The Case For Video Games as an Olympic Sport

If archery is an Olympic sport and shotput is an Olympic sport, consider the Olympic prospects of pulling back a virtual slingshot with one's fingertip, mentally calculating the best trajectory and then letting an Angry Bird fly and smash into some green pigs.

Video games, perhaps, should have had a place in the ongoing London Summer Games of the XXX Olympiad. Not surprisingly, I've been able to find several video game experts who agree, though all do not and some make good cases against.

If shooting is a sport…

The case for video games is that they are, for starters, popular competitions. They're competed in around the world more broadly than, say the non-Olympic sport American Football. And while they may not involve running fast, jumping high, or even that much sweating, the one-on-one virtual combat of Street Fighter or the simulated clash of futuristic armies in StarCraft require a dexterity with a fighting stick or mouse that certainly exceed the muscular dexterity needed for the non-Olympic sport of competitive eating but maybe, possibly as much as is needed for the Olympic sport of competitive shooting.

"In my eyes, there's no doubt that digital gaming will at some point be part of the Olympics," top StarCraft player Sean "Day 9" Plott told me. "Video gaming is a full medium on its own, with developers exploring new mechanics and players forming vibrant communities."

StarCraft gamer Sean Plott: "In my eyes, there's no doubt that digital gaming will at some point be part of the Olympics"

"There can be no serious question that fighting games are a superior gauge of human competitive excellence compared to, say, the Biathlon," fighting game expert Seth Killian, formerly of Capcom and now at Sony, told me. "It's easy to get sidetracked by semantic questions about what is or is not a sport, but compared against many, many existing events, fighting games are more competitive by a thousand times, more nuanced, more egalitarian, and a better overall reflection of mental and physical achievement."

The International Olympic Committee chooses which sports they will recognize as sports and, among those, chooses which will be included in an Olympic programme. They have standards, standards that have gotten tennis or rugby added and baseball and softball, most recently, dropped from competition in the Summer Games.

The official criteria, according to the IOC:

To make it onto the Olympic programme, a sport first has to be recognised: it must be administered by an International Federation which ensures that the sport's activities follow the Olympic Charter. If it is widely practised around the world and meets a number of criteria established by the IOC session, a recognised sport may be added to the Olympic programme on the recommendation of the IOC's Olympic Programme Commission.

Games have that international part down. Angry Birds is popular in more than 60 countries. Street Fighter is big in America, Japan and Europe. Counter-Strike is played competitively around the world.

Games don't have the "international federation" part down. There is no sanctioning body and, while there are leagues such as Major League Gaming the games themselves are owned by private companies, which is not a complication with, say, the game of competitive 100-meter sprinting or the game of javelin-hurling.

"Our fans are already world champion bird flingers and pig poppers," Sini Matikainen, a spokesperson for Angry Birds development studio Rovio said. "So of course we would love to see them battle it out on the global stage!"

The chess precedent

Video games seem like an odd fit for the Olympics, but for much of the last century, chess backers have lobbied to get that globally-popular game included in an Olympic programme. Chess has the international federation and the decades of high-level competition that video games lack. It doesn't, however, require as much physical skill. It's a brain game.

David Jarrett, former Chess Federation director, in 2009: "To broaden the appeal, we suggest that Mind sports are added to the [Winter Games] programme."

"Fighting games obviously have a huge mental component," Killian said, referencing the Street Fighters and Mortal Kombats of the world, "but while a game like chess is almost purely a mental endeavor, nearly every fighting game competition is decided by truly amazing physical execution as well, on par with the kind of technical excellence you see reflected in events like Olympic archery."

But get this: chess is a recognized sport by the International Olympic Committee. It achieved that status in the late 90's during the XXVIIth Olympiad (at a time when the Tug of War International Federation was granted only provisional recognition, believe it or not). Chess simply hasn't been added to an Olympic programme by the IOC, earning explicit rejection as recently as 2002, alongside bowling, water skiing, billiards, and roller sports.

In 2009, David Jarrett, then the executive director of the World Chess Federation, made a pitch at the Olympic Congress event in Copenhagen to get chess and other "mind games" added to the Winter Games:

The world Chess Federation (FIDE) feels that the Olympic winter games do not currently reflect the worldwide sporting spectrum. To broaden the appeal, we suggest that Mind sports are added to the programme. The sports of Chess, Bridge, Go and Draughts are actively practised in many countries where ice and snow sports are not in the mainstream of sporting endeavour. It would offer opportunities for individuals in africa and asia to participate in this great sporting spectacle. (Editor's note: read the rest of his pitch on pages 234-235 of this document)

The Mind Games proposal hasn't been accepted by the IOC, but if it did, the Winter Games would suddenly seem like a very good home for some video games.

Fundamental Problems

I first tried my video-games-as-Olympics idea on Frank Lantz, one of the smartest game designers I know and one of the only ones in earshot when I got this brainstorm during a recent event at New York's Hayden Planetarium (we were attending an event celebrating innovators and dreamers, sponsored by Kotaku sister site Gizmodo). I argued for Angry Birds as an Olympic sport, saying it surely had many of the qualities of archery.

Angry Birds didn't have the right density, Lantz replied. By "density," he meant the number of possible outcomes, the complexity of variables. It felt, to him, as if it would be too finite, that people would ascend some curve of mastery and then all peak, that accomplishment could stall. This wasn't necessarily true for all video games. The Chess-like StarCraft, I thought, might have enough density. But in an e-mail a couple of weeks later, he dismissed that one as well. "Olympic sports need to be highly physical," he said. "Despite the amazing degree of technical skill it requires, StarCraft isstill essentially a strategy game. I don't think it would ever make sense in the Olympics." I should note that Lantz loves StarCraft; he's no enemy of the game. "If you are interested in digital games in the Olympics," he continued, "I would look at things like Fencing, which incorporate digital sensing technology into a physical game to create a fascinating, futuristic hybrid."

The Case For Video Games as an Olympic Sport

Spy Party designer Chris Hecker: "I don't think any of the popular competitive games are very spectatable right now for non-experts."

Chris Hecker, designer of the one-on-one spy-vs-sniper one-shot competitive game Spy Party is also skeptical. "I think, even though it's not really mentioned explicitly, 'spectatability' is a huge part of what makes a sport universally interesting," he said. "I don't think any of the popular competitive games are very spectatable right now for non-experts. As some proof of this claim, Frank Lantz is writing a series on how to spectate StarCraft 2 on
Edge-Online. He's on the third article, and I still have absolutely no idea what's going on in a match, even with good commentating… In contrast, I watched a bunch of Olympics on TV this week, and it was totally clear what was going on, even on sports I'd never seen before." Most competitive video games are just played too briskly for spectators to comfortably follow what's going on and appreciate both the competition and the psychology behind it.

Even StarCraft pro Sean Plott, who does want video gaming in the Olympics, sees some big hurdles. These Games only happen every four years, he observed, but how many video games even stand that test of time? "Only two or three gaming titles have ever had players for more than 10 years, so which title can we choose from?" he said. "I think the answer lies in competitive genres instead of titles… I'd imagine that the Olympics could have an RTS, FPS, and Fighting Game category that would stay up to date as games are patched or sequels are released." That sounds… complicated.

***

The status of Chess as essentially an Olympics bridesmaid but never a bride may encourage or discourage those who would like to see video games make it as an Olympic sport. Maybe there is a road that brings Street Fighter into the same Olympic venues as that sport that has horses jumping over obstacles and the one where the person hurls the disc. Maybe a Street Fighter VII player will some day be going for gold. Or maybe, as one Kotaku reader put it, video games should just have their own Olympics.

Or maybe, just maybe, Spy Party's Hecker argues, the Olympics just aren't for video games because video games have a special destiny of their own. "The Olympics is more about human
physicality than just pure competition of any sort," he said. "Chess has been trying to get into the Olympics for a long time, but I'm guessing it won't ever happen, because a huge part of the Olympics is watching ripped young people get sweaty and do things with their bodies normal people could never do. Maybe if the overall tone of marketing and popularity around the world switches away from physical appearances and towards mental acuity it could happen, but I wouldn't hold my breath. I think this is okay, though, and it doesn't bother me much.

"There's room in the world for lots of different kinds of things, and eventually games will figure out where they live in the space of art and entertainment and sports. I'd rather let that happen naturally as we get more of a clue about how to design emotionally compelling games, than try to beg our way into one group's or the other's already-existing structure."

(Top photo originally by Anja Niedringhaus, AP; Xbox controller added to sprinter Usain Bolt's hand by Luke Plunkett)