News broke this morning that Alibaba is working with the Olympic Council of Asia to bring some form of esports competition to the Asian Games, which has been lauded as a potential stepping stone for at least one esport becoming part of China's 2022 Olympic Games. Mainstream news articles have quickly followed with headlines such as: "Esports en route to becoming an Olympic sport." This framing isn't new, but it's problematic and it's time for the esports industry to recognize it as such.
For starters, the notion of "esports" becoming an Olympic sport makes no sense. Basketball is to sports as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is to esports. CS:GO can become an Olympic sport; esports, as a whole, cannot.
But this issue is much broader than a single headline or impression. When it comes to mainstream stakeholders, esports are largely lumped together. Sometimes, this is done as a matter of expediency -- when the audience knows nothing about esports, it is often easier to work from the concept of competitive video gaming than it is to drown them in the complexities of MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas), first-person shooters, or fighting games. Other times, it is done in an attempt to bolster our own significance. People will quote from a Newzoo report that the global esports fan base is more than 300 million to claim that esports are bigger than basketball, as if comparing the fan base of a single sport to dozens of esports is fair or helpful.
I'm not saying we need to abandon the term or concept of esports. I've worked with a number of folks from across the world of traditional sports, media and entertainment, and you have to start at the highest level in order to make sure they get the basics before diving into nuance. That being said, it's starting to feel like the industry is getting stuck in this phase and it's having profoundly negative consequences for our growth.
I imagine this is a surprising statement for esports fans and even industry insiders, but it shouldn't be. When esports is painted with one broad brush, a problem with a single game becomes an issue for them all.
People notice when mainstream sports investors from NRG Esports and F.C. Schalke suffer the massive financial blow of LCS relegation, losing a seven-figure asset and the exposure that drives sponsorship dollars. But they don't understand the trickle-down impact this has on every mainstream investor thinking about investing in or founding an esports team, and not just within the League of Legends ecosystem. When mainstream stakeholders don't realize relegation only exists in a limited subset of esports competitions, the entire marketplace is shaped by misinformation.
The CS:GO community was rightly outraged in the wake of various scandals involving skin betting, but few people recognized the ways in which mainstream coverage of that issue impacted outsider understanding of the industry as a whole. When I appeared on Outside the Lines to discuss this very issue, video games were framed as a "master plan to hook millennials on slots." The show's host, longtime and highly respected reporter Bob Ley, asked me if gambling in esports was a public health issue. While I did my best to distinguish esports from esports betting in an attempt to better define the problem, I couldn't help but wonder how the segment would color the viewpoints of venture capitalists, sports team owners, and even parents.
This problem exists in the inverse as well. If we oversell ourselves based on esports-wide metrics or only tangentially related data, investors will fail to receive their anticipated return on investment. Not only will they stop making bets on esports, that sentiment will poison the well and hinder the explosive growth of the industry.
We live in our esports bubble 24/7. Most people don't. They get their information in short bursts, which means that headlines, mainstream coverage, and one-off presentations have a disproportionate impact on decision making. Industry insiders needs to recognize this problem, and do a better job of reframing the conversation about "esports" into more nuanced sub-categories. Relegation isn't an esports problem. Neither is betting, match-fixing, doping, or the plethora of other issues that individual esports ecosystems have addressed in different ways and to varying degrees.
Certain gaming ecosystems have experienced incredible growth and change over the past few years. We shouldn't oversell that growth, as if all esports have moved from small-time into sold-out arenas overnight. But various titles have a lot to be proud of in 2017, and we should allow those accomplishments to stand on their own two feet. We need to do a better job of holding mainstream news sources accountable for how they discuss our industry. But perhaps more importantly, we need to hold each other accountable as well.