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Olympic Committee Embraces Esports Before Tokyo Torch Is Lit

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(Bloomberg) -- The International Olympic Committee is inaugurating its first Olympic Virtual Series today, kicking off more than a month of competitive play across video-game simulations of baseball, rowing, sailing, cycling and motorsport.

This embrace of esports may prove the IOC’s least controversial move this year as the organization prepares to stage the delayed 2020 Olympics under a cloud of doubt about its safety with the Covid-19 pandemic. It lets the organizers promote the summer games without risking the health of athletes, and builds on several key objectives of their recently adopted Olympic Agenda, including an explicit urging to “further engage with video gaming communities.”

Among those groups, esports are an established billion-dollar genre with an audience approaching half a billion people in 2021, according to Newzoo estimates. Inc.’s Twitch serves millions of daily viewers an endless diet of live-streamed gaming, both competitive and casual, and Valve Corp.’s Dota 2 hosts an annual championship with a fan-funded prize pool that will exceed $40 million this year. They represent precisely the young and enthusiastic audience that the IOC wants to court and its Virtual Series is an attempt to reach out.

“It is the first small step into a bigger strategic path,” said Thomas Bjørn-Lüthi, an e-sailing expert and commentator, adding that “sport simulators are going to be a bigger part of some athletes’ training methods in the future.”

At the highest tiers of professional gaming, the required training, concentration, quickness and endurance are not far from the demands put on competitive athletes. But the IOC is not yet ready to fully dive into the fantasy worlds of games such as Dota and League of Legends, where werewolves, mages and other mythical creatures do grand battles. It’s focusing on the middle ground of more realistic virtual sports simulations.

“The OVS creates a stage to connect the physical sporting world with the virtual,” the organizers said in their announcement. Each event will be staged “in a format that maximises online mass participation and prioritises inclusivity and participation,” with players able to join in from home, they added.

The need for virtual recreations of real-world sports has never been more pressing, with Olympics host city Tokyo currently under a state of emergency to arrest the spread of the coronavirus. Local polls show more than half of those surveyed would rather have the Olympics be canceled entirely, while a petition to that effect has attracted in excess of 330,000 signatures. The U.S. national track & field team canceled its planned training camp in Japan’s Chiba prefecture due to safety concerns.

Read more: Calls to Cancel Tokyo Olympics Grow Louder as Emergency Extended

Arguments in support of canceling the games include the uneven access to training and preparation among international athletes, owing to disparities in how well each country has dealt with the pandemic. There’s also the need to dedicate medical staff to the event, which Tokyo can better deploy in battling the pandemic. Experts fear that inadequate infection measures could lead to a superspreader event, with more than 60,000 athletes and others expected to gather for the games.

The attraction of the OVS is that it sidesteps those issues by giving competitors a safe and equitable playing field that adheres much more closely to the Olympic credo of expanding access and involvement.

“The e-sailing community is growing due to the tailwind of Covid-19,” said Natsuki Matsuura, a 39-year-old sailor who found himself addicted to the virtual version after his company’s yacht club shut down due to the virus. He will take part in OVS and believes the wider exposure it affords to his pastime will help bring in more players.

A Konami Holdings Corp. baseball game and Polyphony Digital’s celebrated Gran Turismo will provide the arenas for their respective virtual sports. They’re most likely to draw in a crowd of new viewers, even if there are no Olympic medals at stake just yet.

The IOC has said that it hopes to expand the OVS as a satellite operation for Paris 2024 and beyond. This year’s OVS runs from Thursday until June 23. The Olympics kick off a month after that, on July 23.

(Updates with U.S. national team cancellation in seventh paragraph)

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