By Liana B. Baker and Rory Carroll
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - Esports have descended on the Olympics, bringing professional gamers to South Korea's first winter Games, but some athletes warming up for real action on nearby slopes are not impressed.
Intel Corp, an Olympics sponsor, wrapped up its esports tournament a few km (miles) from one of the Games venues on Wednesday, three months after the International Olympics Committee recognized competitive computer gaming as a sport.
Esports, which often pack sports stadiums and attract huge online audiences, are still considered a long way from becoming a formal part of the Olympics, but the IOC is keeping an open mind, to the chagrin of some Olympians.
This week, players huddled before screens in a wedding hall in Gangneung, wearing shirts branded with the Olympic rings and competing for a $150,000 prize -- more than most gold medalist Olympians will earn in bonuses from their home nations.
Some esports players would like competitive gaming to be included as an Olympic sport, making it eligible for inclusion in the Games one day, a prospect that rankles some Olympians.
"They are two totally different worlds," said Alpine skier and two-time Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety.
"Physical sports belong in the Olympics. I don't think esports belong in the Olympics," he told Reuters.
Ligety acknowledged gaming was popular and here to stay, but drew a distinction between Olympic sports like Alpine skiing, where major injuries are routine and death is a real risk.
"The mental side of esports can be tough I'm guessing for those guys, but the Olympics is where you have to do some sort of a physical exertion."
Michael Payne, a former IOC marketing chief who now runs his own consultancy, said esports should never replace real sports participation even though it is a "great platform for engaging the youth".
"The Olympics has always been about physical action not just mental, and it's why chess and other intellect games have never been accepted," he said.
One of this week's esports competitors, Ilyes Satouri, a French national representing Algeria under the handle "Stephano", disagrees.
"If the athletes saw how we actually compete, how we practice, how much effort we put in our daily routines to get better, I think they could only respect the efforts we put into it," said Satouri who was eliminated in the round of 16.
Competitors in the esports tournament played StarCraft II, a war game that tests wits and dexterity. Professional players routinely execute more than 300 actions per minute as they build armies and try to outmaneuver rivals on a virtual battlefield.
It was broadcast live on Amazon's online Twitch platform and on the IOC-owned Olympic Channel globally, with commentators following the action. Intel is also preparing esports events on the sidelines of the Olympics in 2020 and 2022.
The chipmaker is aware of the sensitivities of staging a tournament on the sidelines of the Games, which officially open on Friday, and is monitoring any negative feedback.
"There are some people who think it doesn't have any fit at all," said John Bonini, Intel's vice president and general manager for gaming and esports.
"I would like to hear more from them. Is that ever going to change? Or are they open minded?"
Most esports competitors will leave the Olympics before the flame is lit. They are training for a major event next month at a stadium in Katowice, Poland where more than 170,000 fans are expected to turn up over two weekends of competition.
About 46 million viewed the same tournament online last year, more than watch many Olympic events.
Sasha Hostyn, who won this week's tournament for Canada under the handle Scarlett, said esports were not taking away anything from Olympians.
"I think it's a good thing to have diversity so that it gets more people to tune into the Olympics in general," Hostyn said.
(Editing by Mark Bendeich)