David Owen

I have a confession to make: in the late-1970s, out of money and having narrowly missed the twice-weekly boat to Plymouth, I spent four solid days on the (flat) Santander ferry terminal roof playing a Formula One game I had devised using two packs of playing-cards.

I never thought of suggesting to F1 bosses that they embrace a playing card-based adjunct of their flagship motor-racing property.

Perhaps I missed a trick.

This Spanish interlude, and the imagination required to conjure up that whole glamorous world from permutations of 104 pieces of printed cardboard, leaves me in no doubt I would have been a keen electronic gamer had I been 30 or 40 years younger.

So why, in common I think with many of my generation, do I feel so apprehensive about the Olympic Movement’s current sweaty-palmed flirtation with the branch of the tech revolution that has come to be known as esports?

I think the flirtation is inspired by a similar reflex to that underpinning London’s successful - and ground-breaking - campaign for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

This is that sport recently started to lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the young for the first time in a century, and needs to try harder.

esports could be a way for the Olympic Movement to recapture the hearts and minds of the young ©OCA
esports could be a way for the Olympic Movement to recapture the hearts and minds of the young ©OCA

For all sorts of complicated societal reasons, young people, as is widely recognised, are spending many of the hours their predecessors would have devoted to climbing trees, or scrumping, or, yes, park football cooped up in their bedrooms.

Unable to escape cloying family claustrophobia physically by heading out to play with friends as often as they would like to, they turn to the enticing, ever-proliferating array of devices, platforms and apps that enable them to do so mentally and/or virtually.

In some ways this tendency might be good for society: much of the wealth created in the last decade or two has been the product of ideas doubtless dreamt up by youngsters in exactly these circumstances.

But our increasingly closeted, sedentary lifestyles may also be blamed in part for the modern epidemics of obesity and self-centredness that the structured physical activity offered by sports has long been good at combating.

In this context, there seem to me two reasons why a traditional sports interest group such as the Olympic Movement might justifiably try some form of esports association.

1. If it were shown convincingly that esports inspired kids to take up the real sports on which some games are based.

2. If esports pumped significant money into the sports movement that was then earmarked for encouraging youngsters to take up active pursuits.

The idea that esports stars and Olympic athletes are similar in, say, fitness levels or devotion to their respective specialties strikes me as a complete red herring.

Many of us who have never come within light years of an Olympic podium are extremely competitive about, and devoted to, our crafts.

And while I don’t suppose the esports fraternity would fare any worse than, say, curlers on a Jürgen Grobler gym circuit, that does not mean the stone-manipulators are any less worthy as Olympians than the rowers who endure them on a daily basis.

Do esports, like FIFA 19, lead to more youngsters taking up the proper sport? ©EA
Do esports, like FIFA 19, lead to more youngsters taking up the proper sport? ©EA

So, in order to overcome my gut unease about the direction events seem to be taking, I think I would need to see data showing either:

a) that videogamers/esports fans are significantly more likely to take up sports, or to increase their hours of sporting activity, than non-gaming counterparts; or

b) that videogamers/esports fans are less obese or more healthy than the average population of that age group.

If that could be established, then I would also like to see a blueprint explaining how money earned by the Olympic Movement from the esports sector would be used to increase grass-roots sports participation, particularly among the young, rather than to promote further embedding of esports within traditional sports competitions.

Is more, or less, grass-roots football being played as a consequence of the popularity of games such as FIFA 19? 

I don’t know the answer to this question; but I do know that the International Olympic Committee has in its midst an individual who, as long-time chairman of both Electronic Arts, a digital interactive entertainment company with annual revenue exceeding $5 billion (£3.8 billion/€4.2 billion), and the United States Olympic Committee, is ideally placed to offer a well-informed and authoritative opinion on this issue.

If Lawrence F. Probst III were ever minded to set out his thoughts on the relationship between the Olympic Movement and esports and the direction in which it might best develop, now would be the perfect time.

I for one would give what he had to say my full attention - just as long as I didn’t have a Formula One card game on the go at the time.