Alibaba is pushing competitive video gaming, or eSports, to the next level. It struck a partnership with the Olympic Council of Asia to get eSports included as a medal sport when the Asian Games are held in Hangzhou in 2022. The e-commerce giant is headquartered there and it seems keen to make its mark on the Games, the world’s largest multi-sport event after the Olympics.
Big money is at play. Alibaba also has invested $150 million in a Korean eSports organization that is campaigning to get video gaming into the Olympics, through its Alisports off-shoot. Esports will be eased into the Asian Games schedule, played as a demonstration sport at next year’s Asiad in Jakarta.
It makes sense for Alibaba to sponsor such games. Esports generated $493 million in revenue from merchandising, media rights, event tickets, and other channels in 2016, according to research firm Newzoo and attracted an audience of 323 million, with over half those fans from Asia.
Despite the headlines for eSports at the Asian Games, competitive video gaming has been played as a medal sport for a decade. Athletes have competed at the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, another of the continent’s major sporting events, which attracts thousands of athletes every four years. China, South Korea and Iran have earned the most medals in the sport since 2007.
The chief executive of Alisports, Zhang Dazhong, has called the sports market in China “vast and huge,” outlining plans to generate revenue from analyzing the sporting preferences of the Chinese consumer, to driving ticket and merchandise sales through Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms.
The biggest ever session of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games will take place in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, in September, attracting an estimated 5,500 athletes. Esports will again be on the program there, with athletes playing the FIFA 17 soccer video game and several other, yet to be named, games. It will be relegated to a demonstration rather than a medal sport, because of “last minute” logistical difficulties, according to Haider A. Farman, director of the Asian Games department at the Olympic Council of Asia.
The ultimate prize for digital sports is inclusion in the Olympics, which Alibaba is sponsoring for a reported $800 million through 2028. Indeed, the Asian Games news has led British bookmaker William Hill to offer four-to-one odds that eSports will be on the program for the 2024 Olympics.