The growth of eSports has been incredible to watch over the last decade or so. The activity (or sport, if you must) has grown from a fringe entertainment business into a mainstream attraction, and now routinely approaches the viewership numbers of major sporting events. Now, if you can believe it, there’s talk that eSports are being considered as a medal event at the 2024 Olympics in Paris. The debate over this will probably get started officially in 2019, but even the idea that it’s being considered is incredible.
The immediate counterargument many will have is that eSports are not a real sport and that its competitors are not athletes. Some may even contend that to recognise gamers at the same level as Olympic athletes might be somewhat insulting to those athletes. And yet, like it or not we seem to be inching closer to equating the two, regardless of the ultimate decision on Paris.
Just recently, Finland became the first country to recognize professional eSports players as athletes, and given that Finland has long been near the forefront of this industry, the decision could be the start of a trend. Make no mistake; this doesn’t just mean that someone in Finland called eSports players athletes. Rather, it was an official designation for tax purposes! The Finnish Central Tax Board has categorised professional eSports competitors as athletes, suggesting that “sports can also mean mental games of skill,” and that physical performance is not a necessary component for an athletic activity. It’s actually a remarkable distinction to make, and should other countries agree with that phrasing it follows naturally that they, too, will declare eSports professionals to be athletes.
But what does this actually mean, besides a shift in tax policy toward the competitors? Well, for one thing, it might strengthen the argument for those in favour of Olympic eSports. It’s difficult to say how the decision process will go beginning in 2019, but that’s still two years away. It’s conceivable that in those two years we’ll get more used to thinking of these gamers as athletes, and thus the idea of adopting them at the Olympics could seem a little bit less radical.
Official recognition of eSports competitors as athletes could also make international competitions easier for the gamers themselves. While it wasn’t quite on the level of Finland’s new tax policy, the U.S. did its own version of recognizing “athleticism” in gamers a few years ago by granting Visas to foreign competitors as if they were athletes. This may sound like an insignificant distinction, but particularly where visiting the U.S. is concerned, a Visa can be difficult to attain on short notice for just any old purpose. Thus, it’s conceivable that widespread acknowledgement of gamers as professional athletes could make eSports even more international in nature.
There could also be a little bit of backlash, however. A lot of proud athletes and sports fans are strongly against the suggestion that eSports are in fact sports – not because they can’t stomach interest in gaming, but because it’s such a far cry from the physical demands of ordinary sport. An article in The Telegraph way back in 2010 made the fairly devastating observation that gamers have the reactions of pilots but the bodies of chain smokers, and that’s more or less at the heart of the opposition. The idea of comparing someone with the health of a chain smoker to a lifelong athlete competing in the Olympics would be polarising (which is not to say that all gamers fit that description, of course).
It’ll be interesting to see how people react as this idea gets more widespread, and if the Olympic addition actually happens. But it certainly feels like we’re trending closer to calling gamers athletes, and not just informally.