eSports will be an official medal sport at the 2022 Asian Games in China, in the boldest step yet toward mainstream recognition of competitive gaming.
The Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) announced a partnership on Monday with Alisports, the sports arm of Chinese online retail giant Alibaba, to introduce eSports as a demonstration sport at next year’s games in Indonesia, with full-fledged inclusion in the official sporting programme at the Hangzhou Games in 2022.
The OCA said the decision reflects “the rapid development and popularity of this new form of sports participation among the youth.”
“The OCA has always been committed to the inheritance, development, and improvement of Asian sports,” OCA president Ahmad Fahad Al-Sabah said in a statement. “And we look forward to the forward-thinking concepts of sports by Alisports, who will be helping us with their strength and experience in eSports.”
The Asian Games, which are recognized by the IOC, are billed as the world’s second largest multi-sport event after the Olympics. Forty-five national delegations and about 10,000 athletes took part in the most recent Asiad three years ago in Incheon, South Korea.
The announcement on Monday marks the latest return on Alisports’ robust commitment to eSports.
The subsidiary, established in 2015 as the Alibaba Sports Group, announced a $150m investment last year with the International eSports Federation (IESF), the South Korea-based federation that’s long campaigned for the inclusion of competitive gaming in the Olympics. It put forth more than $14.5m to organize the World Electronic Sports Games in China’s Changzhou province, where roughly 60,000 players from 120 countries and regions competed for a $5.5m purse in January.
The IESF is one of two organizations, along with the British government-backed International eGames Committee (IEGC), that submitted a request to the IOC last year to obtain information on how to gain inclusion for eSports in the Olympic programme.
While that prospect remains distant, the incorporation of eSports to the Asian Games will offer a highly visible testing ground. That Alibaba signed an 11-year deal to be a leading sponsor of the summer and winter Olympics thought to be worth more than $1bn is interesting, too.
The OCA also confirmed the video games that will be contested when eSports is introduced at this year’s Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG) in Turkmenistan. Players will compete in Fifa 2017, Moba (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) and RTA (Real Time Attack) gaming types.
The sport’s biggest reach yet for worldwide recognition comes at a time when it’s made unprecedented domestic inroads in the US. Earlier this month, the University of Utah announced it will begin awarding scholarships to players who make the school’s varsity eSports team, which is said to be the first scholarship program for competitive gaming for a school in one of the NCAA’s five major conferences.
“eSports is growing exponentially in the world and it is, too, on the college scene,” AJ Dimick, the school’s director of operations of eSports, told the Associated Press. “Part of our motivation for doing this is we wanted to help other Power 5 schools and other bigger schools, kind of, see themselves doing it. We hope that us jumping over and getting into this will encourage some of those schools to follow suit. And we think they will.”
In November, William Hill at the Downtown Grand in Las Vegas became the first sports book in the United States to take action on eSports, while last week, MGM announced plans to transform the nightclub at the Luxor into a multi-level eSports arena, part of a trend the casino industry hopes will attract young people to its properties.
eSports generated $493m in revenue with a global audience of about 320m people in 2016, the market research firm Newzoo reported last year.
While initially popular as a spectator sport in Asia – more than 40,000 people attended the 2014 League of Legends World Championship finals in Seoul – competitive gaming now draws tens of millions of spectators to online platforms and real-world venues, including New York’s Madison Square Garden, the Staples Center in Los Angeles and the MGM Grand Garden Arena on the Las Vegas Strip.