GANGNEUNG, South Korea — The Saint Convention Hall is a three-story, glass-walled edifice not far from Gangneung’s rocky coastline. It’s a prime destination for high-end wedding receptions, as the tasteful bridal photographs and ornate décor suggest. But today, it’s the nerve center for a worldwide broadcast of an event that you won’t recognize as an Olympic sport — but your kids might.
Up on the third floor, an entire network’s worth of broadcast equipment and infrastructure backs a simple proposition: 18 video game players throwing down for a share of a $150,000 purse. As they match up, one on one, an Inside the NBA-style studio show breaks down their moves and their matchups, and an audience of hundreds of thousands watches online. This is the Intel Extreme Masters, baby. Check this hype video:
Come on! Doesn’t that get you pumped? Although nobody’s really ready to say it just yet, this is a dress rehearsal for a day when esports might just join the ranks of Olympic sports.
Wait a minute. Video games? In the Olympics? Come the [expletive] on, you might be saying, and you’d have plenty of company. As popular as esports are — and oh, are they popular, more than you probably even know, but we’ll get to that in a moment — the “e” is the operative word here, not the “sports.”
You don’t run or jump when playing esports, you don’t get winded or need to possess tremendous athleticism. What you do need to compete at a professional level is the dexterity of a concert pianist, the focus of a brain surgeon, and the multitasking ability of an air traffic controller. Esports are competitive as hell, yes. But do they belong in the Olympics?
At the moment, they’re at least adjacent to the Olympics. In the days prior to the Opening Ceremony, Intel hosted its first-ever Extreme Masters, a tournament that pitted some of the world’s best players head-to-head, playing StarCraft II. A hugely popular military/sci-fi game, StarCraft II combines strategy, deception, reflexes, and even a bit of empathy; it’s been compared to playing chess with all the pieces constantly moving, and not having any idea where your opponent’s pieces are.
“If you’re a hardcore gamer, you already have big events and titles you love. The question we’re asking is, is this a new pinnacle? Is this a new legitimacy?” says John Bonini, Intel’s VP/GM for Virtual Reality, Gaming, and eSports. “For people that don’t know much about gaming, this is an introduction.”
At a time when virtually every other sport and entertainment option is losing viewership and market share, esports are expanding at astronomical rates. A Newzoo report pegged esports’ reach at the end of 2017 at 385 million people, with projections of 589 million fans by 2020. Intel’s Extreme Masters series has grown year over year; a two-week 2017 festival in Poland drew 170,000 fans and an online audience of 45 million.
StarCraft II, this particular tournament’s game of choice, stands as a national pastime in South Korea. Its best players are national celebrities; it’s the source of endless TV shows and streaming videos. Thus, it’s an ideal fit for these Olympics, and it’s no surprise that two of the final 18 invited to the Intel Extreme Masters were South Koreans. As it turned out, the heavily favored South Korean player sOs (real name: Yoo Jim Kim) lost to Canada’s Scarlett (real name: Sasha Hostyn, and yes, Sasha is a she). This wasn’t a major upset — every player had to qualify in play-in tournaments to get here — but it was a surprise on the order of, say, the Eagles knocking off the favored Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Worth noting: only one player, PandaBearMe (Isaac Fox), hails from the United States. While there’s a thriving and growing esports community in America, it’s dwarfed by the legions playing in China and South Korea, among other nations. Part of that’s because esports still suffers under the perceptual burden that gamers are merely well-compensated versions of your college roommate who spent all day on the couch eating Taco Bell and playing Call of Duty. That’s an American archetype, yeah, but it isn’t exactly Olympian material.
The best esports players have to train — maybe not like Olympic athletes, but train all the same. “If I’m not motivated, I’ll play five hours a day to stay sharp,” says Aleksandr Svusyuk, a.k.a. Bly, age 29. “Before tournaments like these, I’m playing 14 hours a day. My wife is like, ‘Why? Spend some time with me!’”
“I like to play two or three hours, do rest, get out in the city, then play again,” says Pablo Cham Blanco, a.k.a. Cham, age 20. “If I play all day long, my brain will get tired and I don’t have the same response.”
“If you’re looking into a PC screen too much, you don’t blink for like 40 minutes,” Bly says. “Especially a game like StarCraft, that’s very bad for your eyes.”
If America’s going to make a run at esports, there will need to be a level playing field. “In South Korea, StarCraft II is a national sport. Everybody plays the game, so you have a lot of people playing against each other, learning strategies,” Bonini says. “One of the challenges is better adoption [of specific games], so you get better play.” He draws a comparison to soccer, which is far more popular worldwide than in the United States.
What’s next for esports on the global level? Movement to vault esports to ever-higher levels of athletic prominence is afoot; the Asian Games is making esports a medal event in 2022. Before there can be any serious discussion of esports becoming an Olympic sport, though, there are some real hurdles that must be overcome, starting with the IOC’s perception of the games themselves.
“We want to promote non-discrimination, non-violence, and peace among people,” IOC president Thomas Bach said in a recent interview. “This doesn’t match with video games, which are about violence, explosions and killing.” (For starters: not every game involves pixelated violence.)
Plus, there’s plenty of resistance from the Olympics’ old guard. Alpine skier and two-time gold medalist Ted Ligety noted that Olympic sports and esports are “two totally different worlds.” “Physical sports belong in the Olympics. I don’t think esports belong in the Olympics,” he said, and he’s by no means alone.
“The IOC has to see the connection with their fans and their charter,” Bonini said. “It has to make sense for them. For the next two or three Olympics, we’re going to go through a lot of learning cycles to figure how this would work, and then maybe after that, Paris talked about making it a medal sport in 2024.”
So will esports players one day earn Olympic medals? It’s entirely possible. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that everyone thought the idea of snowboarders in the Olympics was a ridiculous idea, and look where we are now.
“To see [esports] become as big as football, that would be OK,” Bly says. “I could stay another 10 years.”
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