September 8, 2021 marks an important date in the esports landscape thanks to the announcement of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) on the esports disciplines of the 19th Asian Games (2022 Hangzhou, China). This is an important step in the journey started in 2017 with the participation in the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (Ashgabat, Turkmenistan), continued in 2018 with the 18th edition of the Asian Games (Jakarta, Indonesia) and in 2019 with the Southeast Asian Games (Manila, Philippines). In December 2020 the OCA General Assembly decided to introduce the new sports disciplines.
“We at the OCA are looking forward to working closely with our friends at the Asian Electronic Sports Federation and the Hangzhou Asian Games Organising Committee to ensure a successful execution of the esports event at the 2022 Asian Games.”
Mr Husain Al-Musallam – Director General of the OCA
However, the announcement of the esports titles on the OCA website was greeted with lukewarm optimism (and a few sighs-of-relief ed.) by those involved in the world of esports. The announcement did shook the community of sports circles. In fact, this is nothing new for Asia, which has been the driving force behind the esports ecosystem for years. Just think of China’s investments in infrastructure or its local champion, the giant Tencent, which in the last decade has diversified its activities in various areas of esport: from development teams to software houses and streaming platforms. The choice of the Asian context is therefore not surprising, but not because of economic interests at stakes as some might naively assume: it is a cultural choice. This is so not least because it constitutes the acceptance of a cultural phenomenon already rooted in the region’s economy and embedded in the lifestyles of several nations of the world’s most populous continent. Sport is, after all, or should be , the mirror of changing times and of a new cultural maturity.
“I believe we have ticked all the right boxes ensuring a high level of competition which promises great viewing for enthusiasts and casuals alike.”
Mr Husain Al-Musallam – Director General of the OCA
China’s presence is evident in the selection of esports titles that have been selected by the OCA, with the support of the Asian Electronic Sports Federation (AESF). In fact, alongside some of the historic names in world esports titles, there is also a title unknown to most: Dream Three Kingdoms 2, published by Hangzhou Dianhun. The name easily reveals the choice of local promotion, a constant element of Chinese culture and business, and in this case it is expressed by the choice of an esports title developed in the city that will host the 19th edition of the Asian Games: Hangzhou.
The absence of some esports titles has given rise to dissatisfaction, with some Chinese insiders expressing their discontent. Specifically, the decision to exclude historical real-time strategy titles such as StarCraft II or Warcraft III has given rise to a number of grievances. A number of Chinese commentators have expressed their strong disappointment:
“Obviously they are ignoring their elite RTS (Real-Time Strategy) games and trying everything they could to promote Overwatch. I have reminded them countless times that nothing will come of it! But they just wouldn’t listen. Now Hearthstone is their only game that made into the Asian Games – shame on them.”
Huang Xudong – Chinese StarCraft commentator
Huang Xudong was not alone. Other Chinese esports insiders also expressed their concerns. Although the spread of esports in China began between 2014 and 2017, the first decade between 1998 and 2018 formed the ‘old guard’ that allowed the national phenomenon to start and consolidate over the past seven years. A phenomenon that is currently mutating still further by switching gaming platforms to mobile.
If we want to go beyond the cultural importance of the Chinese choice, what doesn’t add up on the sports front? First of all the timing of the choice of the esports titles in question as this was being made far, far in advance. In the undercurrents of world sport, the time does not seem ripe for such blatant choices in favour of esports.. Asia, as a whole and with a strong Chinese imprint, seems to be proceeding at such a speed as to suggest a break, not only with many Olympic Committees but even with the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Just think of the recommendations contained in the Olympic Agenda 2020+5, published in March 2021 on the IOC reference site, which introduce “virtual sports” (i.e. video game simulations, physical or non-physical, of sports ed.) well in advance of esports, which instead include all genres. The document signed by the IOC reflects a well-considered choice that plans gradual phases to the introduction of the activities linked to the name Electronic Sports into the language of sport. The International Federations should be brought closer to the new disciplines and then, if necessary, move on to recognise new disciplines. This indicates that the OCA, however, seems to have disregarded, at least according to what was announced. It is enough to look at the esports titles announced to get an idea of what the OCA means by esports:
- Arena of Valor (Asian Games Version) – Tencent Games [China]
- Dota 2 – Valve Corporation [United States of America]
- Dream Three Kingdoms 2 – Hangzhou Dianhun [China]
- EA Sports FIFA (branded soccer games) – Electronic Arts [United States of America]
- HearthStone – Blizzard Entertainment [United States of America]
- League of Legends – Riot Games [United States of America*]
- PUBG Mobile (Asian Games Version) – Krafton [South Korea]
- Street Fighter V – Capcom [Japan]
Two more demonstration titles:
- AESF Robot Masters-Powered (by Migu)
- AESF VR Sports-Powered (by Migu)
* 100% acquired by Tencent (China) between 2011 and 2015
Looking at the selected esports titles, we find: 4 titles MOBA genre, 1 title Collectible Card Games (CCG) genre, 1 title third-person shooter (FPS) genre, 1 title fighting games genre and 1 sports simulation title. More than half of the titles are represented by the combination of genres, MOBAs and FPS, which characterise the current esports ecosystem. Another important element to underline is the platform used. Out of the eight official esports titles, four are played on mobile devices, which represents a further innovation, proposing a mobile esports title in an international sports competition.
In conclusion, we are faced with a choice that has caused debate and will continue to do so for a long time to come, but which at the same time represents a milestone in the path of institutionalisation (sporting in this case, ed.) of esport. If with this announcement Asia appears to be running at full speed, bur what will the rest of the world do? Will it lengthen the pace or stand by and watch?