SHANGHAI (AFP) – The drive to get eSports into the Olympics threatens to divide professional gaming, pitting those thirsty for global recognition against the traditionalists who fear the sport will lose its soul.
Once associated with teenagers stuck in their bedrooms, eSports is growing fast, the top players making millions of dollars and tournaments playing out to thousands of spectators in stadiums and many more online.
Last month, more than 40,000 fans flocked to Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium to watch the final of the world championships for League of Legends, one of the most-played video games on the planet.
ESports is set to be included as a medal sport for the first time at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, a significant step towards Olympic status.
Austin “Capitalist” Walsh – everyone in eSports has a nickname – is sceptical.
“I do understand people – and I’ve heard this complaint quite a lot – who say, ‘We are losing what eSports is, it is supposed to be guys in jeans and T-shirts talking to their mates about video games’,” said Walsh, an eSports commentator and veteran of the scene.
“There are people who feel like we are trying to be too professional.”
The American, who has been involved in eSports for nearly a decade, said that for some, Olympic inclusion would help justify to those from the outside what they do.
But speaking in Shanghai at a tournament for the battle game Dota 2, Walsh added: “I am happy that people are interested in eSports and want to include it, but I don’t care if it is in the Olympics and most people in eSports don’t.
“All the Olympics does is get people involved in a scene that they don’t really understand and they will put up certain rules and regulations that just don’t fit.”
“TobiWan” Dawson, another renowned broadcaster, admitted there was a split within eSports over the push to put it on a par with 100 metre sprinting and other traditional Olympic disciplines.
“Personally, I think the Olympics will put too many restrictions on us,” the Australian said, speaking at the same Shanghai tournament.
“There are country-based eSports teams, but that’s not what makes eSports strong,” he added, saying forcing teams into nationalities would break many current top teams apart.
“What makes eSports really strong is the fact that you take a blend of multiple regions and you put them into one team.”
China’s LGD Gaming are a major force in professional eSports with about 100 players, most of them Chinese.
Next month they will open their “home stadium” in Hangzhou, near Shanghai, and until then are living and training together in villas or apartments.
Yao Yi, a former player and now an LGD coach, gave the Olympic push only a guarded welcome because in China, national teams are forced under the umbrella of sports authorities.
“It is just that I think this industry, from the game developers, the gamers, the clubs, to the operations, they are all a bit unique,” he said at a villa in Shanghai.
Pan Fei, the manager of LGD’s 18 teams, said they competed in one tournament where teams took part by nationality and suffered because they had to drop one coach and three players, all non-Chinese.
But he said some relished representing their country and of five LGD players quizzed by AFP, four were in favour of Olympic recognition.
One of those, Yao Zhengzheng, a relative eSports veteran at 27, said the Olympics would be “not just the realisation of self-worth, but also the realisation of industry value”.
Ivon Wong is eSports general manager for Alisports, the sports arm of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.
Alisports, launched in 2015, aims to cash in on the rapidly growing world of electronic sports and Wong says that the Olympics “urgently needs rejuvenation”.
The answer is eSports, he says.
“The Olympics needs to attract young audiences through such a project to inject energy into it, while eSport needs such a platform to further regulate the industry so it can draw broader public attention.”