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Esports pros, industry experts discuss Olympic option with IOC

Former NBA player Rick Fox, left, and International Olympic Committee Chairman Thomas Bach, center, watch a demonstration of esports by a professional player, on July 21, 2018, in Lausanne, Switzerland. (Mainichi)

LAUSANNE, Switzerland -- The line between sports and esports, which are played in the virtual world of video games, is becoming finer than ever, with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) headquartered here inviting esports players and those related to the gaming industry for a hearing for the first time on July 21, roughly two years ahead of the opening of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

"Welcome to the Olympic world," IOC Chairman Thomas Bach, 64, said, greeting 22-year-old American professional esports player Jacob Lyon with a smile. Lyon touched on the appeal of esports, saying, "I can play online with someone from another country who doesn't speak English and still become close friends." Bach responded that those values were not so different from the sports played at the Olympic Games.

The venue for the meeting between virtual and physical sports was a museum displaying the history of the modern Olympic Games, beginning with the 1896 Games held in Athens, Greece. In a place so steeped in Olympic history, the young gamers involved in esports stood out in their casual attire.

The meeting was held as the IOC explores the possibility of introducing esports as an Olympic event. This stems from a sense of crisis that more and more young people have turned their backs on the traditional Olympic Games. In the past, the IOC had taken a negative stance toward the adoption of "mind sports" that depend on players' thinking ability rather than physical prowess, but during the October 2017 Olympic summit, it was decided that competitive esports could be considered a sporting activity. The Tokyo Olympics will also feature newly adopted events to appeal to younger viewers -- skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing.

For the IOC, esports, or "electronic sports" played on computers or gaming systems, are an attractive way to catch the interest of a younger age bracket. There are a reported 100 million players, mostly made up of young people, and with the high entertainment value, esports are enjoying rapidly expanding popularity and a growing business market. While Japan has been relatively slow to catch the wave of esports compared to powerhouses the U.S., China and South Korea, efforts to spread esports in Japan have been picking up speed.

During a break between meetings, Chairman Bach even went to observe a demonstration of actual play by esports professionals, gazing into computer screens in what appeared to be profound interest.

From the perspective of players, if esports received a seal of approval from the IOC as "wholesome competition," players could establish their position as athletes and the industry could look to even further expand its markets. In tandem with the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February, major American semi-conductor manufacturer Intel Corp. held an esports competition officially recognized by the IOC.

"If (esports) become a medal event in the Olympics, it would bring huge advantages to both sides," said Intel Vice President John Bonini. "This forum today is a big step."

However, when it comes to the IOC adopting esports, there remain deeply rooted opinions and serious debate about whether or not esports can really be considered "sports." Chairman Bach himself expressed concerns about esports games involving fighting or shooting, repeating many times over the course of the talks, "We have to draw a very clear red line (about what is acceptable as an Olympic sport), and that red line would be promotion of violence or any kind of discrimination."

When esports pro Lyon argued, "The origins of fencing skills were also murderous," the calm atmosphere of the venue suddenly grew icy. The fencing gold medalist at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games was none other than Bach himself. But even then, the chairman remained calm, and continued to lend an ear to the opinions of the esports side. Other industry-related attendees brought up the adoption of sports like boxing, or the fact that at the 1900 Games, pigeon shooting was an Olympic event.

Event moderator Rick Fox, 49, the owner of a pro esports franchise and a former star player in the NBA, reminded the members of the IOC, "I think we have to put aside this conversation that in some way video games are responsible for violence in society." Bonini added, "Among the esports community, there is opinion that there is no need for esports to be adopted by the Olympics, because esports don't fit the stereotype of traditional sports. Now is the time to deepen mutual understanding."

The 2024 Summer Olympics are set to be held in Paris, while the Games will come to the home of esports, the United States, for the 2028 Los Angeles Games. While still leaving room for debate, the IOC and the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) plan to establish a task force to continue discussion of adopting esports into the lineup of Olympic events.

With a satisfied look on his face, IOC Chairman Bach closed the meeting with the common saying, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

(Japanese original by Isamu Gaari, Paris Bureau)

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