Why Hong Kong needs a plan to develop culture and sports together
This article appeared originally in the SCMP on 3 October, 2021.
Authors: Helen So, Lead of Arts and Culture, and Yolanda Lam, Assistant Researcher
Is Hong Kong about to gain a new bureau that will oversee cultural, tourism and even sporting matters? That’s what people are talking about after the chief executive spoke last month of the possibility of a major government restructuring, including the establishment of a new bureau for culture.
Under the current administration, both culture and sports fall within the ambit of the Home Affairs Bureau. However, they are apparently understood to be separate from each other, not only by policymakers but also by the sectors themselves; synergies are scarce, if indeed there are any.
This therefore begs the question: is it realistic to hope for better-coordinated development synergies between culture and sports? It seems timely to consider the two sectors’ prospects.
To judge by recent developments, the boundaries between culture and sports are becoming increasingly blurred. As a most striking example, breakdancing will make its debut as an Olympic sport at Paris 2024.
The dance form, which emerged decades ago, blends artistry and athleticism and has been gaining international recognition as a sport. At Paris 2024, competitors are likely to be assessed based on their technical skill and creativity.
Breakdancing is not unlike events such as figure skating, synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics, which all combine performance at a high aesthetic level with athletic agility at a competitive level.
Then there’s dancesport – essentially competitive ballroom dancing – which became a medal sport at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou. Its international governing body, the World DanceSport Federation, is also recognised by the International Olympic Committee.
These trends point towards the difficulty of demarcating where culture ends and sport begins. Instead, they suggest that the development of one sector could one day converge with that of the other.
This is not to mention esports: competitive video gaming which requires both physical and mental stamina, and which also tests the boundaries between the two sectors.
Thailand has recently announced that it will recognise esports as a professional sport. And it is also set to debut as a medal event at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou.
Esports is at the forefront of digital entertainment, too. The immensely lucrative global esports market is expected to be worth US$1.08 billion this year, according to Newzoo, a leading source of games and esports data.
And, increasingly, we are seeing a clear move in the esports industry towards immersive experiences and technologies.
In Britain, the Weavr Consortium has won a government grant to create more immersive esports viewing experiences using artificial intelligence, data learning and so on. Imagine an esports fan watching a favourite player on a live stream, and being able to choose from multiple viewing angles, including virtual and mixed reality experiences.
The insight here is that the esports industry is much more than a sport; it also provides a window on the future of money-spinning digital entertainment.
We must recognise immersive entertainment as a force that has the potential to shape the future of culture and sports. In other words, immersive entertainment is where the two sectors can meet and synergise.
If this is where the future lies, perhaps it isn’t too unrealistic to oversee sports and culture together, after all. Other economies are embracing the approach. Consider Britain’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
Notably, both countries have brought culture and sports under the same roof. More importantly, they are investing heavily in immersive technologies that can support future developments: the UK has its £39.3 million (US$52.9 million) audience of the future challenge, and South Korea, its 113.9 billion won (US$95 million) investment in research and development of cultural technology.
Last month, Abu Dhabi announced it had formed the Creative Media Authority, which will be dedicated to bolstering the emirate’s cultural and creative industries, including the esports sector.
In 2019, the government of Malaysia set out a five-year strategic plan for the development of esports, which includes building a national esports venue.
China’s 14th five-year plan for cultural industry development, published in June, also indicates support for the esports sector, and encourages the cultivation of immersive entertainment.
All this highlights the increasingly immersive nature of culture and sports, and the desirability of content that blurs the line between culture and sports.
Taking all this into account, there is clearly room for the two sectors to synergise, and if they are brought under one roof in a government bureau, common ground must be found to avoid a silo approach.
However, at the end of the day, whatever the structure of a new bureau, problems will not be resolved until existing red tape is removed. Structural reorganisation must be accompanied by a strategic revamp. Does the government understand the potential with the coordination of different sectors, or will they simply be lumped together for the sake of it?
Ultimately, the government needs to elucidate its vision for the city’s cultural, sports and tourism industries before introducing major changes. Otherwise, any reorganisation will only treat the symptoms and not the disease.