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[The Future is Now] Esports has arrived and it’s here to stay

After Asiad debut, gamers have their heart set on Olympic glory

Oct 23,2018
The final League of Legends game between China and Korea at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Aug. 29. [EPA/YONHAP]
For many in the gaming industry, the 2018 Asian Games will go down in history as the moment that Esports officially hit the mainstream.

The popularity of computer gaming has been steadily growing for years, with tournaments pulling in huge crowds across the world and the best players taking home millions of dollars in prize money, but it wasn’t until the Asian Games that Esports began to inch closer to the recognition it craves - that of a real sport.

On Oct. 19, 1972, Bruce Baumgart, a student at Stanford University in California, won a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone magazine after triumphing in a five-man-free-for-all Spacewar competition. Forty-six years later, on Aug. 26, 2018, Team OG took home $11 million in prize money at The International 2018 in Vancouver. Esports has come a long way since Baumgart first plugged in his DEC PDP-1.

Today, millions of viewers tune in from around the world to watch gaming competitions. The emerging sport is particularly popular with younger viewers, prompting the Olympic Committee of Asia (OCA) to add it as a demonstration event at the Asian Games. Esports wasn’t the sport popular with younger audiences that they turned to — skateboarding, 3x3 basketball, paragliding and climbing were all newly added to the 2018 Asian Games.

The Asian Games might have been when Esports came of age on the international stage, but it was back in October 2017 that things really started to change. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) officially recognized Esports as a sport at the Olympic Summit in October 2017, recognizing that competitors train and practice for more than 10 hours daily, making it a full time professional competitive pursuit on a par with more traditional sports.

But the decision to recognize Esports as a real sport has hardly settled the debate. Critics argue that it lacks the physical component that is definitely part of sport, and the violent nature of many games adds to the unpopularity.

Esports proponents disagree. They argue that not only do professional gamers spend as long amount of time training as regular athletes, but they also compete in tournaments following specific rules in a competition format. They have coaches and referees and need teamwork and strategy to win contests that take place in stadiums with huge crowds. In essence, they argue, this is sport in every sense of the word, it just looks a bit different.

For the Asian Games, including Esports was a no-brainer. When it comes to attracting viewers, there is no emerging sport that has the pull of gaming. The 2017 League of Legends (LoL) Championship, which took place from Sept. 23 to Nov. 4 last year, had a total of 1.2 billion views. The final, between Korea’s SKT T1 and Samsung Galaxy teams, was streamed live by 57.6 million people. The semifinal, between Chinese and Korean teams, was viewed by as many as 80 million people.



Fans cheer for the SKT T1 team as they walk up to the stage during the 2017 League of Legends Championships in Beijing. [ILGAN SPORTS]
Asian Games

Esports at the Asian Games took a slightly different approach to normal competition events.

Typically, Esports events include competitions from around the world competing for the top prize. Teams are generally sponsored by companies and often, but not always, come from the same country.

Esports differs from other events in that there is no real distinction between domestic and international contests. A tournament like the 2017 LoL Championship might have two teams competing from Korea or it might not have any, and those that do play are not representing the country, they are representing their team.

For an international multisport event like the Asian Games, that model doesn’t work. For the first time in the history of the sport, Esports players represented their respective countries in national teams to compete at the Games.

Six games were added as demonstration sports: three team events — League of Legends, Pro Evolution Soccer 2018 and Arena of Valor — and three individual events — StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void, Hearthstone and Clash Royale.

The choice of games was interesting. The inclusion of Clash Royale, a mobile game, shows just how far Esports has developed in recent years. Despite criticisms of the violence in Esports coming from notable figures such as Thomas Bach, the president of the IOC, every game included, except Pro Evolution Soccer, was a combat game.

The Asian Games decision to include Esports as an exhibition game at Jakarta-Palembang 2018 was received with excitement by Korean Esports fans, who were confident that Team Korea had what it takes to bring home gold medals in many of the games.

But it wasn’t that simple. When it comes to Esports, Team Korea just didn’t exist. In order for a player to compete at an international sporting event as a national team member, the respective sporting association must be a member organization or be part of an association affiliated with the Korea Sport & Olympic Committee (KSOC). Unsurprisingly, considering that Esports was only recognized as a sport in October last year, the Korea Esports Association (KeSpa) was not a member of KSOC.

KeSpa was affiliated with KSOC at one point. Until August 2017, the gaming governing body maintained a semi-member status with KSOC, but strengthened regulations in December 2015 meant that KeSpa no longer qualified and eventually lost its membership.

Once Esports was added to the Asian Games, qualification once again became a problem until Daejeon recognized KeSpa as a sporting affiliate at the last minute, allowing KeSpa to qualify as members of KSOC once again.

Korea finished the exhibition events with a gold and silver medal — or they would have, had it not been a demonstration event.

After a successful debut as a demonstration event, Esports will join the next Asiad as an official event at the 2022 Hangzhou Asian Games. For KeSpa, this means they’ll need to make sure they keep their KSOC membership for the next four years.

“Up until the end of this year, we are registered as a semi-member of KSOC, and currently, we are working on getting registered to provincial teams,” said a KeSpa spokesperson. “Currently, we are having positive talks with provincial teams, and we plan on trying our hardest to maintain our status on KSOC.”



Olympics

Esports may have burst onto the Asian Games scene, but the ultimate goal remains elusive.

Despite the best efforts of Japan’s top game makers, Esports will not debut at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The International Esports Federation is currently working to try and persuade the organizers of the 2024 Paris Olympics to include gaming as a demonstration sport at the Games.

But it’s going to be an uphill struggle. Despite the successful Asiad trial, Bach remains opposed to the idea of including Esports in the Games.

“We cannot have in the Olympic program a game which is promoting violence or discrimination,” Bach was quoted as saying on The Associated Press. “So-called killer games. They, from our point of view, are contradictory to the Olympic values and cannot therefore be accepted.”

Bach’s argument regarding “violence” comes from the format of the games. At the Asian Games, five of the six games involved players killing each other in order to win.

On an Olympic stage, that would mean that a team representing one nation would be encouraged to kill the characters representing a different country, a mission that somewhat contradicts the Olympic charter, which says: “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

Esports proponents argue that the games are no more violent than real-world combat sports, like boxing, fencing and taekwondo, that are already part of the Olympics.

Bach disputes that argument, saying, “Of course every combat sport has its origins in a real fight among people. But sport is the civilized expression about this. If you have ‘egames,’ where it’s about killing somebody, this cannot be brought into line with our Olympic values.”
Although it is not clear whether Esports will make its appearance at the 2024 Paris Olympics, it is looking increasingly likely.

In July, the IOC and the Global Association of International Sports Federations (Gaisf) held an Esports forum at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, where officials discussed the possibility of Esports’ expansion into the sporting world.

Following the forum, the IOC and Gaisf agreed to create an Esports Liaison Group so the two can continue to communicate for a potential collaboration in the future.

Although the IOC hasn’t made an official decision about Esports at the 2024 Games, its addition would likely help the Games’ dwindling viewership. Since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when 4.7 billion tuned into the Games, according to Nielsen, viewership has decreased, averaging 3.2 billion.

At the most recent 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, viewership decreased by 24 percent compared to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, especially among viewers aged between 18 to 49.

”The Olympics would include Esports to get young people to watch their event, not to get older people to watch our events,” Rahul Sood, the CEO of Esports betting company Unikrn, told Reuters. “Esports as a group is the fastest-growing sport in the world.”

The addition of Esports to the Olympics could also be good news financially. In the past, host countries have been left with huge amounts of debt and expensive, unused venues that need to be maintained or sold. Compared to most other Olympic sports, Esports is pretty cheap — technically, the events can be held literally anywhere that has tables, chairs and a few computers.

“I believe Esports doesn’t need the Olympics as much as the Olympics needs Esports,” said Sood.

Unlike the Olympics, the Esports industry has shown tremendous growth over the years. Total Esports revenue has jumped from $493 million in 2016 to $655 million in 2017, according to a report from Newzoo. Even more impressive, the market’s total revenue has the potential to exceed $900 million by the end of this year.

Esports would be a welcome addition for Korea as the country is considered a powerhouse. Although the sport originated in the United States, Korea has played a significant role in expanding the industry.

Many games like League of Legends and StarCraft II are dominated by Korean athletes at the world championships each year, cementing Korea’s status as the top country in the world when it comes to Esports.

Just as short-track speed skating at the Winter Olympics and archery at the Summer Olympics are dominated by Korea, the addition of Esports will add another string to Korea’s bow.

“Once Esports is included in huge sporting events, we believe that it’s a good opportunity to show Korea’s pride and strength in Esports,” said the KeSpa spokesperson. “Since Esports is one of the events that is receiving the most attention, our goal is to provide opportunities to players where they can perform at their best.”



Private sector

In Korea, Esports has become a big part of the culture of the younger generation today.

Over the past few years, the Korean gaming industry has fostered some of the top companies in mobile and PC gaming. Korea’s three leading gaming companies — Nexon, Netmarble and NC Soft — have been improving Korea’s Esports communities over the years by hosting various Esports tournaments and festivals every year.

The tournaments hosted by the big companies helps to maintain the popularity of their games.

Nexon has invested the most in Esports. In addition to the various tournaments that Nexon hosts each year, the company also opened the Nexon Arena in December 2013, the world’s first-ever Esports stadium built by a game developer. Since the day it opened, the Nexon Arena has been used to host various Esports tournaments in Korea, including Dota 2, StarCraft II StarLeague, FIFA Online 3 and League of Legends Champions Korea.

In 2015, the International Esports Federation selected the Nexon Arena as the main venue of the events to host the E-sports World Championship 2015.

Over the past four years, the Nexon Arena had hosted a total of 17 esports game competitions — nine for Nexon-made games and eight for games produced by other companies.

Nexon has also been investing in the Korea Esports Federation for the Differently Abled (KeSA). Since 2009, Nexon had been sponsoring KeSA’s Kart Rider tournament.

NC Soft also has been expanding Blade & Soul, an online role-playing game, into the Esports industry.

Blade & Soul features a combination of martial arts-inspired combat in an open-world environment. Since 2013, NC Soft has been hosting the Blade & Soul Esports tournament, and the event has now expanded into the World Esports Championship.

The expansion of Blade & Soul has broken the stereotype that massively multiplayer online role-playing games (Mmorpg) can’t be successful in Esports. At the recent 2018 Blade & Soul Esports World Championship, the qualifying tournament was held in nine different countries around the world. The final was held in Seoul, with Russia taking home the title.

Netmarble, too, hosts Esports tournament and has been investing significantly in athletes with impairments. During the first week of September, Netmarble organized the 2018 National eFestival Competitions for Students with Disabilities, the largest event for students with disabilities in history.

The Esports industry is continuing to grow, and the sport has now received recognition from the Olympics and has made its international mainstream sporting debut at the Asian Games. Although some critics still claim it’s not really a sport, it seems like Esports really is here to stay.

BY KANG YOO-RIM [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]


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