The Olympics’ lineup of esports games for its first major competition makes no sense, Northeastern esports director says

inside of arena used for esports olympics
The first Olympic Esports Series Finals will take place in June, but those in the esports community say the games the International Olympic Committee has selected for the competition don’t represent the appeal of competitive gaming. Photo by George Mattock – Gran Turismo/Gran Turismo via Getty Images

The Olympic International Committee announced on Wednesday that it would be elevating esports to the main stage for its first Olympic Esports Series. Culminating in the live, in-person Olympic Esports Week in June, the announcement is the latest sign that esports and competitive video games are a significant part of mainstream culture.

headshot of zac allor
Zachary Allor, coordinator for Northeastern University’s esports program. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

But for many in esports, including Zachary Allor, coordinator for Northeastern University’s esports program, the news was confusing.

Massively popular esports staples like “League of Legends” and “Overwatch,” games that attract massive prize pools and viewership, are absent from the Olympic Esports Series. The only games in the lineup that might look familiar to gamers are “Just Dance” and the racing game “Gran Turismo.” The rest are obscure mobile games, offbeat virtual sports games and motion-tracking martial arts experiences meant to evoke the traditional Olympic Games. 

The lineup of esports games included in the IOC’s announcement is, to even the most casual esports fan, odd, at best. It’s akin to the IOC including wiffleball instead of baseball in the Olympic Games. But at a time when viewership for the Olympics is at an all time low, Allor says the IOC’s announcement is a sign that esports might be the future of the Olympics, even if the IOC doesn’t know it yet.

‘Just Dance 2023’ is one of two mainstream video games that are represented in the International Olympic Committee’s lineup for its esports competition. Screenshot by Ubisoft

“Two years ago … I would’ve said esports needs the Olympics more than the Olympics need esports, but that’s because two years ago we still weren’t sure if this was going to last,” Allor says. “[Esports is] here to stay. I think it’s only going to keep developing and growing. I think the Olympics at this point needs esports more than the other way around.”

Optimistically, Allor says the Olympic Esports Series lineup is “an honest first attempt” to enter the world of esports by a group of people who lack the awareness of the greater esports scene. The IOC’s approach with esports is a fairly literal interpretation of the term opting for “virtual sports” in categories like archery, baseball, sailing and taekwondo over the kinds of commercial games that dominate esports. But that doesn’t make the inclusion of games like “Tic Tac Bow” any less strange, Allor says.

“[‘Tic Tac Bow’] is literally a mobile app where you play tic-tac-toe and it came out last month, and the Olympic finals for it is in a few months,” Allor says. “Even if we wanted to take it seriously, I don’t know who can master a game at that level in two months.”

The rest of the lineup is filled with similarly offbeat choices. In the baseball category is “WBSC eBASEBALL™: POWER PROS,” a PlayStation 5 and Nintendo Switch game priced at what Vice called “a strangely low $.99.” And “Virtual Taekwondo” is a virtual martial arts game that was released on the little-known motion tracking gaming console Axis. 

“My hope is that this is the IOC dragging their feet like they’ve done with so many other sports and taking a baby step towards esports,” he adds.

The IOC’s choice is partly based on the criteria set by the International Sports Federations, which govern certain sports and their rules in Olympic competition. Those rules limit the esports that can be offered at the Olympics to electronic versions of traditional Olympic games and those with recognized federations, like chess.

So, who is the Olympic Esports Series for? 

Allor says the lineup of games represents an event, and organization, caught in limbo. It doesn’t include enough mainstream games and players to attract esports fans or experiences that are different enough from traditional Olympic sports to interest potential new fans.

As for who will be playing these games, Allor predicts that the relative obscurity of some of these games could open the doors for first time competitors to enter the Olympic Games in the way they couldn’t in traditional sports. 

“I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these [games] end up being represented by someone who dedicates the next couple months to getting really good at some of these niche games,” he says. “I’d expect it to skew very, very young, probably as young as the age range will allow, because it’s probably going to be something a lot of content creators are going to be interested in, if nothing else.”

The audience for the Olympic Esports Series is particularly concerning given the lackluster viewership for the 2022 Beijing Olympics Games. Viewership is particularly low among Gen Z, an audience already familiar with competitive, international esports. The 2022 League of Legends World Championship smashed viewership records, drawing in 5.1 million viewers for one game.

“When that [viewership] starts to go away, the Olympics is going to need to find ways to stay relevant, and I don’t know that fencing and table tennis is going to draw the viewership like a gold medal in League of Legends between South Korea and the United States would,” Allor says.

The IOC’s sluggishness when it comes to adding new games is not new to esports. It took years for the IOC to recognize snowboarding––and then four more years for it to become part of the Olympic Games, first appearing in the 1998 Japan Winter Olympics. But Allor says if the IOC doesn’t move fast on esports, the billion dollar industry will pass it by.

“If the Olympics doesn’t claim this relatively soon, within the next two or three Olympic cycles, I think someone else is going to step in and fill this void,” Allor says. “I think this is something the esports space wants. … The Olympics is hopefully coming to the understanding that there’s an opportunity here, and I hope that they move on it because I think that esports belongs in the Olympics.”

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.