Might “Faster, Higher, Stronger” become “Function, Headset, Shift”? According to reports ahead of the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, the answer is “Oui.” If reports are accurate, this could mean that eSports–defined by dictionary.com as “competitive tournaments of video games, especially among professional gamers”–could stand beside traditional sports such as track and field and wrestling in international competition. The mere notion that a host city would entertain the possibility of including eSports opens up a series of questions about the legacy of the Olympic Games, the nature of athletic competition and the possibility of man/machine collaborations in the future.
The Legacy of the Olympic Games
The first ancient Olympic Games can be traced back to the 8th century B.C. Dedicated to the Olympian gods, the games celebrated virtues of strength, honor and stamina. They continued for nearly 12 centuries, until Emperor Theodosius decreed in the late fourth century A.D. that all such “pagan cults” be banned. The Olympic torch and spirit were extinguished and remained dark for centuries. What we now call the Modern Olympic Games were first celebrated in Athens in 1896. Since then, the world has celebrated 31 Games over five continents.
The swirl of modern gods and monsters over the Games today is as complicated and powerful than it has ever been. There have been glorious moments that combined heroism and humanity: Jesse Owens in Berlin in 1936, Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City in 1968, the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980, Michael Phelps’ dominance in consecutive competitions, the US Women’s gymnastics greatness in Rio in 2016. Despite many successes, athletic and organizational, the fate of the modern games is fragile. Cost have skyrocketed, security issues have multiplied and, worse still, the events and the Games seem less relevant today. This means athletes and audiences seem more disconnected than ever, causing would-be viewers to stray and would-be sites to stay away.
Despite many successes, athletic and organizational, the fate of the modern games is fragile. Cost have skyrocketed, security issues have multiplied and, worse still, the events and the Games seem less relevant today. This means athletes and audiences seem more disconnected than ever, causing would-be viewers to stray and would-be sites to stay away.
Meanwhile, eSports have quickly grown into a multibillion dollar industry. Gamers from my generation will remember friendly head-to-head competitions of Blades of Steel, Hardball or Double Dribble. Interestingly enough, there were even some successful Olympic games. Games were fun to play, but the thought of watching people play games was as absurd. Today, the audience of eSports is expected to reach 145 million people, per data gathered by Fortune. I see it with my own children: in many cases they would rather watch Parker Plays than Patriots’ games. The results seem to them more immediately gratifying and the events are more approachable. Children today are more likely to play Pokémon than they are to participate in the pentathlon. This is not just my observational data: MIT Tech Review has explored whether eSports are eating up traditional sports viewership? It’s no wonder Olympic officials might seek to seize a share of these viewers and take sponsors along for the ride. In seeking viewers and sponsors, however, the IOC would be taking a drastic departure from the history and humanity of the Games, all of which are played out in real venues in the real world. More still, the elegance of human form and the poetry of movement that has characterized the Olympics Games would be lost. I believe this connection is fundamental to the past and present of the Games.
More still, the elegance of human form and the poetry of movement that has characterized the Olympics Games would be lost. I believe this connection is fundamental to the past and present of the Games.
In this sense, eSports do not belong in the Olympics any more than chess or Go or spelling competitions do. This is not to underestimate or belittle the amount of practice or competitive spirit required to succeed in these games on the biggest stage. Gamers are competitors and the dedicate as much to to their craft as do any top performer. They deserve respect this and are right to search for the most venerable venues. I am suggesting that the venue for eSports, no matter the game, should not be the Olympic Games as we understand and celebrate them today.
The Nature of Athletic Competition
The IOC codes of conduct are, in a word, complex. Somewhere in there, I suspect, one can find language stating that the fundamental assumption is that outcomes of events are determined between human beings in a real world venue. It actually could be that such a baseline is not established because the prospect of anything else really was not part of the discourse about the Games until now. If the IOC were to do this–clearly articulate some plan that essential characteristics of Olympic competing are humanity, setting and simultaneity– it would draw a demarcation line between sport and eSport. I believe this would be fair to both athletes and gamers in the present day, creating separate but equal spaces for them to compete. I think this also preserves the legacy of the Olympic Games and all the athletes who have competed for and won medals.
There are also some fundamental questions that the gaming community would have to answer before it even entered into the conversation about Olympic competition. The first of these is does it have a governing body and, if so, how does it function? There is evidence that tournaments and games have already organized into what we might recognize as leagues. Where would it go from there to create a global governing body? Would traditional and/or geographical identities determine who competes? What about amateurism? MIT Tech Review noted that “tournaments are supported by big media deals, merchandising, and sponsorships.” Could gamers jump from lucrative tournaments to amateur play? If not, would some gamers choose to forego tournaments as they are structured today in order to enter into the amaeur ranks? Would the back-and-forth that has determined professional participation in sports like basketball and hockey make it easier or harder to establish a working system?
The second question those that support the idea would have to answer is how could this governing body and the IOC ensure that the creators of the game did not have undue influence over outcomes? Is the code biased in any way? Is it stable and secure? Does the code reflect–respect?–the legacy of the Olympic Games? Who would determine which games were included? Ditto on platforms? Clearly the present state of doping and sponsorship push the envelope on these same questions in the real world. I recognize this and I would expect that the governing bodies would either extract lessons as to the How? or use this for justification of the Why?
The Possibility of Man/Machine Collaborations in the Future
We can think of Man/Machine collaborations in the gaming arena in two ways: How can they be used to improve performance in traditional Olympic pursuits? and How could they be combined to reimage international competition in service of modern gods and goals?
High-speed cameras, metabolic testing, advanced analytics, high resolution 3D mapping, and VR are just some of the tools that athletes are using to enhance performance. Where does a tennis player like to go on a second serve? What is the optimum launch angle for a batter in baseball? Where does the goalie lean on a penalty shot in soccer? When is the best time to taper as a swimmer? How can cyclists do recon on a course without expending energy? In certain events like Alpine skiing, VR simulations could provide training boosts while protecting athletes from catastrophic injury. The same goes for football, and in this case the electronic infrastructure is more more developed. Could new technologies be used to train and evaluate players without putting undue strain on their systems?
All of these are questions currently considered between coaches and athletes. Recently, giants in the sports world like FC Barcelona and Gatorade have established institutes/hubs to further research, development, training and innovation. As imaging and processing tools become increasingly accessible, I expect that they will be adopted earlier and used more often to train elite athletes. To what end? Also, as athletes learn more about the holistic effects of improvement efforts–looking at you, Tom Brady–how might we track deep thoughts as well as we track diet?
To the question of “How could man/machine collaborations could be combined to reimage international competition in service of modern gods and goals?”…now we move from the realm of sports science to science fiction. We are no longer in the arena of “Ready, set, go!” but rather Ready Player One. What if venues were virtual? What if tracking technology meant athletes could compete in the real world but without competing side-by-side? Would this switch make competition more accessible to athletes? Would it have the opposite effect? What if the costs and risks associated with preparing to host the Games were reduced to just fractions of what it costs today? What if the IOC determined that the real pursuit was no longer efficiency of movement but elegance of code? Could the heptathlon come to resemble a hackathon? What if answering all the questions I have posed loops us back to the simplest of sports? Stranger still, what if pursuits in this arena–physical and philosophical–lead us to where the Olympic Games began: to the intersection of sports and religion?
Interesting times, these.