From Olympics to E-lympics: Case mounts for IOC to consider video games

Olympics viewership is dwindling as young people tune out in droves. Now experts are pointing to competitive video games as a solution to the decades-old tradition’s woes.

Olympics viewership is dwindling as young people tune out in droves. Now experts are pointing to competitive video games as a solution to the decades-old tradition’s woes.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics – held in 2021 due to a 10-month long COVID delay – recently saw athletes from all over the world compete for glory in more than 30 different sports.

Australians were enthralled, with households across the nation glued to their screens cheering on the green and gold as we once again proved our athletic mettle on a global stage.

Elsewhere however, audiences were less enthused, with ratings data from around the world suggesting the Tokyo Games were among the least watched in modern memory.

In the US alone, viewership dipped to lows not seen in over three decades prompting news station CNN to warn that the audience for the international competition is in “freefall”.

This decline comes amid a demographic shift in US sports viewership, with the average age of fans trending upwards. Data from the US shows the average age of baseball fans is currently 57, while football viewers are a bit younger at 50.

Basketball fans are the youngest of any major US sports league, but even these fans have typically celebrated their 42nd birthdays already.

Younger fans tuning into e-sports instead

While the audiences for traditional sports are shrinking or getting older, the market for e-sports – professional and competitive video games – continues to grow.

Viewers of e-sports are typically younger than their traditional sports fan peers, with an average age of 31.

This data has prompted speculation from analysts that e-sports may make their way into the Olympics in the coming years as the International Olympic Committee looks for ways to bring in younger, often more affluent fans.

Gerry Sakkas, CEO of Melbourne-based games developer PlaySide Studios, said an e-sports version of the Olympics would “far out-weigh” what the conventional competition achieves in terms of viewership.

“E-sports is so accessible, you don’t need to be athletic, you don’t need to go and stand out in the cold on a Saturday morning and play footy,” he said.

“You can just wake up, go to your computer and you can play e-sports. So the growth of it over the next 10 years will be tremendous.”

The numbers back Mr Sakkas’ theory up. In 2021, there are an estimated 234 million e-sports ‘ultra-fans’ and a further 240 million casual viewers – an audience of roughly 474 million people.

By 2024 – when the next summer Olympics are due to hit our screens – that figure is expected to grow by roughly 22% to 577 million, according to research by Newzoo.

For their part, the IOC already appears to be looking into video games – in April, the body launched its first ever Olympics Virtual Series.

This event, which took place prior to the Tokyo Games, brought together five International Sports Federations and several games publishers to promote “physical and non-physical” forms of sport and connect with viewers.

“The Olympic Virtual Series is a new, unique Olympic digital experience that aims to grow direct engagement with new audiences in the field of virtual sports,” IOC President Thomas Bach said.

“Its conception is in line with Olympic Agenda 2020+5 and the IOC’s Digital Strategy. 

“It encourages sports participation and promotes the Olympic values, with a special focus on youth.”

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