PtG Article 12.12.2017

The rise of esports and the challenges that lie ahead

For the first time, Play the Game featured a plenary session at its conference in Eindhoven including a number of experts discussing the challenges facing the rapidly growing field of esports.

Serious consideration must be given to a range of issues before esports can be accepted to the Olympic movement. Esports will be a demonstration event at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, then a medal event four years later in China, leading to discussions over its admission at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

Ivo van Hilvoorde, lecturer at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands specialising in esports, said: “We cannot exclude esports from the family of sports, but there are moral and ethical questions over whether it should be an Olympic sport.”

Mr van Hilvoorde, who was speaking in the final session at this year’s Play the Game conference in Eindhoven on November 29 noted that esports face challenges similar to those facing traditional sports, including doping, match-fixing, harassment, child labour and governance. All need addressing, stressed Mr van Hilvorde.

Professor, Steven Vos, from Fontys University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands suggested that technology could be a “game changer” that creates a level playing field in sport.

However, esports has a unique problem in that, unlike traditional sports, an upside-down structure, which puts commercial interests at the top and governance bodies at the bottom, exists said Anna Baumann, an independent lawyer from Germany specialising in esports.

Sitting at the top are game publishers above tournament organisers, clubs, players and then regulators such as the two rival governing bodies, the World Esports Association and International e-Sports Federation (IeSF) with fans at the bottom.

“The game publisher owns all the IP [intellectual property] in connection to its game,” said Ms Baumann.

“You have this vertical structure and a monopoly at the top,” she added.

With esports in a commercially booming nascent phase, some of the issues are still not being addressed or even understood such as lack of regulation over the sale of broadcast rights and whether player contracts are compliant with employment law.

Ms Baumann added: “Immigration law can also cause a problem as esports is not recognised as a sport in every country,” Baumann explained.

Speaking on the same panel, IeSF Secretary General, Alex Lim, explained that his body is emulating other sports and has, for example signed up with the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) back in 2013 but accepted concerns about excessive use.

“The problem we are seeing with young kids in esports is that to be successful player they need to spend a lot of time training like other sports. They are doing it outside school. We need access to these public structures,” stressed Mr Lim.

Integrity challenges

Speaking on the same panel, titled E-sport: Coming to stay – and to steal the picture? Ian Smith, integrity commissioner at the Esports Integrity Coalition (ESC), suggested that wider governance issues were also at play.

“Cheating to win using software cheats is by far the biggest threat to integrity,” asserted Mr Smith, who said the ESC had received reports of 200 cases a week from one tournament platform.

Mr Smith noted that software companies such as Valve were taking this seriously, but hinted at other issues, and highlighted “the willingness to deliberately underperform” was a concern. He said that legal betting companies are offering more than 160 markets on esports and suggested that the illegal markets are typically 10 to 15 times larger than legitimate available markets.

Mr Smith explained that legal betting turnover is forecast to reach $150 million a year by 2019 and part of the problem is that the centre of illegal betting activity, South East Asia, is also one of the main global hubs of esports.

The ESC started an online gambling education programme for players in October 2017 but in a cautionary note Mr Smith admitted: “Where there is a market, someone will seek to manipulate it.”

Esports, just like other more traditional sports, remains vulnerable but has unique issues that need addressing as the sport develops.