Snowboarding made it into the Olympics just over a decade ago. Golf, which is far less physically demanding, will be in the next Summer Games. And it’s a running joke that seniors can win medals now that curling, or “chess on ice” is a medal sport. So why can’t eye-strained video gamers have shot at the gold?
“Gaming has its place in the world stage,” says Ted Owen, CEO of the Global Gaming League, an organization that ranks and provides a social network for players. “Gaming deserves to be an Olympic sport.” In 2008, Owen signed a deal with the Chinese Olympic Committee to include a gaming tournament as an official welcome event in Beijing, and says the International Olympic Committee has expressed interest in making it a permanent part of the Games.
“It’s the same skills as if you were a hockey player or a baseball player, anything like that,” says Matt Wood, a former pro gamer. “Mostly it’s mental. You don’t have a good mental game, you could be the best player, and all of a sudden you’re on stage, on live TV or with cameras in your face, and if you get nervous, you’re going to lose.” Wood used to compete for the first-ever salaried and televised video game league, the Championship Gaming Series (CGS). “They made a league kind of like the NHL or MLB, they tried to make a professional sport. They had a draft, they had general managers and franchises.”
The league seemed to come along at the perfect time. In the U.S. alone the video game industry brought in over $22 billion in 2008—an almost 25 per cent growth over the previous year. That’s more than triple the $6.5 billion made by the NFL over the same period, which was $50 million less than the league’s projected revenue. Plus gaming’s athletic stature got a huge boost last year—it’s now China’s 99th official sport.
Garrett Bambrough used to play for CGS. He’s a pro gamer who specializes in Counterstrike, a military themed shoot ‘em up. He’s also a six-foot-three personal trainer—and has the build of a pro hockey player. “People see me, they don’t know me as a gamer,” he says. “Everyone has this idea that if you play games your some 30-year-old overweight guy who doesn’t go outside.” He says eSports—as gaming is sometimes called—aren’t physical in a traditional sense, but that they require all the strategy, mental toughness and hand-eye coordination needed to race bobsled or throw a curling stone. “When you’re watching the game you just see a guy shooting the gun. But you are thinking 24/7,” he says. “You do individual practices, you work on your aim, you watch demos of other teams to try to get new moves and to try and get smarter.” Both Wood and Bambrough would love to see gaming in the Olympics, either as a medal or demonstration sport, but acknowledge the resistance.
Ross Rebagliati is the first person to win an Olympic medal for snowboarding, taking home the gold in the 1998 winter games—plus, he was brought up on video games. Yet, he says gaming shouldn’t be considered a sport for anyone capable of normal physical activity. “It would be like, in the Paralympics, having athletes running in the wheelchair endurance races who don’t need to be in a wheelchair.” Rebagliati started carving the hills before snowboards were even allowed on ski runs, so he knows what it’s like to fight for Olympic recognition. But, he says, the line has to be drawn somewhere. “Sport has to have some kind of physical act.”
Owen’s got plenty of hurdles ahead in gaming’s road to Olympic status. CGS folded when sponsors pulled out as the recession hit. The protests and controversy surrounding the games in Beijing led the Chinese government to cancel non-essential Olympic events, including GGLs tournament. Owen tried to pique the IOC’s interest again for the 2010 games in Vancouver—they wouldn’t bite. But he won’t give up. He says pro gamers are treated like celebrities in Asian countries such as China and Korea, and that the popularity of eSports is growing quickly in Europe. Pro gaming is still in its infancy in the rest of the world, but he says he’ll keep lobbying and that it’s only a matter of time until gamers are up on the podium.