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Wednesday, January 20, 2021

LOOKING AHEAD, 2021 AND BEYOND: The new Olympians

Traditionalists may still scoff at esports and breakdancing, but their push towards mainstreaming shows the changing profile of the Olympic Games

Written by Gaurav Bhatt | Updated: January 2, 2021 10:46:59 am
OlympicsGaming and breakdancing, long the domains of the lazy and angsty, will now be giving rebellious edges to traditional multi-sport events. (Suvajit Dey)

What do you see when you look at a contingent of athletes at a multi-sport event? How many sports can you identify with just a glance at their practitioners? Light and skinny middle-and-long-distance runners. Tall swimmers, with unusually long torsos and arms. Wrestlers with heavily-padded upper bodies and fencers, carrying more muscle in their legs.

Imagine that contingent, now with overawed, bespectacled teens, with neon in their hair. Or lean, fit youngsters sporting dreadlocks, topknots and fauxhawks, grooving and bobbing.

Yes, it’s playing on stereotypes but hardly frivolous. Expect the gamers and breakdancers to stand out when they take the Asiad stage next year. Setting aside the philosophical debates, esports and breakdancing (or breaking) — despite having skilled competitors and sizable followings — weren’t even labelled ‘fringe sports’ for long. That tag was reserved for skateboarding, surfing and climbing, all set to make their Olympic bow in Tokyo.

Call it a bid to capture eyeballs, designs by corporations or the changing sporting landscape. But gaming and breakdancing, long the domains of the lazy and angsty, will now be giving rebellious edges to traditional multi-sport events. The two sports are poised to continue riding the momentum in 2021 before next year’s debut at the Hangzhou Asian Games.

Select Indian gamers, though, have already had the experience of sharing an Asian Games athletes’ village with the country’s greatest.

Ankur Diwakar, a 30-year-old from Mumbai who represented the country at the 2018 Asian Games where esports debuted as a demonstration event — remembers PV Sindhu and Dutee Chand lighting up upon meeting their newest colleagues.

“They were super-excited to learn more about it and wanted to play the games themselves,” Diwakar tells The Indian Express. “Everywhere I go, there are certain people wondering why there are people around me. ‘Are you a TikToker, an Instagrammer, an influencer?’ At the Asian Games, I was treated as an athlete.”

Diwakar played football for Mumbai before transferring his knowhow to the virtual turfs of FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer, where he has ruled the circuits for more than a decade as ‘JauntyTank’.

“I met a group of athletes who already had been playing football games casually. They asked me to teach them specific skills, how to take a certain free kick or make a move, to beat their teammates,” says Diwakar. “I was so proud of my country that everyone, at least every athlete, knew what esports is.”

Gujarat’s Tirth Mehta, the bronze medallist in the Hearthstone competition, shared a similar experience with this paper shortly after the Games.

“The fact that we were staying at the athletes’ village, with our contingent was symbolic for me,” said Mehta. “I met Hima Das and Amit Panghal. They were very excited to know that I won a medal by playing a video game. Indian coaches were asking me about the event and telling me that esports also takes massive effort.”

There is something to that reciprocity. Michael Payne, who was IOC’s first marketing and broadcast rights director and stayed in that role for two decades, says it’s because an average modern athlete is clued in.

“If you go to the Athletes’ village, where you’ve got the 10,000 greatest athletes… In their downtime, they are doing a lot of esports training,” says Payne. “You go to Formula One and the drivers are even officially training on esports, using the (virtual) tracks for their training mechanism.”

But pushing video games at these events is also the work of big machines and bigger machinations.

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In 2008, Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba, famously proclaimed that the Chinese e-commerce titan “would rather starve to death than live on games”. In 2010, Ma said that Alibaba would not invest one penny in games because “China pursues single-child policy. If children play games all the time, what will our country be like in the future?”

In 2018, Alibaba’s sports arm Alisports sponsored esports as an exhibition event at the Jakarta Asian Games. At the closing ceremony, Ma was handed over the Asiad flag to bring to Hangzhou, host of the 2022 Games and his and Alibaba’s hometown.

Alibaba’s U-turn on video games comes after the company’s foray into the medium in 2014. It is also a bid to compete with arch rival Tencent in the battle for Southeast Asia’s esports market. Gaming is a strategic vertical for Chinese conglomerates, and a sure-fire way to generate revenue abroad due to lower cultural and language barriers.

Six games were featured in Jakarta: Arena of Valor, Clash Royale and League of Legends are owned by Tencent. Hearthstone and Starcraft II are made by America’s Activision Blizzard, a company Tencent has invested in. The only title with no Tencent connection was Japanese giants Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer. The Asian Games appearance led to a bump in the sales of the aforementioned titles, and Alibaba too would look for a slice of cross-promotion.

Although the Asian Games has been conquered, Olympics, and zeroing in on suitable titles for it, is a different challenge altogether for esports. International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach repeatedly said that he would not stand for violence in games — even cartoonish, aesthetic or over-the-top — effectively ruling out a major chunk of the catalogue. Last April, Bach called for the movement to “urgently” investigate electronic versions of sports and approach game publishers.

In theory, it should make gaming’s transition from recreation to Olympic sport more palatable and easier to follow. Last month, the first official world championships in virtual cycling took place, with 132 riders — including Olympians and worlds medallists — from 22 nations racing in the fictional island of Watopia.

“Whether you’re playing with a football game or any one of the sports, I think there is a strong partnership and relationship,” says Payne. “It exposes new sports to the younger generation, exposes them to the rules, how it’s played, and it builds interest in the sport.”

That, however, would require top developers to switch portfolio and focus on a niche genre of sports games which are not FIFA or PES (Pro Evolution Soccer). The only other titles which come close to their levels of polish are tied to North American properties such as NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL.

Also, despite obvious interest, the IOC hasn’t moved in with esports due to the lack of a clear governing body. The Asian Electronic Sports Federation (AESF) claims to be the “sole competent authority for electronic sports” in the region while South Korea’s International esports Federation organises parallel world championships.

“The IOC, when it wants to, can move surprisingly quickly for a mammoth organisation. Equally, it doesn’t want to get pressured into a decision that may look great today and clearly is the wrong horse tomorrow,” says Payne, for whom Tokyo would be the 20th Olympic Games. “(In esports) there are three or four different organisations, all claiming to represent. If the IOC was to single out one, it would then be distorting the management profile, of ‘why that one and not the other three’.”

This year holds the key for esports in terms of fine-tuning and working towards that elusive Olympic spot.

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Breaking’s move from ‘cultural artform’ to a medal event has been comparatively straightforward. The sport flared, swiped and side-slid into the 2024 Paris Olympics programme after capturing the imagination at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Argentina.

“The decision on breakdancing came from the local organising committee in France, as a host nation is allowed to propose two or three sports that they think are really appropriate to their set-up and culture,” says Payne. “That’s why the Japanese for Tokyo 2020 proposed karate and baseball, neither of which are then being proposed by Paris. So, you’re allowing for an element of customisation in the local market.”

It’s a symbiotic relationship. Dynamic and urban, breaking goes with the Paris Games’ blueprint of a more inclusive, gender-balanced and youth-centred event. For the sport, meanwhile, it is a stage to inform and educate.

“We have no intention of attempting to revolutionise the Olympics. Our only goal is to organise battles that respect, protect and reflect the history, culture and spirit of breaking,” says Jean-Laurent Bourquin, senior advisor to World Dance Sport Federation. “If we do that, the rest will take care of itself, as we are convinced that breaking brings a great deal of added value to the Olympic movement and will be an entertaining and inspiring addition to any Olympic event. Breaking truly has it all: amazingly talented dancers, hip-hop beats, MCs to keep things flowing, and the drama of head-to-head competition.”

Asked to envisage an Olympic contingent from 2036 Games, featuring B-boys and B-girls and E-athletes, Payne turns to today’s gymnasts and swimmers.

“You look at the gymnasts or the synchronised swimmers of today, it might have raised eyebrows 40-50 years ago with people saying, ‘what are they doing on the Olympic programme?’ Now they are a core part of the programme. If you were to talk to the dancers, I’m not sure you would dispute some of their athletic capability,” says Payne. “The move to esports, that’s a big jump because you’re then looking at: if you want mental agility versus athletic agility. And you’ve got sports like chess, desperate to try and get on the programme.”

Diwakar, though, runs with the fantasy.

“It will absolutely happen. I only got serious for esports in 2011 and ’12, when it was being legitimised in Europe. I realised within 5-6 years India too will catch on,” says Diwakar.

He is 30, effectively 40 in gaming years. But while Diwakar admits that he is not in his prime anymore, the dream of donning the India jersey again and competing for an Asian Games medal in Hangzhou spurs him through the 10-hour daily training.

“This has given me a reason to train physically and keep my game sharp,” Diwakar says. “It still gives me chills, just thinking that I am preparing for the Asian Games. When I picked up the controller years ago, I had no clue that someday I would compete at the same level as a PV Sindhu or a Sushil Kumar.”

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