Esports and the Olympics … what’s esports?

On 15 October 2023, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach announced the IOC’s intention to establish the Olympic Esports Games. Bach has directed the newly established IOC Esports Commission to ‘study the creation of Olympic Esports Games’. This new format would add to the current IOC program of the Summer (since 1896), Winter (since 1924) and Youth (since 2007) Olympic Games. The Paralympics are organised by the International Paralympic Committee.

The IOC’s interest in esports is not new. In 2018, the IOC established an Esports Forum, followed by the Esports Liaison Group. In 2021, the Olympic Agenda 2020+5 included the recommendation to ‘encourage the development of virtual sports and further engage with video gaming communities’ (p. 21). Later that year, the IOC launched the Olympic Virtual Series. In 2023, it established the Olympic Esports Series – a global esports competition, which culminated in Olympic Esports Week, a 4 day finals event in Singapore in June.

But what is esports?

Put simply, esports is competitive video gaming. As opposed to competitive gaming amongst friends, esports take place in highly organised professional environments, and is often broadcast to an audience. Esports include simulated sports games as well as other forms of video games such as strategy games, first-person shooter games, and multi-player online battles.

There has been much debate about whether esports fits within the definition of ‘sport’. Arguments against recognition of esports as ‘sport’ include that esports are inadequately physical and lack a degree of institutionalisation, while arguments in support focus on the element of competition and professionalisation, the need for fine motor skills, and the psychological similarities between esports and traditional sport. Interestingly, a key philosophical opponent of esports fitting within the definition of sport, Jim Parry, relies on the common understanding of ‘sport’ as ‘Olympic Sport’. The IOC’s recognition of esports definitely shifts these goal posts.

There is no denying that esports are popular. While it is difficult to gauge the precise number of people participating in organised esports, ‘it is estimated that 5.5 million Australians play video games’. For comparison, the AusPlay national sports participation survey shows that 3.3 million participated in swimming and 2.6 million in cycling in 2022. There is also a growing number of esports tournaments worldwide. Esports were even included as a medal event at the 2023 Asian Games and as a demonstration event alongside the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

There is a fair amount of variation in what games are included in international competitions, making it difficult to anticipate which games will be included in the Olympic Esports Games. For example, the 2023 Asian Games included 8 titles and the 2022 Commonwealth Games included 3 (Dota 2 being the only common title). The Olympic Esports Week presented a completely different set of 10 games, including a mixture of sport simulation (some of which require high physical input), strategy, and first-person shooter games. Throughout the media coverage of its esports events, the IOC has consistently referred to games as virtual sports, rather than using the title of the video game itself (for example, archery is Tic Tac Bow, shooting is Fortnite, and cycling is Zwift).

There are a number of benefits to participating in esports. Like traditional sports, esports supports social engagement and the building of community – for both competitors and spectators (pp. 133–135). Esports also often do not have the same barriers to participation that exist in traditional sport – including geographic barriers, and barriers for people with a disability. This increases the potential for inclusive competition and participation. However, this inclusivity relies on an assumption of access to technology and overlooks a history of misogynistic online behaviour. Research also suggests a correlation between increased time spent video gaming and higher risk of obesity. The IOC has noted the importance of promoting a healthy lifestyle in the context of esports.

In Australia, the Australian eSports Association (AESA) is the leading organisation championing the domestic uptake of esports. AESA is a member of the International Esports Federation, and partners with the Global Esports Federation – the 2 international peak bodies for esports. AESA’s vision is ‘for esports to be formally recognised as an activity or sport in Australia; a key milestone in formal accreditation, credibility and respect for esports in Australia’.

Currently, there is no government policy recognition of esports in Australia. The Australian National Sport and Active Recreation Policy Framework (2011) defines sport as ‘a human activity capable of achieving a result requiring physical exertion and/or physical skill which, by its nature and organisation, is competitive and is generally accepted as being a sport’ (p. 7). The emphasis on physicality generally excludes esports. Neither is there mention of esports in Sport 2030, the national sports plan released by the Australian Government in 2018, which also focusses on physical activity.

Recognising esports in policy could have multiple practical implications, alongside encouraging participation. These may include visa granting conditions and support for professional athletes at university (as championed by QUT). Recognition may also focus attention on risks such as match fixing and gambling, and prompt reflection on whether current regulatory frameworks are adequate for these emerging contexts (see also The Future Is Now: Esports Policy Considerations and Potential Litigation).

One key difference between esports and traditional ‘sport’ – apart from physical activity – is the role of game developers and the question of intellectual property. As this Harvard International Review article points out, ‘while physical sports are timeless and owned by no one – anyone can pick up a soccer ball at any time and play – esports are contingent on the choices of their developers’. Developers with sole intellectual property rights over a game may demand they be the sole organisers of professional competitions. They may also impose limits on the distribution of games or discontinue a product.

Developing a national strategy or policy in regard to esports will require a nuanced approach; it is unlikely to be as simple as just recognising esports as a ‘sport’ in Australia. But with the Olympics embracing esports, it’s only a matter of time before Australia, too, must grapple with this growing phenomenon.

Tags: sport


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

Logo - Parliamentary Library Department of Parliamentary Services

Filter by



Tag cloud