Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

During a panel discussion held last December about the impact of esports, the Global Association of International Sports Federations director Philippe Gueisbuhler commented: "This train is already driving, we cannot stop esports."

"It is there and will continue to grow," he added. "Our kids and youth are on board and all we can do is try to bring it in the right direction. 

"We need to have a look at how people can use it as a balance between real sport, work and have a bit of fun, as well as making a competition out of esports.

"This is the question of balance. We need to educate our children, it is important for them to have fun."

That, broadly speaking, is also the position of Vlad Marinescu – who became President of the International Esports Federation (IESF) last month. However, the Romanian-born, US-based administrator switches the points as he expresses his own overview in similar fashion.

"My analogy would be – the train is moving," he tells insidethegames. "Do you want to stand in front of the train?

"Or do you want to work together with the train company to build tracks that go in a direction for promoting health?"

To those who are sceptical about the social and sporting benefits of esports, those two goals – gaming growth and physical health – appear antithetical. 

As a lifelong judo enthusiast who also holds the position of media and marketing manager at the International Judo Federation, Marinescu has a unique perspective. And he insists this is not the case.

Vlad Marinescu, President of the International Esports Federation, has ambitious but realistic plans for the future of the esports movement ©AISTS
Vlad Marinescu, President of the International Esports Federation, has ambitious but realistic plans for the future of the esports movement ©AISTS

So if Marinescu could wave a magic wand and have esports in its ideal setting within society and the sporting world, what would that position look like?

"It would be an environment where esports would help to fuel traditional sport and ensure that the youth which is playing games is able to game with the proper educational instruments in place," he said.

"In order to ensure that they have a physical, mental and nutritional-competent environment. That's the magic wand, right there.

"The attractiveness for the youth to participate in esports is very high. I think that there must be an exchange between traditional sport and esports in order to ensure that we are properly educating the youth in the gaming, in the effects of gaming, as well as proposing physical health as a necessary component next to it.

"We can't have one without the other if we want to have a good future."

So how does he propose reaching that happy equilibrium?

"The issue has to do with how we promote games to the youth, and how we convert, or rather cross-market other potentially more physical games to gamers that are playing less physical games," he said. "But to be completely honest I think there is a high affinity for everyone where they can find their home.

"It's very similar to sports. I have loved to do physical sport since I was very young. I also played video games, and I used to make gaming parties with my friends. 

"But I think that everyone chooses the games that are most applicable to what they are looking for.

"So if I love water the sports that will be most interesting to me are swimming, water polo, diving. If I am very tall I may have the most affinity with basketball, handball, sports that require that physical asset.

"In esports I believe you have an answer to everyone's request. If you look at the analytics between gender equality, it's very close. The latest statistics are saying it's 53 per cent men to 47 per cent women. Which is a close gender balance.

"Before I read those statistics I believed that it was very skewed and more prominent for boys who were playing. 

"But because there is a solution to everybody's demands in the gaming world, whether it be to ride your bicycle on Zwift and competing against others who are riding, or whether it be playing chess online, you have an answer.

Increasing numbers of traditional sports are developing their own versions of esport games ©Zwift
Increasing numbers of traditional sports are developing their own versions of esport games ©Zwift

"We need to consult with the Governments and Olympic Committees of the world to find out what is the cross-benefit, the cross-application, where a player who is gaming in a certain genre – what sport would most appeal to them?

"So if you are playing FIFA on your Xbox, all the children who are playing today understand exactly who are the players, what is their stamina, what is their shooting average, what team numbers do they wear. 

"I truly believe that those kids are going to have a very high potential to being cross-activated to try football in real life."

Does he not fear that those outdoor footballers may be prevented from taking to the field because they are too busy indoors gaming? No, he most certainly does not.

"This is an argument I have heard a couple of times and I don't believe it in any way," he said. "People who say that esports are taking kids away from physical sports, I think they don't know enough about the market. 

"The kids are playing and they will play. It is a $190 billion (£151.5 billion/€169 million) a year business. There is no competition in that sense.

"The big question for collaboration is not to try to protect the base of people that are participating in one or the other activity, to retain them there, to prohibit them from doing something. 

"Because the result will be that they will prefer to do that which they are prohibited from doing.

"The way we need to work is to collaborate in understanding how we can motivate young people, and how we can endorse physical movement as a requirement for kids and people to play kids. And how do we convert kids who play games to the physical activity of sport – to have a better life, and to be happy?"

As one might expect, the worldwide COVID-19 lockdown has led to a boom in esports activity.

Last week, in a seminar arranged by the International Academy of Sport Science and Technology (AISTS), Marinescu cited figures showing that the esports and gaming market had increased by 35 per cent between January and March this year.

"Because of the COVID crisis you have today more sales than ever of games, you have today more people playing than ever in games, while more people are streaming than ever and more people are watching," he said.

Figures cited by IESF President Vlad Marinescu during his recent seminar highlighting the worldwide boom in esports and gaming activity during COVID-19 ©AISTS
Figures cited by IESF President Vlad Marinescu during his recent seminar highlighting the worldwide boom in esports and gaming activity during COVID-19 ©AISTS

"So a result of the COVID crisis is that you have an increase in the gaming activity on all fronts regarding the commercial part."

Marinescu referenced an article from gamesindustry.biz which shows that "from January to March there's been an increase of 35 per cent in the market".

The report, headlined "Mobile gaming sees record weekly downloads amid COVID-19 lockdown", said that average weekly installs had reached 1.2 billion as downloads increased by 35 per cent from January to March 4.

The article itself cited market intelligence firm App Annie.

The train is indeed powering down the tracks, despite the fact that, in commercial terms, those organising big esports events have been frustrated and have lost money during lockdown.

It is one of the relatively few points of similarity between esports and traditional sport.

The differing nature of the two entities, and of their ambitions, is clearly delineated by Marinescu when he is asked to consider when, and if, esports should become an Olympic event.

Esports has already featured as a medal event in the 2019 Southeast Asian Games, and it is due to have the same status at the 2021 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. 

It featured as a demonstration sport at the Jakarta Palembang 2018 Asian Games, although it has not made the programme for the 2022 version in Hangzhou, China.

Marinescu is ambivalent on the question of whether esports should be in the Olympics.

"There is a fundamental difference of esports compared to other international sports federations," he said. "The main target of an international sport federation is to attract players, to attract people to practise that sport, to develop the numbers who know about that sport and who play that sport.

"Esports does not have that target. The players are there. They are playing constantly. And there is a huge commercial structure which is further propagating the attraction of players and the commercialisation of players.

"Our target is – how do we enforce the health aspect around gaming?

IESF President Vlad Marinescu believes playing esports games can be linked-up to playing games in the traditional form ©Getty Images
IESF President Vlad Marinescu believes playing esports games can be linked-up to playing games in the traditional form ©Getty Images

"And when we think about the question of having esports in the Olympics specifically – who benefits?

"The answer as it would be for a sport that is entering the Olympics – think of any one of the new sports that is entering the Olympics – the benefit means that they will have more viewership, more resources and they will have a value-added aspect of doing that move.

"With esports I believe that the benefit, commercially speaking, to esports itself will be far outweighed by the benefit to the media evaluation of the event itself.

"So I believe that the direction and the development of esports of the world should be in co-operation with the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

"I think that we need to sit at the table together because I am sure that our objectives are aligned, to make a decision implicating the people from the entire esports ecosystem to have this discussion of how do we develop esports in a way that is sustainable in itself but also in respect to children being healthy."

At the AISTS seminar, he added: "On the question of whether esports should be a discipline in the Olympic Games – I am left and right about it.

"Part of me says esports is able to be a part of the Games, and the other part of me thinks that it would need its own forum, maybe in association with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), to develop a pure 'Electronic Games'.

"There are benefits and positives.

"But the only ones who can decide are the IOC and I think that, at the moment, they have the matter under discussion to understand from their side the positives and negatives about esports.

"I think the question here isn't yet 'should esports be in the Games?'

"That was made clear by the IOC President Thomas Bach during an IOC Session.

"The question is 'how do we work together between the traditional sport federations and esports to make sure that the grassroots kids who are playing do have a benefit, do have a dream and can realise that?'"

The question of esports one day becoming an Olympic event is not going away ©Getty Images
The question of esports one day becoming an Olympic event is not going away ©Getty Images

Expanding on the issue, Marinescu told insidethegames: "Regarding whether esports should be in the Olympics – I'm conflicted because there are two sides of me, and I can't make that decision for the IOC.

"The world is evolving every day. The big question I think isn't if esports should be in the Olympics. It is about what method, or in what regard. Should it be as a demonstration sport? Should it be in its own event?

"So I think we need to have this discussion directly.

"And the first step is to ensure that esports is united and not to cause or instigate rivalries, pop-up organisations, in cities or in countries, but rather to understand that there are people who have been working for a long time that have an experience, that have a community around them.

"And the answer is how to work together with everyone who is in there, and that wants to be involved, in a direction that is beneficial for the athletes.

"I don't have a clear answer at the moment because I think the answer needs to be from the community, from the market, from the IOC and partners around them."

Given his desire to present esports on a united front to any future discussion of an Olympic relationship, what does Marinescu make of the recent emergence of the Global Esports Federation (GEF), that was launched in December 2019 in Singapore with the aim of developing the credibility, legitimacy and prestige of esports within wider society?

"They exist for less than six months," he said. "I don't want to speak positively or negatively about people who I don't know, or what the plans are. 

"The IESF was established in 2008, it has more than 72 national federations around the world, it has organised more than 10 World Championships. The IESF is the world governing body of esports.

"We have signed a memorandum of understanding at the moment with the Asian Electronic Sports Federation, which is the body that organised the first Olympic event for esports.

"We have signed a memorandum of understanding with WESCO, the world esports custodian, whose President is Daniel Cossi.

"So our objective is not to fragment and separate and to cause turbulence on the market. 

"It's to unite people who have done something, who have achieved things in esports, who have a history, and who have the same ideology and objective as us.

"With GEF I have yet to find out, or to be informed, or to be even reached out to, of what is actually the target or the goal of the organisation."

On May 16, the IESF signed a memorandum of understanding with the World Esports Consortium ©IeSF/WESCO
On May 16, the IESF signed a memorandum of understanding with the World Esports Consortium ©IeSF/WESCO

This month, the IESF underlined its desire to present the sport on a united front as it signed a memorandum of understanding with the International School Sport Federation to promote physical and mental health among high school students playing esports games.

A new IESF initiative entitled Run to Play will play an important part in the collaboration.

"Children today are being given devices specifically to leave the parents alone," Marinescu said.

"Very clearly children understand that the device is a reward mechanism for doing something. 

"And I believe that if people, in a strategic and efficient way in collaboration with the official International Federations, and all of the stakeholders including publishers, find out how we can motivate children using games to do things that are beneficial to their health, to their future, their social circumstances...

"Specifically with this ideology we have developed and we are working on a couple of different Governments to instil a programme we have created called Run to Play.

"The idea behind the programme is that the people who are in high schools, middle schools, various schools, can participate in esports activity. So we want to have esports trucks going from school to school, and the children are able to participate in the esports gaming activities after they run one kilometre. Whoever runs fastest plays first.

"I truly believe that if the children are motivated to achieve the happiness and be able to play an esport, and they are required in a compulsory way to do a certain physical activity as well, then we are going to generate a lot of health around the world.

"We are going to have healthier kids that have the best of both worlds."