Esports have become increasingly integrated into mainstream culture. Sold out stadiums, hundreds of millions of online viewers, crowded press boxes, and billion dollar valuations – it seems like nothing is beyond the realm of possibility for such a burgeoning industry, but, what about the final bastion of true sport: the Olympic Games?

Esports and the Olympic Games

Last month, Intel and the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) announced a partnership to host an esports tournament in Tokyo during the lead-up to the 2020 summer Olympics.[1] The event, coined the “Intel World Open”, will feature Capcom’s Street Fighter V and Epic Games’ Rocket League titles. Though this remains merely an IOC-sanctioned display, and not actually a medalled-event at the Olympic Games, it marks an influential step forward for esports, however, without an established governance framework, esports’ adoption in to the Olympic Games specifically, and mainstream culture generally, will continue to be restricted.

For all its overwhelming positives, the esports industry is also one that is marred with match-fixing allegations, doping scandals, harassment, and toxicity – qualities that diverge markedly from Olympic values. For esports to be included in the Olympic Games, stakeholders including the IOC require assurances that an authoritative governing body could ensure compliance with their rigorous standards.

In July 2018, the IOC and a number of esports executives, investors, and players, hosted a summit to explore the possibility of esports being showcased in future Olympic Games.[2] Thomas Bach, lawyer and the then president of the IOC, explained that in order for esports to be recognized by the IOC, “there must be an organization guaranteeing compliance with the rules and regulations of the Olympic Movement…anti-doping, betting, manipulation, etc”.[3] He went on to firmly oppose the introduction of esports in the Olympic Games and indicated that they, “simply do not see any esports organization, or structure, that will give [them] confidence that [their] rules [will be] respected, and the implementation of these rules [will be] monitored and secured”.[4]

Current Esports Governing Bodies and their Shortcomings

Currently, there are only two major international esports governing bodies: the International Esports Federation (the “IeSF”) and the World Esports Association (“WESA”). Although different in structure and purpose, both initiatives have proven ineffective in advancing esports globally.[5]

Of the 53 member nations within the IeSF, only two are currently of any relevance in esports: China and South Korea.[6] Even more troubling, neither of these prominent esports nations’ admission into the IeSF was voluntary, but instead, was mandated by their respective governments.[7] Of the remaining 51 national federations under IeSF supervision, none have been able to attract any recognized esports brands as sponsors, or compel their region’s best players to compete in IeSF tournaments.[8]

Unlike the IeSF, WESA’s expertise and significant financial support provide them with the authority required of an effective sport governing body. WESA’s executive board consists of six members:

  • Three Electronic Sports League (“ESL”) executives;
  • The CEO of Virtus Pro (Russia’s top esports organization);
  • The CEO of Ninjas in Pyjamas (top Counter-Strike team); and

WESA’s board is dominated by ESL influence. With this board’s interests tilted heavily in favour of a handful of commanding esports organizations, a “major concern is that teams and players could have unfair influences on rules and tournament formats for WESA-sanctioned events, especially given that their revenue funds the organization”.[10] Some commentators have even gone so far as to describe WESA as “an arm of the oligarchic, incestuous cabal that is the esports industry”.[11] Ultimately, no governing body has projected the authority or independence required of the IOC.

Other Issues in Esports Governance

An additional hurdle for esports governing bodies that is not observed in the realm of traditional sports is the role of video game publishers. In traditional sports, a significant responsibility of governing bodies includes the administration of the rules and regulations of the sport on a global scale. For example, in ice hockey, the International Ice Hockey Federation (“IIHF”) has the authority to require Olympic-sized ice surfaces, or impose a “no-touch-icing” rule, in accordance with this responsibility.

When it comes to esports, however, the role of rule-making is currently held exclusively by publishers. Esports are adaptations of video games, which are the intellectual property of publishers. Consequently, governing bodies in esports cannot impose rules that fundamentally alter the mechanics of a game. For instance, the League of Legends’ End-User License agreement specifies explicitly that no licensor, in any circumstance, may “modify, or cause to be modified” any parts of the game in any way “not expressly authorized by Riot Games”.[12] As a result, esports governing bodies have been forced to adopt a more limited role, and restrict themselves largely to tournament promotion, guidelines, and disciplinary measures.

Looking Forward

Esports have come a long way in such a short amount of time, but have yet to be accepted as an equal counterpart to traditional sports. The inclusion of esports in the Olympic Games would go a long way in remedying this inequitable perception and facilitating the adoption of esports into mainstream culture. For this to happen, an authoritative and independent esports governing body is required. Given the booming esports market, the development of such an organization is, perhaps, just around the corner.

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