Could gaming become an Olympic sport?

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Birmingham, UK (AP) -- The eSports gaming scene has grown from strength to strength - festivals like Insomnia in the UK are attracting around 70-thousand visitors over a weekend with many more millions watching the action online. But as the fan base grows wider and the prize pools increase, is it time for eSports to become an Olympic sport?

In this darkened stadium, three thousand bleary-eyed PC gamers are taking part in the UK's largest gaming festival, Insomnia.

Here at Birmingham's NEC arena, dedicated gamers bring their own computers to play eSports in 24 hour gaming sessions.

These gamers might not all look like athletes, but there's a chance some of the more skilful players could be appearing in a future Olympic games.

The gamers take their electronic sports just as seriously as traditional sports, putting in hours and hours of training to try to compete with the best.

Food and drink is delivered directly to their terminals so only a call of nature, and eventually mental exhaustion, will cause them to unplug from their station.

With enough practice they could join a professional team and earn money (perhaps even millions of dollars) playing the games they love.

Here at Insomnia 61, the finals of the UK Masters is taking place for the real time strategy game League of Legends.

Teams of five players compete against each other in a game of monsters and magic. For the uninitiated, it's a baffling and chaotic spectacle but the arena is packed with fans who are kept informed by the commentators.

Team MNM are losing and some of the team members are unhappy.

Daniel 'Aux' Harrison is the captain of Excel, who have just taken a 2-1 lead in the best of five series.

He explains what it takes to reach the top: "It's such a mental thing that more time in the scene, more time in the game it just bolsters your strength, so it honestly takes a lot of practice, a lot of dedication, you have to always be open to learning and always look to improve."

Grant 'Banny' Vincent has come all the way from California to take part in the Insomnia tournament. He is considered by many to be one of the best Team Fortress players in the world and has won the world championships several times.

He is also a streamer, broadcasting the games he plays to viewers - his most popular video on YouTube has over 300-thousand views.

For the casual viewer Team Fortress 2 is a slightly disorientating experience as the players leap and dodge bullets and rockets.

For the last decade he has dedicated his life to this game.

He says: "Well at this point in Team Fortress 2 I have over 15-thousand hours (625 days) logged in the game and on average that's like six hours a day for the last 10 years or something so... it's a lot."

Back in the League of Legends tournament and there's been a dramatic turnaround in fortunes. Team MMA have clawed themselves back into the game and taken a surprise victory over Excel.

The happy team are taking home a cheque for five thousand pounds ($6480 USD).

The eSport scene has exploded in the last five years gaining in popularity and media exposure.

Founder of Insomnia Craig Fletcher has been there since the very beginning.

Insomnia now attracts 70-thousand people through its doors over the weekend. It's a long way from his first gaming event in 1994 where 20 Doom players turned up to a hotel in Southampton.

Fletcher says: "We reckon there's about three million eSports fans in the UK right now, growing to about eight (million) in about three years. So it's a very nascent but rapidly growing space and it's something people should take very seriously indeed."

With a combined prize pot of over 50-thousand pounds (64-thousand USD) at Insomnia 61 there's some serious money up for grabs for the best gamers.

Even this pales into comparison next to some of the largest gaming events - the winning team at this year's The International tournament scooped over $10 million USD.

Fletcher believes eSports can only go from strength to strength because the next generation of 8-15-year-olds have all grown-up with gaming and watching streams on YouTube.

He says: "If you went back 15 years it was bad enough that you played video games now we're trying to convince people that it's good for people to watch other people play video games and that's the bit...that doesn't compute for a lot of people at the moment yet when you look at the numbers it's huge. Just ask any parent do they have to fight for the TV remote any more. They don't because the kids are on YouTube, the kids are watching streams (gameplay) they're not competing for the big box in the living room any more."

But despite the popularity and the evident skill of the players at the highest level, eSports has yet to fully break through to the mainstream.

All that could be set to change however if it becomes a featured event at a future Olympic Games.

The wide television audience that the Olympics brings could be the final missing piece in the jigsaw for eSports global popularity.

The 2024 summer games are widely expected to be held in Paris when a decision is announced on 13 September, 2017.

The co-president of the Paris Olympic bid committee has already said they will consider eSports at the games.

In Asia eSports are further advanced and the popularity of the top gamers, particularly in games such as StarCraft, has already crossed into the mainstream.

The 2018 Asian games in Indonesia will feature eSports as a demonstration event and it's expected they will go on to feature in the 2022 Asian games, held in China, as a medal event.

Craig Wood is the arena manager of London's gaming arena Belong.

It is a dedicated space for competitive eSports. Unlike the fiercer competitions at Insomnia, Belong is hoping to be the first rung of the eSports ladder for gamers who had never previously played in a team or a tournament.

Wood believes the momentum is there for eSports to join the Olympics: "There is a lot of talk about it (eSports) featuring in the next Olympics in some way or form. There's a huge push not only from the community but the IOC (International Olympic Committee) as well as is looking at it a real body for competitive play. We've seen a number of sports being recognised for not just physical activity but the prowess of reaction speed. So we're very hopeful that it might be accepted in the future."

But one of the biggest stumbling blocks is the sheer number of different games inside the eSport scene - real-time strategies, first person shooters and traditional sports simulators (like FIFA) all have large competitive followings, so how would an Olympic committee decide which games make the cut?

Gamer Grant 'Banny' Vincent thinks it's too soon to be thinking about eSports in the Olympics: "As for eSports in the Olympics I don't really know how that would fit in. It's so difficult to define eSports as one game, that's the main problem in my eyes, because there's so many different genres and so many different skills you can test."

Surprisingly his view is shared by many other gamers who think eSports is better off doing its own thing.

Daniel 'Aux' Harrison says: "It doesn't need to be part of the Olympics to be successful, as we've seen. There's already a huge audience, already billions (of dollars) in eSports, it doesn't need to be part of the Olympics."

Kieran Holmes-Darby is the managing director of the Excel eSports team.

After graduating from university he sensed an opportunity to set up a professional eSports team and took the plunge with his brother.

In the last few years the team has gone on to win many competitions - so surely the Olympics would be the highest sporting accolade to aim for?

"Whether it actually makes it into the Olympics I'm not that bothered. As I said, I don't think it's a sport. It would be great for the industry, of course it would, because what it does is put it to the mainstream audience which it's not quite reaching at the moment. So if it happens, hey, I'm not saying I don't want it to happen, that would be great, but I'm not particularly bothered either or," says Holmes-Darby.

Away from the eSports gaming arenas, Insomnia also features a popular cosplay (costume play) section, with fans dressing up as their favourite video game characters.

The Insomnia festival runs from 25-28 August, 2017.



 
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