Signs, signs, everywhere signs: the esports revolution is coming to the Olympics

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Thomas Bach has been president of the International Olympic Committee for nearly five years now, and one of his pet phrases is thus: “We have to get the couch potatoes off the couch.”

Prediction, and cue the screams of the traditionalists: the couch potatoes are very likely going to shape, perhaps significantly, the 2028 Los Angeles Games. 

The esports revolution is coming, and fast, for it cannot and will not be stopped, and indeed the gamers are almost surely going to help propel a thorough and long-overdue review — if not, indeed, the start of a re-do — of the Olympic program. That next-generation program is coming, in 2028 and LA.

“It’s the passion that really gets us together,” Bach told 21-year-old Jake Lyon, a professional gamer for the Houston Outlaws in the Overwatch League, as part of a Friday and Saturday forum dedicated to esports.  

A gold medalist in fencing at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Bach told Lyon in a remarkable one-on-one, nearly hour-long breakout session Saturday morning at the Olympic Museum, both having shared on stage the emotion that comes with championship and victory, “We feel the same passion for your activity as you feel the passion for our activity.”

 IOC president Thomas Bach and Jake Lyon, esports professional // IOC/Flickr

IOC president Thomas Bach and Jake Lyon, esports professional // IOC/Flickr

To be clear:

In LA in 2028, of course there will be track and field and swimming and gymnastics and judo and other core sports. 

But:

The Paris 2024 Games will be the last of the Summer Olympics as they have been run for, well, decades. 

The esports forum, in concert with action taken earlier this week by the policy-making IOC executive board, makes plain an intent to push the organization to explore other, innovative paths — to be accented further by the showtime that only Hollywood and California dreaming can bring. 

The limit, really, is only imagination — whatever anyone and everyone can bring.

If you think esports is a paradigm shift — what about eFormula 1-style racing? 

The IOC is inherently traditional and conservative, and there almost surely will be pushback, considerable if not formidable. (Changes to the Olympic Charter!)

Even so, Bach, who is nothing if not pragmatic, has also made plain that the IOC, founded in 1896, must evolve to remain relevant with its core audience, teens and young adults worldwide. Others, including Patrick Baumann, chairman of the IOC’s LA28 coordination panel, understand this imperative as well, and keenly.

This is why the IOC has, for instance, introduced the likes of 3x3 basketball, skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing to the Tokyo 2020 program. 

The problem with Tokyo 2020, as in many prior editions of the Games, is bloat revealed in plain math, and here is where the Olympic movement is struggling mightily, particularly in western democracies, to connect not just with teens and 20-somethings but with them — and their parents, relatives and friends — as taxpayers. 

The Tokyo plan was supposed to cost $7.8 billion. It now is at $13 billion. The IOC purports to cap a Summer Games at 10,500 athletes and about 310 events. The Tokyo 2020 competition schedule, released Wednesday, details a record 33 sports and 339 events. 

The IOC knows it has a big — word used on purpose — problem. Now underway, the 2026 Winter Games race is a shambles, with two cities (in Switzerland and Austria) already out and five in but none definitively. In a Wednesday release, the IOC made a point of saying that the Beijing 2022 Winter Games program would see the number of athletes cut by 41 to 2,892, within the Winter numbers framework.

For Paris in 2024, the number of athletes and events in “any new sports” should be considered within the Summer 10,500/310 framework, that same statement said.

“Framework” is a wiggle word, and anyone who thinks Paris 2024 will hit those targets ought to settle down with a nice glass of French red and consider these numbers, per the IOC: Rio 2016, 11,238 athletes and 306 events; London 2012, 10,568 and 302; Beijing 2008, 10,942 and 302.

These numbers are not, to use one of the IOC’s favorite words, sustainable.

This is why Paris all but surely will be the last dinosaur. 

There remain too many uncertainties and there’s simply not enough time to formally get esports on the Paris 2024 program.

Proposals for new sports for 2024 are due to the IOC by the second quarter of next year; in October 2019, the IOC session, its general assembly, will decide on potential inclusion; in December 2020, the IOC will detail both the number of events and athlete quotas.

Could the IOC arrange an esports “demonstration” in Paris that wouldn’t count against the numbers? It’s their party. Their rules. Anything is possible.

As Bach said at a mid-day Friday news conference, looking ahead to the esports forum, “It’s not about having esports in Tokyo or Paris but it’s about having a platform for exchange.” This was moments after he had said of the weekend, “We are looking forward to this with great anticipation,” and anyone who knows anything about the Olympic movement knows there are very few such meetings that generate, at least in public from its most senior officials, “great anticipation.”

Indeed, the IOC was so verklempt over the whole thing it issued a press release punctuated with an exclamation point: In Olympic-speak, exclamation points are a rarity. Nevertheless, here it was: “Esports stars welcomed to Lausanne!” 

The release noted that the point of the forum was to “explore synergies, build joint understanding and set a platform for future engagement between the esports and gaming industries and the Olympic movement.” 

Note the language in that release and keep in mind, again, that the IOC is traditional and conservative. That language is a pathway toward yes, not no.

In sum, what the two sides really can stand to learn from each other, as Rob Simmelkjaer, a senior NBC vice president, outlined in a Saturday afternoon panel, is elemental.

The esports world can produce a “level of interactivity” — instant feedback and commentary that fans can get and give — that, for now, is typically lacking in the traditional sports space.

Then again, what an Olympic Games can do is create a storyline to make a mainstream audience care about a who-is-that athlete in a what-is-that sport. In that respect, he said, “Gaming has a long way to go,”

To hearken back to the Five Man Electrical Band, there were signs, signs, everywhere signs of IOC interest in, as Bach said Saturday, creating such Olympic landscape “synergies” with esports.

If you prefer another rock ’n roll metaphor, and at the risk of running afoul of the political correctness police, perhaps the Roger Daltry take is more apt: you’d have to be the deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard not to get what was going on here.

For starters: the joke going around Saturday was that half the invited — that is, accredited — audience seemed to be from California. The forum moderator: former LA Laker basketball standout Rick Fox, now a hipster, goateed esports team owner.

You know what they say about jokes — there’s a kernel of truth there somewhere.

Seriously now:

There are roughly 7 billion people on Planet Earth. About 2 billion play video games, Mike Morhaime, the president and chief executive of Irvine, California-based  Blizzard Entertainment, said Saturday in kicking off the forum.

If you are the IOC, that’s relevance. 

In February 2016, Bach led an IOC delegation to Silicon Valley. The IOC news release termed it a look “into the future of technology, society and sport.” Included: mention of the couch potatoes.

The global esports audience in 2017 was estimated at 380 million, and is expected to grow to 600 million, Morhaime said. Again, relevance.

“This is still the very early stages of development of something that is very special,” Morhaime said.

The advent eight years ago of streaming platforms such as Twitch and YouTube has led, he said, to “exponential growth.” 

Goldman Sachs, the financial services company, issued a report late last month predicting esports revenue will approach $3 billion by 2022. More and more games are turning to competitive gaming and the formation of esports leagues.

From the Goldman report; "The immense popularity of survival-based games like Fortnite, growing prize pools for esports tournaments, the rise of live-streaming, and improving infrastructure for pro leagues have all paved the way for esports to reach 300 million viewers by 2022, on par with NFL leadership today."

NFL numbers — that is extraordinary relevance.

Now, a next, and foreseeable, leap — ESPN will show next week’s Overwatch League Grand Finals from a sold-out Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

If you are the IOC, would you rather watch the speeding esports speeding train roar by, or figure out how to hop on? Er, synergize?

In February, in South Korea, just before the start of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games, Intel put on an 18-player tourney — a Blizzard game, Star Craft II, a real-time strategy game — as an esports demonstration. Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn won. defeating one of the world’s best, Kim “sOs” Yoo Jin.

Recap: Intel is an IOC top-tier sponsor. The tourney was held right before the start of the Games. In South Korea. Could these signals be more obvious?

Recapping the experience, John Bonini, vice-president of Intel’s client computing group and general manager, esports and gaming, said Saturday at the lectern, “We don’t really need the Olympics in esports.

“That said, what I personally saw in Korea is that when you start representing a city, it’s different. And when you start representing your nation, that’s a whole new thing.” 

Fast forward to the forum at the Museum — or, to be precise, first to the week-long lead-up, which saw Lyon, who is from Solana Beach, Calif., just north of San Diego, and has attended Denison University in Ohio, east of Columbus, hanging out in Lausanne with Bach and other leading Olympic personalities.

Lyon had himself a week. He spent considerable time with Jochen Farber, Bach’s former chief of staff, now a senior executive at the Olympic Channel, the one initiative from among the 40 in the December 2014 Agenda 2020 “reforms” that has seen real traction and is, of course, aimed at the youth demographic.

In one Saturday tweet, the Channel called Lyon "the #esports global sports icon ..."  In another, it said he was here to "break the stigma," showing him sport climbing-style moving up a rock wall — the PR people clearly bidding to show he was no couch potato.

To that point, Lyon said on stage, "Online gaming is publicly perceived as antisocial and isolating, but actually the passion of esports brought me out of my shell and had me engage in the community."

Also very visible in the lead-up and at the forum itself: 

— Baumann, a Swiss lawyer and secretary general of the basketball federation FIBA, also serves as head of GAISF, the umbrella organization for international sports federations, co-sponsor of the forum. And, of course, as chair of the IOC panel that will coordinate working plans with LA28. Though it’s years out until 2025 and the next IOC presidential election likely to be contested, Baumann is widely considered among those to be given serious consideration to succeed Bach. 

— And, as well, Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait, head of the Assn. of National Olympic Committees and the Olympic Council of Asia. At the Asian Games that start Aug. 18 in Indonesia, esports will be a demonstration event; at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, esports will be a medal event. 

“This is a vision for a new start,” the sheikh said Saturday on stage.

 Patrick Baumann, in his GAISF role, opens the forum // IOC/Flickr

Patrick Baumann, in his GAISF role, opens the forum // IOC/Flickr

 Sheikh Ahmad with former LA Laker Rick Fox, now an esports team owner // IOC//Flickr

Sheikh Ahmad with former LA Laker Rick Fox, now an esports team owner // IOC//Flickr

— Also with a high profile, including an appearance at a Saturday afternoon session: Ser Miang Ng of Singapore, back for a second go-around on the IOC board (2005-13, then 2016-now) who since 2014 has been chair of its finance commission. That would be — the money. 

Notable, too, because to reiterate the Olympic scene is awash in signs and code:

The sheikh, for all the media reports in recent months, remains a potent power-broker in Olympic circles.

The head of the Asian Electronic Sports Federation, elected last September, is Hong Kong-based Kenneth Fok, a member of the OCA’s international relations committee. His father, Timothy, served as an IOC member from 2001 until 2016.

Here was Bach Friday night:

And here, in the front row as the forum opened Saturday at the Museum, was the way the seating arrangements most deliberately were arranged:

Bach, Baumann, Sheikh Ahmad, Lyon. 

Read the signs, signs, everywhere signs: head of the IOC itself; head of the worldwide IF umbrella organization; head of the global NOC confederation; polished, articulate, stereotype-busting gamer guy who made everyone laugh by saying of esports, “No matter how big it grows, they can’t pay me enough to wear a tie.”

Could this be more obvious?

Bach reiterated Saturday his red line about video games — no discrimination, no violence. Lyon, who already has the California business-casual thing down (no one was wearing a tie Saturday, not even Bach), noted that they use swords in fencing.

Look, esports critics, some of this is easily dispensed with. It's not just swords that are weapons. So are guns. Both are part of the Summer Games. As for shooting, if you want to say that pistol-shooting is as athletic as running a marathon — uh, right. In modern pentathlon, assuming it survives, one of the five set pieces involves shooting, and that shooting now involves laser guns.

Of course, a host of other questions would remain to be answered. What would be the international governing body? Would governments, who around the world fund Olympic sport (except in the United States), agree that esports are sport? What about doping controls?

And gender issues — as was noted at one of Saturday’s panels, Hostyn is transgender. Is that an issue when track and field is confronting complexities relating to what it calls “Differences of Sexual Development/intersex”? Or not, when the IOC is increasingly introducing events such as mixed relays in any number of sports?

And, Bach said in a Saturday press clutch, "They see their cultural development game-by-game more than by the entire industry," calling that "food for thought."

And so on.

Even so, by late Saturday afternoon Baumann was ready to call the forum "quite a positive start."

 Bach wrapping up the esports forum late Saturday afternoon at the Olympic Museum terrace

Bach wrapping up the esports forum late Saturday afternoon at the Olympic Museum terrace

Wrapping it up from the stage, Bach told the audience, "I was told I should not say I am excited. For this, I am stoked." Everyone laughed. He added, smiling, "I am not sure whether this authentic."

After nearly five years, Bach knows full well how to work a room. He also assuredly has a full handle on what’s what. And he can see where this is going. Couch potatoes, get out your calculators!

As Ralf Reichert, the founder and chief executive of Electronic Sports League noted Saturday when he, too, picked up the question of whether the IOC needs esports or vice-versa, that’s not it: “I think the question is … how can one plus one be three? How can these worlds coming together make both worlds better?”