By Karolos Grohmann
BERLIN (Reuters) - Booming eSports do not need the Olympics to maintain their explosive growth but a link with the world's biggest multi-sports event would validate gaming worldwide and give the Games a much-needed younger audience, industry leaders said.
ESports, the competitive side of electronic gaming, have an estimated 250 million players, more than several of the traditional Olympic sports federations combined.
The market is also worth about one billion dollars (£0.8 billion) a year and growing, with lucrative tournaments springing up across the world and professional teams competing for huge prize money in front of millions of mainly young viewers online.
"This will be the biggest sport in the world within 20 years," said Logitech CEO Bracken Darrell, whose company has been making computer and gaming equipment for decades and is now riding the wave of eSports.
Logitech's gaming division has enjoyed a 25-35 percent growth annually in the past four years alone, Darrell said, adding they were equipment makers "just like Nike is for athletes".
"What has happened surprises us as much as it does everyone. ESports will probably be as big or bigger than football. The earlier the Olympics gets in the mix the better," he told Reuters.
Tournaments around the world are packing arenas, with the Beijing's Birds Nest stadium, host of the 2008 Olympics, filling up for last month's League of Legends World Championship final, which also attracted 60 million viewers online.
Traditional sports team owners from every major league are buying into eSports, eager to tap into the growing market.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) last month recognised eSports as a sport, the first clear indication to the growing industry that it wants to link up.
With the IOC's traditional audience ageing and several Olympic sports past their international sell-by date, it is desperate to attract younger people even if it means breaking with tradition.
"ESports are showing strong growth, especially within the youth demographic across different countries, and can provide a platform for engagement with the Olympic Movement," the IOC said last month.
Global audiences are expected to reach 385.5 million this year, according to research firm Newzoo, and as events multiply and interest grows, it looks like a one-way street for the IOC.
"We consider eSports as entertainment with competitive and sports characteristics," Jan Pommer, Director of Team and Federation Relations at ESL (Electronic Sports League), a worldwide leader in organising eSports competitions, told Reuters.
"We fully recognise, though, the reservations of the traditional sports world. ESports competitors train like traditional athletes, they are very fit, they have their own nutritionists and psychologists. ESports has all the characteristics of traditional sports."
The lucrative young market has also attracted a multitude of other investors such as NBA player Jonas Jerebko of the Utah Jazz who recently acquired eSports team Renegades.
"I did some research and checked out how many people watch eSports and how big they are getting," Jerebko told Reuters. "How much prize money, how many sponsors were getting involved.
"There won't be less eSports - it's going to continue to grow. Many of the traditional sports are losing athletes, the interest for the Olympics has probably declined with the existing sports, so they're trying to win back this new audience."
The benefits for the Olympics are clear, with a potential new stream of revenues through sponsorship, broadcast rights and marketing as well as a rejuvenation of their fan base.
It is not only the IOC, though, that emerges a winner in such a possible alliance, with eSports shaking off its still somewhat amateur image, Darrell said.
"There is still a bit of a what-are-they-doing-in-the-basement feel to gaming. (An Olympic association) would help validate where the whole industry has got to quietly."
ESL's Pommer said eSports did not necessarily need to be part of the main Olympics.
"We can build bridges. We do not demand, the industry does not demand anything from traditional sports. What we would like is a dialogue."
"In a way it could be like the International Paralympic Committee which has an extended role to the Olympics. ESports could play a similar role," he said.
"The wide majority of the eSports community would be happy with it. It would help us in terms of social acceptance if it were part of the Olympic family."
(Additional reporting by Phil O'Connor, editing by Ed Osmond)