icture it: thousands of people clustered inside a vast sports stadium, cheering on their heroes as they race to victory at the Olympics this summer.
But instead of real-life sports, the focus for one group is very firmly on the world of virtual entertainment, as the eSports committee gears up to host its second-ever eSports Olympics event.
The result will see velodromes subbed out for static bikes; chess boards replaced by big screens, and sailing races relegated from the open seas to the inside of stadiums.
It sounds bizarre, but this offshoot is a product of the Olympic committee’s efforts to reach out to a younger, trendier demographic than the traditional sports-focused summer event. It makes sense: worldwide, eSports is a growing industry, attracting millions of players worldwide and raking in $1bn in revenue each year.
It’s a long way from the days of Nintendo Wii bowling. However, do eSports belong in the Olympics?
Kit McConnell, the International Olympic Committee’s director of sport, is candid. “There have been a lot of questions about eSports and the Olympic Games,” he says.
“To be clear, the door is open to physical forms of virtual sports. So Zwift in cycling is a classic example where it’s a physical simulation in the electronic form of the traditional sport.”
As a result, the event’s full slate includes the virtual forms of mostly physical activities, such as dance, sailing, chess, archery, taekwondo, motorsports, and baseball.
For each sport, the Olympics team has paired with a corresponding eSports platform – including Ubisoft for dance and Gran Turismo for motorsports – to provide software for competitors to play on.
The finals of the new eSports Olympics will take place during a four-day-long programme of festivities in Singapore. In addition to watching eSports gamers compete for glory on the main stages, the organisers say there will also be a ‘Free to Play’ zone where visitors will have the chance to test out the latest eSports technology for themselves.
This will include simulators – including golf and baseball, among others – and a space that celebrates more traditional console-focused gaming because, as Vincent Perieira, the head of virtual sport and gaming, says, “The idea first is really to make the bridge between the sports and the gaming space.
“We’re not making [an] opposition between sports and gaming,” he adds. “This is not the point. The point is really… how we can encourage people to do both to keep a good balance.”
It seems to be working: the first-ever eSports Olympics, which took place online in 2021, attracted more than 250,000 contenders from more than 100 countries, to play a range of online sports including baseball, rowing, and sailing.
As the organisers are also at pains to explain, eSports has tangible real-world benefits, even for Olympic athletes such as South African cyclist Ashleigh Moolman.
“The pandemic exposed the power of the virtual world, and cycling and Zwift to everyone,” she says. “It really embodies the spirit of the Olympic movement and cycling in general.”
For Moolman, virtual cycling pairs perfectly with the real-life activity, not least because of how eSports can reach new audiences across the globe.
“It really is a great platform for women to start riding their bike,” she adds. “Cycling can be quite an intimidating sport for women… sometimes, it’s a good way for them to build their confidence.”
It’s an idea that the show’s organisers are clearly excited to bring to the masses this coming summer.
“It’s got its own identity, it’s got its own space; it’s got its own target audiences,” McConnell says. “Having it as a separate property, a separate focus, it gives it real additional value.”