The hottest sports ticket in the Asia-Pacific right now isn't for a soccer match, an NBA exhibition game or even a swim meet. It's for the medal event debut of competitive video gaming, or esports.
The milestone moment is taking place at the quadrennial Asian Games -- sometimes referred to as the "Asian Olympics". Leading up to this week's games, at least 5 million people applied for the right to buy a pricey ticket to the futuristic purpose-built esports arena in Hangzhou, China, the host city. No other event, from basketball to table tennis, had near the demand, much less a ticket lottery.
But so far, the Olympics, the world's preeminent sporting competition, has no intention of following Asia's lead. That's a mistake. With hundreds of millions of fans and players, esports can bring a desperately needed infusion of youth, cultural relevance and money to the lagging and scandal-plagued Olympics.
Esports, which requires a high level of critical thinking, quick decision making and coordination, is already among the world's most popular competitive activities. Last year, the global audience totalled more than 500 million people. More than half of that amount was watching -- not playing -- competitive gaming online or on TV at least twice a month. The 2022 League of Legends World Championship, one of the world's biggest tournaments, had 5.1 million viewers during peak times; by comparison, ESPN had a record-breaking 3.4 million viewers for the 2023 women's US Open tennis final a few weeks ago.
It's not just Asia where esports are popular, either. The US, home to developers responsible for some of the world's most popular games, has also produced top players (though they are not eligible to appear at the Asian Games).
It has been a 50-year growth story that started in the 1970s with individual home game consoles that connect to televisions. It went global in the 1990s with the rapid expansion of broadband internet access. Game developers adapted by creating multiplayer online games that eventually enabled millions of people to log in and roam through vast virtual worlds where they can cooperate or battle one another and a range of virtual friends and foes. Over the last three decades, multiplayer games like StarCraft, Dota, and League of Legends became the foundation of the industry -- and career and lifestyle choices.
Early on, the Asia-Pacific emerged as uniquely suited to be the centre of esports. In the 1990s, personal PC ownership and home broadband were too expensive for large swaths of the region's middle class. So the government and the private sector opened internet cafes hoping to boost the new technology. It turns out they also boosted multiplayer gaming, creating needed public spaces for young men (primarily) to socialise and relax.
In the early 2000s, while living and travelling in China, I would stop into crowded, dingy, smoke-filled cafes to check my email. Invariably, I was the only person doing so. Everyone else was wearing headphones and playing Counter-Strike, StarCraft or other fantasy-oriented multiplayer games that were driving the growth of the cafe business. There were 40,000 Chinese internet cafes in 2000; by 2010, there were 140,000.
The growth was so spectacular that in 2003, China officially recognised competitive gaming as one of its 99 supported (administratively and financially) sports. The designation ruffled the feathers of some traditionally minded fans and contributed to the continuing argument over whether gaming is a "sport".
It's a fun debate, but it's beside the point for hundreds of millions of people, especially in emerging markets where traditional sporting facilities are inaccessible and often expensive. The same goes for students across urban Asia, who often have few opportunities for outdoor play. For them, esports are among the only competitive social activities available.
Culture has bent to this reality. Esports athletes -- yes, I'm using the term deliberately -- are celebrities in the Asia-Pacific. Gamer-friendly hotels are popping up in China to accommodate the vacation preferences of fans, and governments, especially China's, are actively supporting the development of esports careers.
So far, however, the world's premier sporting event has barely budged. In 2017, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) declared that esports "could be considered as a sporting activity" and has supported non-Olympic demonstrations. But it has stood firm in arguing that popular video games, including titles being played at this week's Asian Games, are violent and thus incompatible with Olympic values such as peace and understanding (it prefers virtual sports games like archery simulator Tic Tac Bow). Meanwhile, Paris 2024 is preparing to host the violent sport of boxing -- and rifle and pistol events.
The unwillingness of the IOC to accept esports is a self-defeating mistake.
For one, it places more distance between the games and younger audiences -- an emerging market the Olympics have struggled to capture. And too often, sports adopted by the IOC are popular, first, in the West (the 2028 Los Angeles Games are considering American flag football). An Olympic recognition of competitive gaming would be crucial in acknowledging another hemisphere's cultural influence over global sports and recreation.
Are the Olympics prepared to turn away from an influential facet of global youth culture because it doesn't meet its Westernised standards? Or will it have the courage to adapt? The Asia Games prove that esports will flourish with or without the Olympics. The IOC should take the hint and embrace them for the future. ©2023 Bloomberg
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of sports. He is the author, most recently, of 'Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale'.