I recently sat on a panel for gaming website PocketGamers that was focused on esports and the Olympics. We were debating whether or not esports were filling in the gap in sporting events, including the Olympics, which have been paused due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It was an interesting conversation that began similarly to how most of my esports panels begin. The only difference here is that instead of the typical question “when will esports catch up to traditional sports?”, it was “will esports become mainstream enough to make it into the Olympics?”. Slightly different question, but the same sentiment. The IOC and Olympics are viewed traditionally as one of televised sports’ marquee events and esports are kids hoping to get a seat at the grown-ups table.

The truth is that the Olympics have been dropping in ratings relatively steadily in the US for a long time. The only Olympic Games that scored in the top five ratings going back to 2000 was the Salt Lake City games, presumably because they were held here, in the United States (See below). Overall, the Olympics have been declining in viewership over the last several years and the games don’t hold the prestige they once did.

Additionally, the Olympics viewership is slowly becoming worth less and less to advertisers because the age of the average viewer is rising rapidly. A trend we are seeing in almost ALL traditional sports.

I doubt it would surprise anyone to learn that the average age of almost ALL traditional sports viewership skews older than the esports audience. I think the actual data, however, will be quite surprising. Only one professional sport (women’s tennis) actually saw its average viewers age come down in the last decade or so. Even in that context, the WTA Tennis’ average age is STILL 55 years old.

The average age of esports viewership has looks to be around 26 years old. Think about that from a marketer’s perspective. Traditional sports are just missing young people, and by a wide margin.

Where are the kids?

But there are more factors at play than just a lack of interest from Millenials and Gen Z’ers driving this trend. The IOC made the decision to stream the Olympics (the way most younger people consume content), but they capped the ability to watch online to 30 minutes without signing in to your cable company login (which many millenials don’t have). Additionally, the IOC made the laughable decision to “ban” gifs with the press covering the event, which qualifies as one of the more stupid things a governing body has ever tried to do (Barbara Streisand effect, inc). First, it wont work. One cannot simply ban gifs. Secondly, and perhaps more the point, it just demonstrates how out of touch the IOC is with the way media has evolved in the last 20 years.

Additionally, the IOC as a governing body REALLY likes to have control over the games it governs. However, unlike traditional Olympic sports, where no corporation owns the rights to volleyball or the pole vault, all esports have companies that own the IP associated with the game itself. That means, by default, that the IOC would not have carte blanche when making decisions about how to represent the games, programming, licensing rights and other such control it has enjoyed for a very long time.

Finally it’s worth noting that the IOC doesn’t like the idea of “violent” games being added to the Olympic roster. They prefer to see current sports be transformed into virtual competitions. But anyone who knows anything about esports understands that this isn’t how esports works. In order for a game to ascend to esports royalty, it has to possess two traits. First, it needs to be a good game. If nobody plays it, it’s unlikely anyone will want to watch it. Secondly, it has be digestible as a viewing experience. World of Warcraft Arena is a game that draws a lot of players, but it’s almost impossible to know what is going on unless you’re an expert at the game or you have a godly shoutcaster who can translate the action on the screen into a strong viewing experience. Simply put, you can’t make track and field an esport and hope everything turns out ok.

The IOC Solution

The IOC has taken steps to try and stave off this trend by adopting sports considered “young” in the past few years. Five sports recently added to the Olympic Games are;

- Sport Climbing

- Surfing

- Skateboarding

- Karate

- Baseball/Softball

The baseball/softball addition notwithstanding, I think you would have to live under a rock if you thought that competitive sports climbing held a candle to Fortnite or League of Legends in terms of generating youth interest. This seems like an idea that came from someone who is a lot older trying to find a way to “get the kids back”.

To the IOC’s credit, they have begun to hold panels and conferences with esports experts and game publishers, but any deals that come from these will look REALLY different than what the IOC has in their DNA. It seems to me that we have a long way to go here.

Summary

For my part of the panel, I argued that the Olympics need esports WAY more than esports needs the Olympics. Media companies are only going to overpay for broadcasting rights for traditional sports for so long. At some point, someone is going to notice that the “inside the demo” group isn’t there and move on.

The thing that esports CAN get from the Olympics is understanding a better way to monetize their audience, something that the Olympics do well and esports doesn’t do well right now.

A report from Goldman Sachs shows the audience size and monetization based on that audience above. It is clear that esports is immature from a monetization perspective and while the Olympics aren’t on this chart, I would assume that it punches WAY above its weight, much like MLB does, trading on its reputation more than on actual results these days.

The IOC should act fast though. It wont be long until esports figures this whole thing out and once it does, the Olympic Games wont have anything to offer to this emerging media powerhouse.