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2018.02.07 Should we really take esports seriously?

By RICH FOLEY

The 2018 Winter Olympics gets underway in South Korea today, even though the opening ceremonies aren’t until Friday. With new sports being added to the Olympic schedule almost as fast as Dollar General opens new stores, it’s getting harder to fit all the events into the scheduled timeframe. And so, they’re starting early.

This Olympiad’s opening event is a new one, or actually a new version of an old one. Mixed doubles curling joins new twists on alpine skiing, snowboarding and speedskating as first-time events. Thinking about curling brings back old memories.

I grew up watching curling on a black-and-white television back in the 1960s. With only three networks to choose from at the time, watching Canadian programming on CBC Channel 9 was often the best option. Curling made frequent appearances on their schedule, helping to add to its familiarity. Announcer for CBC’s curling coverage from 1966 to 1970 was, believe it or not, a young Alex Trebek.

 Another “sport” being proposed to join the Olympic games to appeal to a younger audience seems like it’s someone’s elaborate joke, except that those pushing it are deadly serious. Yes, I’m referring to esports. If you’ve never heard the term, it’s pronounced EE-sports, better known as video games. 

I swear I’m not making that up. Paris has been chosen as the host city for the 2024 Summer Olympics and Tony Estanguet, who was co-president of the committee that led the city’s successful bid, has said he plans to talk to the International Olympic Committee about adding video games to the list of sports sanctioned at the Olympics.

Estanguet told the Associated Press that if the Olympic Games are to continue to be relevant for future generations of potential fans, the playing of video games should be considered a legitimate sport. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will feature skateboarding as well as surfing, but apparently that isn’t enough to attract younger fans.

Except for the few gamers good enough to qualify for an Olympic team, how many people would go to an esports match? It seems to me that the attraction would be in playing the games yourself, not watching someone else play.

I read a recent article about casinos that host esport tournaments, but the money earned comes from renting hotel rooms and selling food and beverages as the gamers seldom, if ever, leave their rooms. 

 Another article quoted a convention center manager who said competitors in esport tournaments often wear adult diapers rather than leave their seat during tournaments. Others simply refuse to eat or drink at all. They hardly seem like the type to flock to an Olympic venue just to watch. One source claims the tournaments attract millions of online viewers. And that’s the point—they watch online, not in person.

But that hasn’t stopped colleges from jumping on the bandwagon as over 50 schools, including one in our own area, now have varsity gaming teams. Many of them even offer scholarships. One college, the University of California, Irvine campus, has sponsorships from a computer company and a video game manufacturer. Considering all of their other connections in college sports, I’m surprised that Nike hasn’t created special adult diapers with that distinctive Nike “swoosh” in school colors. Maybe that’s next.

 Robert Morris University in Chicago is said to be a “national powerhouse” in esports, having started the country’s first varsity team in 2014. Have you ever heard of their famous team before now? No? That makes two of us.

Emerson College in Boston now has a class in esports and plans to eventually expand its offerings to include a minor degree in the field, if you can call it that. But why bother to encourage the development of a whole new discipline when there are already so many familiar “sports” out there that are ripe for expansion and possible Olympic inclusion?

I’m thinking, for example, of games like Frisbee, already a long-time favorite at many colleges. Or why not Wiffle ball? We have a few potential Olympians right here in this area. Maybe Morenci could offer to host a future Olympics.

Or if the goal really is to attract new generations of Olympics fans, the sport to focus on is obvious. What child doesn’t love to play Hungry Hungry Hippos?