The Games meet gamers with Intel tourney
The barriers standing between a full marriage of the Olympics and esports didn’t fall down. But after International Olympic Committee sponsor Intel arranged a modest first date at the Pyeongchang Winter Games, a second event at Tokyo 2020 looks likely.
Two days before the real Olympics started, Canadian Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn was crowned champion of the Intel Extreme Masters Pyeongchang, winning a $50,000 prize for besting a field of 18 in StarCraft II, a game normally dominated by Korean men.
During the three-day tournament, senior IOC executives toured the event, and while final viewership figures won’t be released for a few weeks, they were impressed, said Christian Voigt, vice president of marketing development for the IOC. He said they’ll keep working with Intel on esports development.
“The expectation certainly is that we continue that conversation, as we’ve opened the door to a new community,” Voigt said.
IEM Pyeongchang was a modest affair, put together quickly by Intel, its advisers at CAA Sports, the IOC and tournament organizer ESL in a few months after Intel signed its global Olympic sponsorship in June.
It was far too late to secure showcase space inside the official Olympic footprint, so the event was relegated to a wedding reception venue in an isolated, run-down part of the city 20 minutes away. It had no live audience but was streamed on the digital Olympic Channel in addition to Twitch, Facebook, Twitter, AfreecaTV and Chinese platforms.
John Bonini, Intel’s vice president of gaming, hopes to deliver a true live event in two years. Intel’s Olympic sponsorship runs through the 2024 Paris Games.
“If I had to put money on it, I’d say it’s going to be bigger,” Bonini said. “Maybe it will be a stadium event, maybe it will even be two or three titles. This is some of my personal areas of interest, so I don’t want to convey this is all locked down. But we’d like to get a little bigger, get a live audience and start getting some more feedback.”
The event’s presentation was a mashup of Olympic imagery and standard esports production, itself an unusual step for the IOC’s normally rigid approach to its brand. The Olympic rings were displayed on the competition stage, and the players wore blue Intel-IOC logo lockup shirts, not their usual uniforms with their own sponsors’ logos. Also, players competed with their national flags behind them, associating them more closely with their country than they normally would be in esports.
Because the event was really just a marketing activation for Intel run under the competition rules of ESL, not an Olympic sport, the organizers had extensive freedoms to innovate. But that was a challenge, too, as parties with little in common negotiated in a short time frame.
Media rights was one of the hardest parts, Bonini said. The IOC, StarCraft publisher Blizzard Entertainment and ESL all initially believed they had a claim to the media rights, he said.
“It took some time to understand what are the real guardrails, what’s everyone’s motivations, and then get people who haven’t necessarily worked together yet to trust each other very quickly,” Bonini said.
Just a few miles away on the night of the round of 16, IOC President Thomas Bach reminded his organization that the Olympics will move cautiously on esports despite their power to reach young viewers. In a major speech, he said the IOC won’t include “video games which are about killing, which glorify violence or which promote discrimination,” limiting the number of possible game partners.
Furthermore, there’s a litany of bureaucratic challenges in making video games an official Olympic sport — there’s no single global governing authority, and publishers own intellectual property rights to their games. Voigt said that lack of clarity on the sport side isn’t a problem for the marketing arm of the IOC to continue working with Intel.
Bonini called for a new model that would sidestep the issues associated with joining the official Olympic program, perhaps akin to the Paralympics or the Youth Olympic Games. “I don’t know what that is, we’ll probably have to go through some bumps in the road for the next few years before we kind of figure it out,” he said.
ESL CEO Ralf Reichert said that two years ago, the question of whether esports would become part of the Olympics would be summarily dismissed. “Today we’re sitting here asking how it’s going to be integrated, not if,” he said.