The Olympic Esports Series: Esports have come a long way, but there's much further to go

Published on August 24, 2023

On March 1, 2023, the International Olympic Committee announced that there would be an “Olympic Esport Series” games lineup. Yes, you read that right: Olympic Esports. And, what’s more, the qualifying rounds for the Olympic Esports circuit began following this announcement, and the live finals for the events were held in Singapore from June 22 to June 25, 2023. With a relatively new way to compete on the world’s most prestigious sporting stage, what would be at stake for these competitors? What additional issues can competitors encounter in a virtual competition forum? What legal questions arise in this environment?

The short answer is that Olympic Esports remains a relatively new battle ground that has potential. As a concept, however, a multitude of questions and hypotheticals illustrate why there is so much further to go, especially from a policy and legal perspective.

Esports and their Popularity

Esports, generally speaking, are not a new industry. Several incredibly popular video games have been involved in the Esports community for years, with competitive tournaments awarding millions of dollars to competitors. Here are some examples:

With prize pools so large, it is clear to see that competitors would be eager to compete in Olympic Esports, especially with the Olympic Virtual Series ahead of the recent Tokyo summer games being a smash hit.

Olympic Esports Titles and Accessibility

Spectators will not find many mainstream titles on display within the Olympic Esports realm; at least, not yet. The following Esports (alongside its game platform and representative international federation) were on display from June 22 to June 25, 2023, for the Olympic Esports Series:

  • Archery (World Archery Federation, Tic Tac Bow)
  • Baseball (World Baseball Softball Confederation, WBSC eBASEBALL™: POWER PROS)
  • Chess (International Chess Federation, Chess.com)
  • Cycling (Union Cycliste Internationale, Zwift)
  • Dance (World DanceSport Federation, JustDance)
  • Motorsport (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, Gran Turismo)
  • Sailing (World Sailing, Virtual Regatta)
  • Sport Shooting (International Shooting Sport Federation, Fortnite Creative)
  • Taekwondo (World Taekwondo, Virtual Taekwondo)
  • Tennis (International Tennis Federation, Tennis Clash)

The global growth of Esports, with a focus on accessibility and a wide competitive base, is part of the reason why the Olympic Esports lineup is unique. Some have called it “weird”, but the message behind the game choices is simple: the more people who can access the game, the more competition, the more diversity, and the higher likelihood of the best of the best being showcased on the international stage.

This approach makes a lot of sense; for example, nearly 30,000 people attempted to qualify for the Baseball event, with the qualifier regulations being relatively minimal.

Navigating Issues and Uncertainty

With qualifying open to many competitors across the Esport disciplines and the finals being held in person, there are stark differences in how qualifying and finals play takes place. The most obvious is that qualifying being held strictly online opens each event up to several online-specific issues that may affect competitors, in addition to real-life issues. As such, how will we treat these issues in comparison to “real life” issues athletes face?

In “real life” Olympic events, “real life” issues can occur: injuries happen in real time; equipment can fail; the weather can impact how athletes compete. Unless there is foul play detected, “real life” impacts and real-time failures often provide athletes with little to no recourse, especially if the issue is athlete-created or a naturally occurring consequence, such as harsh weather conditions during an event.

By contrast, what happens when issues specific to Esports arise? Are there more issues related to holding qualifying events online? If issues in online-only qualifying occur, is there any recourse for players? Are the competitors solely responsible for issues that happen on their end of the connection? How will issues like slow or intermittent connections be handled overall? What happens if competitors skirt regulations online (i.e., cheating or match manipulation)? Can these connection issues haven an effect on competitors during the finals? If issues happen during the in-person finals, is there any recourse there? Many of these questions remain unaddressed simply because of the novelty of the competition and a lack of policies surrounding these hypotheticals that have not yet been explored.

With respect to qualifying, formats differed depending on the Esport. Some disciplines allowed the competitors to qualify during a specific time period (see, for instance Gran Turismo’s qualifying window). Several qualifying stages took place for Archery, Chess, and Virtual Regatta, to name a few. Other games, like Just Dance, simply invited “the best Just Dancers from all over the World” rather than allow for open qualifying. Cyclists qualified based on the results from the 2023 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships and the Zwift Grand Prix.  Baseball’s qualifying was based on each competitor’s total score after ten games.

Given the online nature of qualifying, questions arise given each Esport’s qualifying methods. For instance, what would happen if a player’s internet connection failed in their last attempt to qualify for Virtual Regatta? Given their numerous allotted attempts, would they be allowed to try again? At present, Virtual Regatta does not address this in their Notice of Race. In Baseball, a total points system across ten games was used to determine who qualified. Similar to the Virtual Regatta question, what happens if, in a competitor’s tenth and final game, connection issues prevented them to compete, thus rendering them unable to qualify due to a botched game? Would they be able to replay their game? Who would they appeal to? Would it just be considered “bad luck”, akin to bad luck in real life? There is nothing in the Baseball regulations that address this, either. These are just a few examples of issues occurring online where a lack of predictability looms over competitors’ heads when they compete in the online arena.

One doesn’t have to look far to find an example of an online issue affecting a world champion competing virtually. Reigning Formula 1 World Champion Max Verstappen competed in the Virtual Le Mans 24-hour race earlier in 2023. Server issues plagued the entirety of the competitors throughout the race. However, at one point, a server problem affected Verstappen’s race and he disconnected. When he tried rejoining and could not regain his position that he held prior, he and his team simply quit and lost out on a chance at winning a portion of the prize for that race. Verstappen called the event a “clown show”.

Given the above examples, the question then becomes one as to whether we treat these online-specific failures or issues as either (1) exceptional circumstances that warrant a reset of some sort, or (2) part of the game, just like any real-life sport. In a 400-metre race, if a racer injures themselves, the race does not stop for them. Sometimes, an athlete’s qualifying hopes, or medal hopes, hang in the balance of an injury. Should the Esport stop for a competitor who is plagued by an online-specific problem, or is it “bad luck”, and the competitors are expected to anticipate these issues? Could Verstappen have argued that, but for his server error, he would have been able to win? Even then, who would he take action against: the internet service provider? The game developers? The governing sport organization? When thousands of dollars are on the line, there have to be safeguards in place to ensure fairness. Some international federations have outlined safeguards in their regulations for the in-person finals, but rarely do they touch on anything for the online qualifiers. For Gran Turismo, section 19.1.2 of their Olympic Esport regulations allows the Race Director to restart a session if deemed appropriate. For Chess, section 3.5 of their regulations directly addresses connection issues while in Singapore for the finals.

Fortunately, many of these server-based and connection-based hypothetical problems can be addressed with the in-person finals which is a LAN (Local-Area Network) format where everyone is together in one building competing on the same, wired network. There, connections can objectively be secure, equipment standardized, and failures controlled to an extent. Connection issues are also in addition to the fact that some Esports try to replicate real-life conditions: for example, Gran Turismo has enabled settings to replicate real-world errors at the finals to make the experience as real as possible (see here at section 15.4.7.1). Even more so, mandated equipment (see section 19) at the in-person finals helps prevent cheating and attempts to ensure consistency. One can also assume that rules would be in place across in-person finals events for each Esport; however, the accessibility for pre-LAN qualifying events increases the likelihood of individual, internet-related issues, and even cheaters. Without oversight, some of the hypotheticals raised above may become real issues worth addressing in the future as the popularity of these Esports rises. Overall, regulating thousands of competitors on a virtual scale is no easy task, whereas regulating a handful of top competitors in-person is much more manageable. Regardless, where do we go from here?

Conclusion

Esports has truly come a long way to earn its place within the Olympics through the Olympic Esports Series. As thousands of competitors participate across accessible platforms to qualify for these events moving forward, many questions will only develop and become more complex as the landscape itself develops. Questions already arise with respect to user-level issues, but what about jurisdictional level issues: for instance, should game developers or the international federations be developing regulations for competitors? Are the governing bodies prepared to handle complaints from an entirely new competitor base? From a policy perspective, it would be wise to try to anticipate a wide array of failures and issues and account for them in some documented format to ensure competitors know what they’re up against at all stages – both in qualifying and in-person. Until then, it is difficult to predict how issues will be navigated in the future until something happens and legal questions arise, or recourse is sought.

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