Unikrn CEO: 'Esports doesn't need the Olympics'

TOKYO -- The possibility of esports joining the Olympics program has gained traction in recent years, but not everybody involved in the sport favors it.

Rahul Sood, the CEO of esports betting company Unikrn, believes the benefits for the International Olympic Committee far outweigh those for stakeholders already invested in esports.

Last November, the IOC recognized esports as a sporting activity, and it is set to be a full medal event at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou.

Organizations like the Asian Electronic Sports Federation are looking to get esports in the Olympic fold and hope that the IOC, grappling with an aging audience and waning appeal for some traditional sports, will see it as the future.

Not everybody within the esports community, however, sees Olympic inclusion as the holy grail for the sport, Sood said.

"Some of the esports community are pumped to see video games at the Olympics, but many don't see the point," Sood said via email. "I believe esports doesn't need the Olympics as much as the Olympics needs esports. They would have to make a really good case for this to happen, if I'm being honest."

Sood said many of the top esports competitions, such as Counter Strike's $1 million ELeague Premier and Dota 2's The International, take place during the summer months and would clash with the Olympics.

It could lead to players suffering financial losses, and some of the world's top players could choose to skip the Olympics and focus on long-standing esports competitions.

"It's extremely unlikely top athletes would choose the Olympics over top esports events," said Sood, whose company has received funding from billionaire Mark Cuban and Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher. "It's misguided, or egotistical, of mainstream culture to think the Olympics are somehow a greater honor than The International, worlds or a CS:GO major.

"Esports athletes haven't been playing for years, sometimes over a decade, putting everything into a grind to win a gold medal. They've been doing it to win the top title in their game."

Demographics are also an issue. Sood feels older Olympic viewers are unlikely to be drawn to esports.

"Frankly, gamers know about esports already," Sood said. "It's not a secret, and it's not small. Esports as a group is the fastest-growing sport in the world."

In July, the IOC hosted an esports forum at their headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, involving over 150 representatives from across the electronic gaming community.

Although esports' possible inclusion in the Olympic program was not explicitly discussed, it was seen as a further sign that the IOC was taking competitive gaming seriously.

The median age of Rio 2016 Olympics viewers, according to TV ratings provider Nielsen, was 53, up from 45 in 2000. Equally concerning for the IOC and broadcasters like NBC is the 30 percent drop in viewers aged between 18 and 34.

"The Olympics would include esports to get young people to watch their event, not to get older people to watch our events," added Sood. "Because of that, the only financial benefit of the Olympics would be exposure to brands somehow unaware of esports, which would help accelerate the inevitable."

-- Jack Tarrant