esports make natural addition to Olympics


(Illustration by Elise Lavallee | Contributing Editor)

By Thomas Wick | Columnist

It’s the 2026 Olympic Winter Games. Two combatants pick up pieces of plastic laced with electrical current and various input chambers. They do not face each other directly, but they fight on a screen — as Pikachu and Mario, respectively. This fight will decide who wins the 2026 Olympic Winter Games “Super Smash Bros.” sporting event.

This scenario might seem far-fetched, but a recent Olympic Summit meeting discussion about the development of “esports” and their inclusion in future Olympic Games last October indicated it could soon be a reality. While many gamers, myself included, are ecstatic about this possibility, not everyone is on board with seeing juvenile video games at the prestigious Olympics. Despite criticisms against esports’ inclusion, gaming has developed as a source of entertainment and competitive venture — complete with physical trainers and gym regimens — that deserves to be recognized in upcoming Olympic games.

Ever since the first official video game competition at Stanford University in 1972 for “Spacewar!” esports have grown dramatically. From the Nintendo World Championship in the 1990s, to television airing of video game tournaments beginning in the 2000s, to the popularity of video game streaming site Twitch, esports have grown rapidly as a competition and an industry. The movement has spread to Pitt as well, with students involved in multiple competitions over the past several years.

Gaming market intelligence company Newzoo estimated that the esports industry brought in around $660 million in 2017 — and that number is expected to more than double by 2020. So it should not come as a surprise that the Olympic Summit has taken notice of this alternative sport medium.

During their discussion, the Summit concurred that esports represent an up-and-coming competitive venture.

“Competitive [esports] could be considered as a sporting activity,” the Summit’s communique read. “Players involved prepare and train with an intensity which may be comparable to athletes in traditional sports.”

It’s impossible to deny the rise in esports and their influence in the sports industry, but all of this raises the question — are esports really a sport? Can we consider “Call of Duty,” “Madden” and “Overwatch” to be on the same level as football and soccer?

Clearly, there’s no way video games — as a competitive sport — can hold the same level of popularity as something like football. Just look at the riots in Philadelphia in reaction to the Eagles winning the Superbowl earlier this month, and any argument made claiming esports are as popular as football will be washed away.

But popularity in no way should be the only factor determining what constitutes a sport. According to Daniel Kane, a doctoral student at the United States Sports Academy, most people refer to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of sport. That definition calls a sport “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”

Some critics might point out that esports don’t require the same level of physical activity as “real-life” sports. But while pros and elite gamers don’t necessarily have to be as physically fit as most professional athletes, this does not mean that physical activity is not a factor in competitive gaming.

Any pro gamer will tell you that even the tiniest moment can make a difference in a competition. A physically unfit body can mean the difference between victory and failure. In an interview last February with the Dire Wolves — a “League of Legends” team — teammates explained they spend roughly one hour of gym training in the morning. The rest of their day involves training in the game for seven hours as a team and four hours solo.

“Dire Wolves strongly believe a healthy body equals a healthy mind,” team owner and founder Nathan Mott said. “The difference between winning and losing is mostly about mental fortitude.”

Personal trainer, Jake Middleton, also mentioned the importance of physical activity in esports in a September 2016 interview with NPR. Middleton provides meal planning advice and exercises for improving posture, reflexes and cardio for stamina.

Trying to maximize each player to where, whenever they go up and they play in their competition, they’re not only just healthy and feeling the best, but they’re ready to perform,” Middleton explained.

esports require a lot of cognitive energy, so anything players can do to make sure their minds are healthy will improve their performance. Being able to remember map terrain, predict your opponent’s moves and keep track of everything that is happening during a match hinges on the mental energy of the player. This means that esports players do go to the gym a lot in order to enhance their performance.

Not everyone has the dedication, commitment or mental strength to play as a major league gamer. esports players work at the same intensity as many professional athletes — the difference is that one does it on a computer, and the other does it with a ball.

Putting esports into the Olympics would not only grant these athletes the chance to compete at a higher level, but it would also draw in a bigger audience. With the rise of streaming platforms, such as YouTube and Twitch, allowing gamers to livestream their gaming content for free on the internet, the added platform of the Olympics could be a significant boon to the industry that’s still growing.

Of course, there will still be those who mock the idea of video game competition as an Olympic event. These critics completely miss the intensity and appeal of the medium. Video games already function in so many roles: entertainment, art, rhetorical artifacts and even medical devices. Adding sports to that list shouldn’t seem very far-fetched.

Thomas primarily writes about visual media and gaming for The Pitt News. Write to him at [email protected].