Athletes of the future won’t necessarily cross finish lines or score goals. Some may, in fact, be professional e-sports players who rack up virtual wins.
Aware of the huge popularity of video gaming, the International Olympic Committee and the Global Association of International Sports Federations, or GAISF, hosted a forum in July about e-sports and the Olympics in Switzerland. Meanwhile, the Olympism in Action forum held a discussion about e-sports during the Youth Games in Buenos Aires in October.
However, despite some support for e-sports, or competitive video gaming, as an Olympic medal event among professional players, it’s unlikely to happen any time soon, according to Kit McConnell, sports director for the IOC. Fragmented governance, licensing problems, and violence in video games are just some of the problems.
“Our goal in reaching out to e-sports and developing these connections is not driven by a desire to have e-sports as a medal event in the Olympic Games,” McConnell said.
For one thing, every Olympic sport needs an official international governing body like soccer, swimming, and track and field have. But e-sports more of a free-for-all with each game, club, or sub-community having its own governing body, if at all.
Getting all of e-sports under one jurisdiction would be difficult, and it’s unclear if anyone wants it.
“Behind this term e-sports, actually it’s so many communities, so many cultures. No one is the same, it‘s a really a very heterogeneous ecosystem,” says Nicolas Besombes, an e-sports advisor for the GAISF.
Additionally, unlike other sports, video games have publishers, opening the door to licensing problems. Broadcasters would probably need to buy the rights from publisher to show video games on television, in addition to buying the rights to televise the games themselves.
The IOC has also raised concerns about violence in video games, joining a chorus of critics who say many top games are too bloody. Although any link between violet games and violent behavior is unproven, the family-friendly Olympics are unwilling to take any chances.
“So-called killer games—they, from our point of view, are contradictory to the Olympic values and cannot therefore be accepted,” Thomas Bach, the IOC’s president, said in an interview with the Associated Press.
Of course, the Olympics hosts medal events involving shooting, fencing (which mimics swordplay), and combat sports like boxing and judo. Bach himself holds a gold medal for fencing.
McConnell elaborated further by telling Fortune that mature-rated war games would likely be off-limits. However, non-violent video games and ones based on traditional sports may be able to find a place in the Olympic community.
Even if there was a push to make e-sports a recognized event, McConnell notes that it typically takes at least three years (though more often closer to seven years) for a sport to actually make it into the Olympics. That’s a long time in the video game world, where popular games come and go quickly. For example, three years ago, current video game powerhouse Fortnite didn’t even exist. Who knows which game will be a hit in 2024?
Whatever the case, McConnell said that the attraction of e-sports is partly that it could help to engage a younger audience with the Olympics. U.S. T.V. viewership for the 2016 Olympics in Rio declined 15% compared to London four years prior.
Younger viewers led the decline. Among the millennial-dominated and highly coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic, viewership dropped 31%.
E-sports, which have a huge spectator following online, may be able to help reverse the declines. The 2018 World Championship Finals for role-playing game League of Legends had 99.6 million unique viewers online compared with the 98.2 million who watched the 2019 Super Bowl on T.V.
People who follow e-sports are divided over joining the Olympics would be a good idea.
“I think sometimes that’s said a little flippantly, ‘Why do we need the Olympics?’” said T.L. Taylor, a comparative media studies professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies gaming and internet culture. “There really is this idea that people just aren’t actually sure what you get by joining with the Olympic movement.”
Others, including e-sports athletes, feel they’ve earned a spot a the table.
“It should be [in the Olympics]. It’s definitely a sport,” says Chiquita Evans, the first female player to be drafted in the NBA 2K League, the official e-sports league for basketball video game franchise NBA 2K.
Fellow player Artreyo “Dimez” Boyd, the first pick in the inaugural NBA 2K draft, was also confident e-sports would eventually get to the Olympics. Working in NBA 2K’s favor, he added, is that the video game involving basketball is just as easy to follow as the real thing.
The same cannot be said of games like League of Legends or Overwatch, two games that have robust e-sports competitions themselves. In both games, players are put into teams where they battle for supremacy. In Overwatch, victory is achieved by completing objectives, which vary by match. In the most popular League of Legends mode, Summoner’s Rift, a team wins after infiltrating an opponent’s base and destroying their Nexus (the equivalent of a home base).
“Spectating e-sports can be tricky,” Taylor says. “Fighting games may be the exception to this, perhaps in the same way boxing is an exception. But traditional sports are the same way, we just forget it because we’re so used to them.”
She adds that the only reason traditional sports seem easy to follow is because the public is familiar with them. That may be true for e-sports in the coming decades, but for now it’s still a tough sell for anyone who isn’t a fan of the games themselves.
Still, e-sports have made some minor inroads at the Olympics. For example, a few days prior to the Winter Olympic Games PyeongChang last year, Intel held a StarCraft e-sports tournament and an exhibit of Steep: Road to the Olympics as a demonstration to showcase interest in e-sports. StarCraft is a strategy game and Steep is an action-sports game.
Intel happens to be both an IOC sponsor and a sponsor and investor in the e-sports industry. McConnell says similar events may be held in the future on the Olympics’ periphery.
“There’s strong interest from a number of our partners who are already active in this space, Intel being one, Alibaba is another of our commercial partners who’s involved with e-sports,” McConnell said. “I think there’s really a number of touch points that we’re looking to explore. I’m sure the increased dialogue throughout 2019 will lead us to a number of other areas that we could also continue to build.”