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Esports and the Olympic Games

This is an excerpt from Governance in Sport With Web Resource by Bonnie Tiell & Kerri Cebula.

By Steve Borawski, Michael Kidd, and Bonnie Tiell

Governance in Action 14.2

An international federation is the cornerstone of global governance for traditional sports ranging from cycling, ice hockey, and softball to more obscure sports such as samba, lifesaving, and chess. The Global Association of International Sport Federations (GAISF) includes over 100 Olympic and non-Olympic sport federations, but entering 2020, there was no recognition of a federation for esports.

According to the Olympic Charter, without a universally recognized independent, nongovernmental international federation, esports is not eligible for consideration as an Olympic event. The IOC concluded that there was currently no organization representing esports globally that aligned with the Olympic movement, with officials citing fragmented governance, licensing issues, and inherent violence that were problematic (IOC News, 2018; Segerra, 2019). Despite the rhetoric precluding esports from becoming an Olympic sport in its current context, steps have been taken to set the stage for future inclusion.

For one, the International Esports Federation (IeSF), which works with 54 national esports federations around the world, has made formal applications and appeals with both the IOC and the GAISF for official recognition. In 2016, the federation received correspondence from the IOC outlining the evaluation process and next steps for esports to be considered as a recognized Olympic sport in the same manner as surfing, rock climbing, and other recent additions to the cadre of events (Polacek, 2016).

Despite the setback with the IeSF not being officially recognized, esports has been a topic at major international meetings, including the 2017 Olympic Summit (IOC News, 2017). The IOC and GAISF co-hosted an esports forum involving over 150 industry representatives, which led to the formation of an esports liaison group with a platform at the GAISF International Federations forum, the Associations of the National Olympic Committees General Assembly, and future IOC Olympic Summits (IOC News, 2018).

Possibly the greatest support for esports as a possible future Olympic event is its inclusion as a medal sport at the 2022 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia. The Asian Games are a continental event recognized by the IOC. The Asian Electronic Sports Federation (AESF) is recognized by the Olympic Council of Asia, which governs the Asian Games.

While continental Games typically include nonmainstream sports that are germane to a geographic region (e.g., canoe polo and esports were a demonstration sport at the 2018 Asian Games), it is problematic to identify competitive gaming as a potential Olympic sport (“AESF Confirms,” 2018). However, discussions are emerging for inclusion of esports as an exhibition event, either at the 2024 Paris Olympics, likely in a restricted format, or through “virtual and connected” events preceding the Games and resembling online versions of existing sport such as sailing (Chao, 2017; Lanier, 2018; Morgan, 2019).

There is moderate anticipation that esports may one day be governed by a recognized international federation, whether it is the IeSF or another organization. In the meantime, there appear to be insurmountable hurdles to clear before esports would be considered a potential true Olympic sport.