Professional gaming deserves to be considered a real sport and could one day be part of the Olympic Games, according to the head of eSports at gaming giant Activision Blizzard.
The inaugural Overwatch League eSports grand final takes place in New York this weekend in front of 20,000 people at the city’s Barclays Centre arena.
Pete Vlastelica, the president of eSports leagues at the developer of the popular Overwatch League game, said the scale of the event proves that the competition deserves to now be viewed in the same way as other sports.
“I think it shows that whether a game is a video game or a game that you play on the field, if you have a game that’s competitive and fun to watch and fun to play and inspires a generation of players to get better and eventually reach the top then it doesn’t matter if it’s a video game,” he said.
“So more than saying this event is a moment for eSports, this is a moment for sports.
“It shows how broadly we can define sports and still meet people’s expectations of what comes with sports. Huge events like this, with rabid fan bases, great partners – all of that is sports.
“It doesn’t matter that it’s a video game.”
The shooting game’s competitive matches are played by two teams of six, with the winner of the grand final – which includes UK franchise London Spitfire – earning a share of a one million pound prize pot.
Dozens of other games – including football series Fifa – now hold their own tournaments offering big money prizes while filling arenas and drawing millions of viewers online.
Future expansion could see such competitions appear at the Olympic Games, with Mr Vlastelica and Overwatch League commissioner Nate Nanzer both confirming the gaming giant has held talks with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) about consideration for inclusion in the Games.
Mr Nanzer said the talks were “a great opportunity to discuss the state of the industry and to share lessons learned from the eSports world and the traditional sports world”.
Mr Vlastelica said he believed such a step makes sense: “We participated in the event that the IOC held in Switzerland last week and it was the beginning of a dialogue about whether and how and when and what games and what conditions and all that on how the sports could be introduced into the Olympics,” he said.
“I think under the right circumstances it could make a whole lot of sense for them and for companies like us. So we’re leaning in to try and understand how they might approach it and what their concerns are, and how we can help.”
During the first season of the 12-team Overwatch League, matches regularly pulled in 400,000 viewers online, according to figures from organisers. The first night of the grand final will be broadcast live on US sports network ESPN.
Mr Vlastelica said reaching a wider audience was the next step towards the competition entering the mainstream.
“We’re broadcasting on ESPN in prime time and we’re going to reach a lot of fans who maybe don’t follow the league that closely and introduce them to our sport for the very first time,” he said.
“It’s a really cool thing. Our explicit goal for this season has been to just serve the people that play our game. Let’s not try to reach everybody’s mum and dad, let’s just find the people who play our game and make sure they’re watching our league.
“Now that that’s gone pretty well we have a chance to perhaps broaden the aperture a little bit and maybe be a little more ambitious.”