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Video games in the Olympics? Here’s how it might work

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ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (AP) The future of the Olympics may just be in a basement in Turkmenistan.

With leading Olympic figures considering a possible role for competitive computer games – known as esports – at the 2024 Games in Paris, a pan-Asian competition in the ex-Soviet state offers a possible vision of the future.

Including esports could give the Olympics a younger audience and a huge revenue boost from a rapidly growing market, but would be deeply controversial.

The Olympic Council of Asia included esports as an official demonstration event at its Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games this week, with teams from China and nine other nations battling in four games ranging from space combat in “StarCraft II” to card-game strategy in “Hearthstone.”

Supporters of esports in the Olympics say their event is a real sporting contest, one which prizes strategy and lightning reactions over physical agility.

“It needs different skillsets from different people,” competitor Jess Joaustine Tamboboy from the Philippines told The Associated Press. “It doesn’t really have a physical requirement because you can see around us the players are short and tall, maybe a little bit thin, maybe a little bit fat. But all they have in order to qualify to play for these types of titles are just their cognitive or mind skills.”

Esports aren’t a natural fit for Turkmenistan, one of the poorer ex-Soviet nations, though one where internet access is growing rapidly.

The rules weren’t explained in the local language, but that didn’t turn off the crowd of up to 200 in the windowless basement of a sports arena from cheering and whooping at a particularly spectacular kill or skillful strategy.

Still, the attendance was tiny compared to big pro esports events, which can pack thousands into traditional sports arenas, and it didn’t make much of a splash online. Fewer than 50 viewers at a time watched some opening-round matches Monday on Twitch, a leading game streaming service that regularly attracts tens of thousands of concurrent viewers to its more popular streams.

If esports make it to the Paris Olympics, it would redefine what Olympic sport is meant to be.

The International Olympic Committee has previously resisted calls to add “mind sports” like chess that don’t involve physical exertion, or events where machines are key, like auto racing.

Deciding which games to pick is fraught, too. The IOC has a sponsorship deal with Chinese company Alibaba, which has major esports interests, but rival firms have their own popular brands.

The IOC also fears violent games would hurt the Olympics’ image.

IOC president Thomas Bach told the South China Morning Post, an Alibaba-owned newspaper, earlier this month that he’d prefer sports simulations.

“We want to promote non-discrimination, non-violence, and peace among people. This doesn’t match with video games, which are about violence, explosions and killing. And there we have to draw a clear line,” he said.

All four of the games on the program this week in Turkmenistan featured some form of combat, though in fantasy settings with cartoon-style animation techniques. There weren’t any realistic military-themed shooting games on the program.

Bach also said esports needs a firmer structure. The IOC is used to dealing with a single governing body for each sport, like FIFA for soccer or the International Gymnastics Federation. Esports has its own international federation, but with limited influence over a web of private interests including games publishers, competition organizers and players’ teams.

The event in Turkmenistan showed how that system doesn’t yet fit smoothly with the Olympic movement.

IOC sponsor Alibaba’s Alisports division was in charge of the event, and used an open online qualifying system. That prompted federations from Australia and South Korea to boycott, saying athletes should have been picked by their national Olympic committees in the manner of a traditional sport.

If esports make it to the Olympics, other potential problems for the IOC include criticism it’s moving away from promoting a healthy lifestyle, and that it’s ignoring poorer countries where fast computers and brand-new games are unaffordable.

Esports would also mean the IOC allowing private companies to set the rules of its competitions.

Most traditional sports treat the rules with reverence, only occasionally tinkering around the edges. Not so for games publishers, who routinely mix things up to attract new players and keep things fresh.

Adding just one new character can reshape the whole “meta” – the game’s constantly evolving web of tactics and counter-tactics.

Senior figures in the IOC and the esports world have publicly doubted esports will be ready for an Olympic debut in seven years’ time.

“We are still some way away from our vision and we need to start on the right foot,” Asian Esports Federation president Kenneth Fok said last week. “For esports to develop in a positive banner, we need the full support of each and every NOC, their government, and more importantly the general public to have a positive perception of electronic sports.”

Ellingworth reported from Moscow.

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Without their siblings, Green and Parsons find success at figure skating nationals

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – For the first time, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons are competing at the U.S. Championships without their siblings.

Green formerly teamed with older brother Gordon, and Parsons formerly danced with younger sister Rachel. Both Green and Parsons have seen success in Greensboro. When the championships were here in 2011, the Parsons won the novice dance title. When the championships were here in 2015, the Greens won the novice dance title.

Green, 16, and Parsons, 24, finished a satisfying fifth in the rhythm dance on Friday, after performing to “Cry-Baby” and earning 77.42 points. But they believe that this new partnership, with each other, has even greater potential.

“We definitely have some goals that are long-term,” Parsons said. “We’ve made a lot of progress this year – obviously, starting from zero. Nationals has been the culmination of our work so far. We’ve got a lot more to do, for sure.”

How far do they want to take their partnership?

“As far as we possibly can,” Green said.

NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

They grew up in the same rink under the same coaches in Washington, D.C., which is part of why they were able to team and find success so seamlessly – they had the same foundation for their skills and development. When their siblings left the sport, Green and Parsons skated together while trying to figure out their next steps. Their coaches took notice, and suggested a formal partnership.

“It’s a huge advantage for us because we’ve learned to skate the same way from the same coaches,” Parsons said after Friday’s rhythm dance. “We’ve always been under the same coaches. Just a huge amount of shared experience we’ve gained throughout the years together, we can apply to our new partnership.”

“Coming into this competition is where it really started to gel,” Green said. “All of our hard work separately started to come together.”

Even 2014 Olympic ice dance champion Charlie White spoke to their ability to come together so quickly on the NBC Sports Gold broadcast of the rhythm dance (full replay here for subscribers).

“I would guess – if I didn’t know – that they had been together for a number of years,” White said. “There’s just a maturity and a talent that they both possess that happens to match up really well. … I think that they have a very, very bright future.”

They’ve had a long season so far, competing six times before nationals. As a comparison, the top couples competed as few as three times.

“Our goal this season was to compete as much as humanly possible,” Parsons said. Green added that she was thankful for the added experience.

Green competed as a junior ice dancer last season and said it was “a bit of a shock” seeing the difference between the levels of competition from junior to senior events. Just last year, she won the junior national title with her brother.

“It was [a challenge] I think I took in stride and I feel like I’ve adapted pretty well,” she said.

“I couldn’t be more proud of her, the way she stepped up to senior. I’m a very happy partner,” Parsons said.

Green and Parsons trail fourth-place Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko by 0.6 points and sit 5.17 points out of bronze medal position. The U.S. has three spots to fill at March’s world championships, though it may not necessarily be the first, second and third place finishers.

The free dance is Saturday.

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As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

WATCH LIVE: U.S. Figure Skating Championships rhythm dance, women’s free skate

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Can Bradie Tennell hold off 14-year-old Alysa Liu? The U.S. Figure Skating Championships crowns its female medalists on Friday, live on NBC Sports.

Action starts with the rhythm dance at 4:30 p.m. ET for NBC Sports Gold subscribers, with NBCSN broadcast coverage joining in at 5. The women start at 7:25 on Gold, with NBC TV coverage starting at 8.

LIVE STREAM: Rhythm dance — Gold | NBCSN | Skate Order
LIVE STREAM: Women’s free skate — Gold | NBC | Skate Order

Tennell topped Thursday’s short program with a clean slate of jumps, plus the highest artistic score.

She bettered Liu in the short program last year, too, but fell in the free skate to take silver. Liu, meanwhile, landed two triple Axels to win by 3.92 points and become the youngest U.S. champion in history.

Another skater to watch is Gracie Gold, the two-time U.S. champion competing at nationals for the first time in three years. Gold, lauded for her return from an eating disorder, depression and anxiety, struggled with jumps in the short and is in 13th place of 18 skaters.

In the rhythm dance, past U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue and Madison Chock and Evan Bates are expected to begin a duel that should come down to Saturday’s free dance.

Key Skate Times
5:32 p.m. — Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue
5:38 — Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker
5:44 — Madison Chock/Evan Bates
8:07 — Gracie Gold
10:03 — Karen Chen
10:11 — Amber Glenn
10:27 — Bradie Tennell
10:35 — Mariah Bell
10:43 — Alysa Liu

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NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.