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Wrestling, sprinting, video gaming.

Oh, you laugh. Or maybe shudder. All these years, parents have been yelling at their kids to put down the controllers and do something productive instead. Now eSports can get you a college scholarship, prize money, endorsements.

Maybe even a spot in the Olympics.

That last bit is still in the works. The International e-Sports Federation -- yes, there really is such a thing -- has yet to be recognized by the International Olympic Committee, and no one is petitioning to add eSports to the Games.

But it's coming. The organizers of the Asian Games announced Monday that eSports will be a demonstration event next year in Indonesia. At the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, however, it will have full medal status.

That's right. Crushing it in Call of Duty or Madden will soon get you a gold medal just like the swimmer who sets a world record in the 100-meter butterfly. And once the IOC sees what a gold mine eSports can be, no doubt it will want in on that action, too.

Purists will be horrified, and understandably so. The Olympics and similar events are supposed to celebrate the ultimate in physical strength and skill, a showcase of athletes who have pushed themselves to go faster, higher, farther.

But the line between sport and competition was erased a long time ago. Probably around the time synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics were added to the Olympic program. Or maybe race walking. Or curling.

All require some level of exertion, maybe even dexterity and agility. But, if we're being completely honest, they fail the sport-not a sport test and it's not even close.

By that measure, and I can't believe I'm about to type the words, eSports aren't that much different. Enthusiasts point to the hand-eye coordination, fast-twitch muscles and focus required to compete at the highest level. The top teams now hire nutritionists and trainers to keep their gamers in shape.

"(Critics say) it's not a sport, it's not athletic and this and that. When you look at the way these guys train and what it takes to be at top of the sport, I can't but disagree," said Todd Merry, who as chief marketing officer for Delaware North oversaw the company's most recent "Future of Sports" report.

"It's as much a physical endeavor as a mental endeavor."

Let's be real, though. It's as much about money as anything else.

In recent years eSports has exploded and is projected to be a $1billion industry by 2019, said Zack Sugarman, senior vice president of properties at Wasserman Media Group.

Consider that just two years ago, only five professional teams had a stake in the eSports market, said Manny Anekal, founder of The Next Level, which covers the business of eSports. Another 30 got involved last year, and Anekal said there's 15 more already this year.

In February, the NBA announced it will start its own gaming league next year, the first of the four major professional leagues to do so.

Where the rest of the world sees kids rotting away in their basements, marketing and sports executives see the all-important younger demographic and the dollars that go with it.

"I sat with a group of 40-something managers at lunch today and all of them, in one voice, said, 'I don't understand this,'" Merry said. "I said, 'Talk to your kids.'"

Say what you want about the Olympic movement, but the folks involved are masters at self-preservation. They know they need to attract the younger audience or risk becoming irrelevant. Why do you think there are now five events each in snowboarding and freestyle skiing? Or that BMX racing was added to the Olympic program in 2008?

It's all about the kids. And their money.

"I think it could be an official sport, it could not be," Sugarman said. "(But) there's an opportunity for fan development. And it creates new inventory from the sponsor side, which we know the IOC loves."

Indeed, there's gold to be had in eSports, and not just the medals.

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April 19, 2017


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