IOC dips toe into esports with Intel event at Games
Esports won’t be in the Olympics as a medal event for years, if ever. But esports is getting a test run at the Games this February thanks to a new International Olympic Committee sponsor.
Intel, which signed an eight-year deal with the IOC in June, is making its first splash by staging an esports tournament near the Olympic Park in Gangneung, South Korea, in the days leading up to the Pyeongchang Games opening ceremony.
In the Olympic context, it’s merely a marketing activation. But the IOC is involved in the planning, and will have a front-row seat to observe the unique culture of esports as it continues to evaluate the proper role of video games in the Olympics.
With $2 billion in assets and a relatively small workforce made up mainly of sports administrators, marketers and broadcasters, some experts have said the IOC needs the expertise of new sponsors like Intel and Alibaba more than it needs their money. And the esports tournament is a good example, said Dave Mingey, managing director of the advisory group of CSM North America.
“Along with revenue, the leadership in Lausanne recognizes that their sponsors can help them drive innovation and create dynamic audience engagement in ways they never could alone,” Mingey said. “And in turn this also creates greater opportunity for those sponsors to positively influence the direction of the movement.”
The Olympics brand will likely have a limited official presence at the event, slated to start Feb. 6 and culminate with the finals on Feb. 9, the same day as Pyeongchang’s opening ceremony.
Despite the Olympics’ limited role, the proximity to the Games in both time and geography is no accident. One source called the tournament the first step in the IOC’s long journey toward figuring out the best role for esports in the Olympics, under constant pressure to modernize itself for a younger generation.
The tournament will be fashioned as a stop on the Intel Extreme Masters series, an 11-year-old property managed by independent operator ESL. It will be held adjacent to the Olympic Park in Gangneung, about three hours east of Seoul, the global capital of esports.
An Intel representative said she could not comment on speculation. ESL and the IOC declined to comment. But on Oct. 28, the IOC issued a statement saying it would seek a dialogue with the gaming industry, saying “competitive ‘esports’ could be considered as a sporting activity” and “can provide a platform for engagement with the Olympic movement.” The statement was a surprising development after President Thomas Bach was critical of the violence in many popular esports titles in an August interview in China.
Sources said the tournament will feature “StarCraft II,” a real-time military strategy game released in 2010 by Blizzard Entertainment. The Olympics have licensed the Pyeongchang 2018 intellectual property to French publisher Ubisoft, which has developed a new winter sports game titled “Steep,” but that is not expected to be a key feature of the event.
While the standard path for new events to gain inclusion in the Olympics is via a nonprofit that gains status as the global governing authority and endures a lengthy vetting process, the IOC has acknowledged that its corporate sponsors and media rights holders are best positioned to educate the Olympic world on gaming.
“A number of our commercial partners and broadcast partners are actively involved in the esports industry, the esports landscape, and we’re in dialogue with them about their involvement, and possibilities for greater engagement in esports,” said IOC director of sports Kit McConnell in an August interview.
Along with playing the lead role in planning the tournament, Intel also expects to make gaming part of its IOC sponsorship activation at the athletes’ village, sources said.
Intel is situated to play a unique role in marrying esports and the Olympics. Along with its long-term title sponsorship with ESL, it sponsors esports teams and also struck a deal Nov. 2 to become the official central processing unit for the new Overwatch League (see related story). Separately, in June it signed an eight-year deal with the IOC worth roughly $400 million.
Its Olympic sponsorship is notable because it is not limited to a general category but instead contemplates a number of ways it can bring new technology like virtual reality, artificial intelligence and drones to the Olympics.
The model of using a third party to execute an esports competition adjacent to the core events at a multisport festival has some precedent. In 2014, ESPN first hired Major League Gaming to operate a “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” tournament at the X Games Aspen.