northern California. This has extended to traditional multi-disciplinary sport competitions.
Esports was first included as a demonstration sport at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, and was later officially added as a medal event at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. The 2018 Asian Games marked the first time that esports was included in a major multi-sport event recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The esports events at the 2018 Asian Games were well attended, with over 8,000 spectators reportedly watching the esports finals for games like League of Legends and Arena of Valor, both of which are multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games. Additionally, millions of viewers tuned in online to watch the esports competitions, indicating the growing popularity of esports in Asia. At the upcoming 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, which were postponed to 2023 due to concerns over COVID-19, the esports events are scheduled to be held in September/October 2023.
Esports was also first included as a medal event at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in 2019, held in the Philippines. The esports events included three MOBA games – Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, Dota 2, and Arena of Valor; two strategy games – Starcraft II and Hearthstone; and one fighting game – Tekken 7.
The esports events at the 2019 SEA Games drew a sizable audience, with thousands of spectators reportedly attending the competitions. The events were also streamed online, where they were viewed by millions of people across Southeast Asia. In particular, the Mobile Legends: Bang Bang finals reportedly drew in over 12,000 attendees, with additional fans watching the competition through live streaming platforms. The Dota 2 finals were also reportedly well attended, with around 6,000 people watching in-person.
Esports has not yet been included as an official sport in the Olympic Games roster, but there have been ongoing discussions and interest from both the IOC and the esports community about the potential inclusion of esports competitions.
In 2017, esports was recognized as a sport by the IOC, which was a significant step forward in the discussion about esports in the Olympics. Since then, there have been various discussions and pilot events, including the aforementioned multi-disciplinary IOC-sanctioned events, where esports was included as a demonstration sport.