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Dreaming of an Impossible Esports Olympics

STARTING SCREEN | Even though the IOC recognizes esports as a sport, the field has a long way to go for Olympics recognition.

Feature by Caty McCarthy, .

Starting Screen is the USgamer staff's weekly column. Check back every Monday as we share our thoughts on the news as well as our favorite game music, alternative games, and more.

The 2018 Winter Olympics kicked off late last week in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Or rather ...skied off. Thank you, I'm here all week.) Nations from all across the world are competing in everyone's favorite winter sports, from intense luge races to dancing around on some thin blades while on ice, like that one anime.

For the past few years, there's been one question on some people's minds: will esports ever find its way into the Olympics, and if so, would they be a Winter or Summer sport? The answer to that question grows increasingly unsure, even as the International Olympic Committee has decreed esports as indeed, a sport.

But with games, not even genres, alone being enough to fill stadiums, I'm left wondering how esports would fit into the traditional structure of the Olympics. Would shooters and MOBAs be relegated to their own sidelined battles, in an EVO-style grander competition, or would different games be mashed up, like the Nintendo World Championships? Would genres have no part in what's eligible, with only the best of the biggest—from League of Legends to Dota 2—making their way into the Olympics? There are many possibilities.

Shortly before this year's Olympics, Intel hosted a StarCraft 2 tournament that saw well-known competitor Scarlett emerge victorious in Gangneung, a town 15 miles away from where the Olympics would begin just days later. Some were even framing the specific competition as a "trial run" for esports in the Olympics.

I'd like to posit an even wilder proposition though: what if esports had their own Olympics, with the same ol' international friendly competition and camaraderie as one would expect?

It'd be a complex showing, for starters. When I imagine the world of competitive video gaming, I think about all of it: the surprising warmth of fighting games' EVO competitions, the stadium-filling Dota 2 International, the up-and-coming bloated LAN parties of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, the high-energy that filled the air of Overwatch League's opening week showings, the cozy pop-up taverns of Hearthstone, and hell, even the Games Done Quick events—which are more a celebration of speedruns than a competition of them. Competitive gaming is varied and even chaotic at times, and no two games' scenes are the same—just like real sports.

When you look at the Winter Olympics, for starters, the variety of sports on display are as different as they come; snowy environments and a brisk temperature are the only threads that hold them together. The razzle dazzle of figure skating bears hardly a similarity to curling, where competitors use elaborate brooms to nudge stones towards a target on ice. The only thing that connects the two is that they're both on ice: a harsh, slippery surface for any sport.

An esports Olympics would be similarly disjointed in action. Teams and individual players from all across the world would find themselves divided across not just genres, but games too. What the Esports Olympics would decree as truly Olympics-worthy would likely boil down to competition. The hypothetical committee would be posed fundamental questions about the larger scope of the medium, like would speedruns be able race across the finish line in an internationally-staked competition? Probably not, since they're more of a community if anything. Would smaller scale competitive scenes like StarCraft 2 or Hearthstone make the cut? The former, probably; the latter, slightly less likely, as it's more akin to a traditional cards game tournament if nothing else.

The scale though, even with snubs and oversights, would remain massive. The best of the best would represent each country; like the Overwatch League's regional teams, if their players were really from the region and not swapped and traded to and fro like any other non-Olympic sports league. That would be the biggest key component though: an international standing of e-athleticism represented nation by nation. While South Korea would have the definitive advantage across most of the big marquee titles, European and western countries like Sweden and the United States would have an edge towards shooters like Counter-Strike, as evidenced by the best players in those particular scenes.

The atmosphere between games and genres are vastly different between one another, which would pose its own difficulties in hosting widespread tournaments across different titles. And atmosphere is an underrated charm of esports competitions: you can't envision visiting a Hearthstone championship without seeing its long benches and tables that are prime for players to duel out amongst themselves alongside the on-stage action; likewise, Overwatch has become synonymous with bombastic screens that enwrap the entirety of the Blizzard Arena's front, immersing its lively audience in the competitive experience like no other. The competitive scenes of the games we love to watch are as different as night and day.

That's probably why a feasible Esports-only Olympics off-shoot is more-or-less impossible without some rough compromises. There's still a possibility for its slight inclusion in the 2024 Paris Olympic Games, as per a report from the BBC where Paris 2024 co-president Tony Estanguet notes its potential. "We have to look at [esports] because we can't say, 'it's not about Olympics,'" Estanguet told the AP news agency in August 2017. "I think it's interesting to interact with the IOC and the esports family to better understand what the process is and why it is such a success. [...] There is some time to look at it, to interact, to engage. I don't want to say 'no' from the beginning."

In the meantime, I'll wait patiently for an ice skating video game akin to Jet Set Radio. Or I'll just wait for another one of those Sonic and Mario at the Olympics Games games. When in Pyeongchang, I guess.

Looking Ahead to the Rest of the Week

We're in for a packed week of releases, despite the fact that it's only February. Buckle down and get ready folks!

  • Dynasty Warriors 9 [February 13]: Omega Force and Koei Tecmo decide to update the Musou experience by moving to an open-world for the next Dynasty Warriors 9. Is this the beginning of the next generation of Musou? We'll have to see tomorrow!
  • Kingdom Come: Deliverance [February 13]: Warhorse Studios takes players back to the medieval kingdom of Bohemia to provide what it hopes is a historically-accurate experience. Real-world armor and combat combine with a deep system of players choices and meaningful consequences, but will it be fun?
  • Owlboy (PS4, Xbox One, Switch) [February 13]: The 2D platforming adventure that was a nine-year labor of love for its developer is finally coming to consoles. Owlboy will be available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
  • Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology [February 13]: Atlus revives its Nintendo DS RPG with a remake on Nintendo 3DS. New features have been added to bring the game up-to-date, the character designs have been redone by Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia character designer Masaki Hirooka, and the game features a new anime opening by A-1 Pictures.
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II (PC) [February 14]: Trails of Cold Steel II is finally making its way to PC! You already know if you're hip-deep in into The Legend of Heroes series.
  • Fe [February 15]: The latest game from EA Originals, Electronic Arts' independent developer program. Within the depths of a magical forest, one fox-like creature is trying to save everyone from evil creatures called The Silent Ones. It does this by using the power of song to change the forest itself and enlist the help of other animals. It's a personal project from Swedish developer Zoink, coming to PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Switch.
  • Secret of Mana [February 15]: Square Enix's remake of its classic adventure game has been contentious, with many fans just asking for a release of the Seiken Densetsu Collection on our shores. Despite that, the Secret of Mana remake is coming to our shores and if it sells well enough, we'll probably get a remake of Seiken Densetsu 3, which has never had an English release.
  • Bayonetta 1+2 (Switch) [February 16]: Another month, another Wii U release getting a second chance on the Nintendo Switch. Bayonetta 3 might be a ways off, but you can play Bayonetta 1 and 2 on Nintendo Switch this Friday!

Nadia's Note Block Beat Box: A Bell is Tolling from Secret of Mana

The Secret of Mana remake is out this week, and it's supposed to include an updated soundtrack in addition to its updated visuals. There have been upgrades to Mana's graphics before (look to mobile), but I don't think anyone's ever tinkered with its classic soundtrack. I'm … warily excited to see how this'll go.

I'm especially interested to see how the remake handles my favorite tunes from the original game, including Angel's Fear, Dark Star, and the song I'm highlighting today, A Bell is Tolling. Whereas many of the palaces in Secret of Mana re-use the same few pieces of music, the Ice Palace gets its very own haunting score. That build-up with the quiet synthesizer is as soothing as a snowstorm (provided you're watching it from indoors).

But A Bell is Tolling is also a sad piece, and as you progress deeper into the icy fortress, you quickly learn the reason for its melancholy atmosphere: Your boss fight pits you against none other than Santa himself. He's pissed off because children have stopped believing in him.

No, I'm serious.

Mike's Media Minute

Star Trek: Discovery ended its first season this weekend, meaning I can cancel my subscription to CBS All-Access for the time being. After a run of excellent episodes in the Mirror Universe, the season finale was a bit rushed and underwhelming. Looking back over the season, the writing team definitely had a story that they wanted to tell about the choices we make in order to protect our ideals. The problem was they took a few shortcuts to get there.

In hindsight, I probably would've cut the opening two-parter into a single episode and used that extra episode at the end here. This episode needed more time to show the results of the war between the Klingons and Starfleet. That's needed to really sell the desperation that underpins the need to break your principles, and there's just not enough of that in the episode. All told, I think it's one of the stronger first seasons in Trek, though that's mostly because Trek tends to have really bad first seasons overall.

Next season though I really want to spend less time rushing through tense situations and more time getting to know this crew and their new Captain.

This Week's News and Notes

  • Last month, the Game Developers Conference announced that it was giving its annual Pioneer award to Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell. Women game designers asked GDC to rethink that award given Bushnell's past actions and the current climate highlighting sexism in the workplace. That led to GDC revoking the award and Bushnell apologizing for past conduct. Kotaku reached out to former female employees of Atari to hear their stories, adding nuance to the discussion. It paints a picture where the issue wasn't Bushnell himself, but the reflection of a previous work culture in comparison to the culture of today. It's well-worth a read.
  • Two weeks ago, Mike explained why Illumination Entertainment is a fine choice to make the Super Mario Bros film. This week, Nintendo's own Shigeru Miyamoto explains why they chose Illumination to handle the first Mario film since 1993.
  • Metroid: Other M was kind of an anomaly, with Nintendo handing over the development of the game to an outside studio, Team Ninja. Then it gave the remake, Metroid: Samus Returns, to MercurySteam. It looks like Nintendo is continuing to farm out Metroid to other developers, with reports that Metroid Prime 4 is being developed by Bandai Namco's Singapore studio.
  • Folks were pretty excited when PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds added its second map, Miramar, but months later, no one wants to play it? Caty chats with a member of the development team about the map's launch and response, and what the team would have changed about the launch.
  • It's hard with a small team, but we're doing our best to look back at games a few months to a year later. As an example, we take a look at where Ubisoft's For Honor has been and where it currently stands with its community.
  • Esports is growing into its own distinct section of the gaming community, with its own culture and operating norms. Within the esports community though, Blizzard's Hearthstone has a completely different vibe. It's more relaxed, more chill. Matt looks at Hearthstone's professional scene in his profile on this year's World Championships.
  • On another esports-related note, Stage One of Overwatch League's inaugural season wrapped up over the weekend, with London Spitfire overcoming New York Excelsior. It was an exciting final match, and the teams won't get to rest for long: Stage Two of Overwatch League commences on February 21, and it's only going to get more interesting from here with some team shake-ups on the horizon.
  • The USgamer Podcast: With Nadia out, Mike, Caty, and Kat talk about Marvel vs Capcom: Infinite missing Evo 2018, Red Dead Redemption 2's rumored Battle Royale Mode, and Caty and Kat's shared hate of audio logs. You can listen to the entire podcast right here and subscribe here!
  • Axe of the Blood God: Yep, Nadia's still out here, too. Mike and Caty join Kat for a talk about meaningful decisions and endings in RPGs. Subscribe here!

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Comments 7

  • Avatar for mattcom26 #1 mattcom26 6 months ago
    I’m sure eSports Olympians would indeed end up being traded around through special Naturalization processes just as traditional Olympic athletes are. A significant percentage of even South Korea’s current pool of winter games athletes have come from other countries.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #2 NiceGuyNeon 6 months ago
    I don't know, they can't even consistently keep baseball in the summer Olympics (it was last there in 2008 and returning for 2020), now we're hoping they put in esports, which is constantly changing based on new game releases? Seems shaky. We can't even all agree on the Evo line-up lol

    EDIT

    I'd like to take this time to flat out tell no one in particular but also everyone at once: I miss SSX and want it back and watching the snowboarding events has had me pining for it badEdited February 2018 by NiceGuyNeon
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #3 VotesForCows 6 months ago
    I'd be very surprised if e-sports were in the Olympics. A lot of physical sports either aren't in the Olympics or have been booted out of it over the years - there's just not enough room for everything. I guess the only reason games would get in is if the size of the player base (thus the revenue) became too large to ignore. But then we come to fragmentation of the audience across multiple games. Tricky.

    So yeah, I agree with the thesis of this article - a big multiple game sporting event would be amazing, and I'm sure it'd be welcome by many parts of the community.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #4 riderkicker 6 months ago
    Can anybody explain to me why esports needs women's and men's divisions? There isn't much of a physicality difference needed to press buttons quickly.Edited February 2018 by riderkicker
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #5 VotesForCows 6 months ago
    @riderkicker That's odd, never heard of that. What games have gendered divisions? The ones I follow don't.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #6 NiceGuyNeon 6 months ago
    Deleted February 2018 by NiceGuyNeon
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  • Avatar for nimzy #7 nimzy 6 months ago
    The majority of physical sports in the Olympics require individual demonstrations of athletic ability. The closest gaming gets to this is with a speedrun. There are several events each year now that showcase speedruns, and those events would be the closest thing we have to a gaming Olympics.

    That's not to say that the Olympics don't have team sports or direct competition, but they are greatly outnumbered by individual events.Edited February 2018 by nimzy
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  • Avatar for benjaminlu86 #8 benjaminlu86 6 months ago
    Why is this a Starting Screen and not a full article, Caty??
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