The first-ever Olympic Virtual Series is underway with five events: baseball (eBaseball Powerful Pro Baseball 2020), racing (Gran Turismo), cycling (Zwift), sailing (Virtual Regatta), and rowing (Open format). And while traditional esports titles like League of Legends are missing, this is still a major step for the industry towards official recognition as a “sport”.
Esports has been edging in that direction for quite a while. Despite initial opposition, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Thomas Bach recently admitted that the IOC needs to find a way to communicate with the younger generation, most of whom are gamers. Although Bach is still averse to “killer games”, he at least seems open to the idea of simulation sports becoming part of the Olympic program, and the Olympic Virtual Series is IOC’s first attempt at that.
Esports at the Asian Games: Yet more Olympic recognition
Apart from the launch of the Olympic Virtual Series, esports received recognition from another IOC vertical. At the end of 2021, it was announced that esports will be present at the 2022 Hangzhou Asian Gamers. The Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) entered esports in the “Mind Sports” category alongside Chess, Xiangqi, GO, and Bridge. According to OCA, six esports titles will be included in the upcoming Asian Games.
While not quite the real Olympics, especially in terms of western recognition, the Asian Games, or the Asiad as they are known, are massive. With 70 years of history, the event has the support not just of its organizers from OCA but is recognized by the IOC as well. More and more competitors assemble for each edition (hosted every four years, just like the Olympics) with Asian Games 2018 attracting over 11,000 athletes from 45 countries, competing in 40 sports disciplines — i.e. more competitors than the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics.
Esports’ arrival at the Asian Games has been four years in the making. Pro gaming was first included at the 2018 Jakarta-Palembang Asian Games, but it was little more than a demonstration event. While it featured established esports titles like League of Legends, Hearthstone, and Starcraft 2 (alongside less traditional, but hugely popular games in the East like Arena of Valora, Clash Royale, and Pro Evolution Soccer) and awarded medals to the winners, they only carried bragging rights. The officials were never officially added to the total tally. It was all for show.
But as gaming approaches official recognition from the Olympic entities, the prospect for winning medals is being taken more and more seriously, especially in the original “Mecca of esports”.
South Korea: Win Olympic medal, skip military service
For South Korea, esports finally getting recognized as an official sports event carries major significance. Back when Starcraft was the only esport around, it was the goal of its pioneers like the legendary Lim “BoxeR” Yo-hwan to bring to industry to the mainstream spotlight.
“It was my dream, as well as everyone else’s in esports, to have esports in the Olympics,” BoxeR told Inven Global. Former League of Legends star player Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong echoed the bonjwa’s thoughts:
“I never thought esports would ever become an official event in the Asian Games. I think it was possible with all the officials’ hard work and the support of the fans.”
Korean esports fans have been paying closer attention to the esports’ affair with the Olympic events for some time now. Part of it is hoping that South Korea, known for decades to be a powerhouse in pro gaming, adds even more to the medal tally. But another, arguably bigger, reason doesn’t have anything to do with competition altogether.
In South Korea, all males are obliged to serve two years in the military and most enlist in their early twenties. And while this is a significant time dedication for any young person, it weighs that much heavier on athletes. Losing two years during the prime of their careers when the competitors are in peak physical form is massive, which is why Korean athletes looked at the Olympics and the Asian Games as a salvation route.
The Korean Ministry of National Defense gives exemptions for military services to all Olympic medalists and gold medalists from the Asian Games. This rule extended to all sports competitors, but until recently, there was no way for an esports competitor to get out of their conscription. This is why esports’ recognition at the Asian Games carries significance to Korean professional gamers. While chances for gold are statistically slim, it’s an option that had been previously denied pro gamers who, much like traditional sports athletes, have short careers and peak in their early 20’s.
League of Legends player and DWG KIA top laner, Kim “Khan” Dong-ha, who is one of the veterans that will have to start his military service soon, welcomed the change.
“I wish there were more chances like this,” Khan told Inven Global. “The pro gamers’ careers are quite short and having to serve in the military gives us a lot of pressure.”
League of Legends hasn’t yet been confirmed for the 2022 Asian Games so Khan might not get to delay his military service with an Asian Games gold, but it’s a much welcomed first step as far as Korean esports is concerned.