Athletes such as Emma McKeon, Georgia Godwin and Oliver Hoare have caught the attention of Australians at the Commonwealth Games and athletes such as ‘Rin’, ‘Jakino’ and ‘Fern’ could one day be up there too.
It’s not as fantastic as it might sound. On the final weekend of the Games in Birmingham, the inaugural Commonwealth Esports Championship was held as a pilot to see if it could be part of the Games.
There are currently 16 sports already confirmed for Victoria 2026, with organizers looking to add another three or four to the final schedule by the end of September.
“We have signed an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the World Esports Federation, which does not stop after these Games,” said Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) chief executive Katie Sadleir.
“It’s a long-term commitment to learning, knowledge transfer.”
Ms Sadleir said the CGF would conduct an independent review after the Birmingham event to consider what the future of esports at the Games could look like.
“We will evaluate all options and consider what is the best win-win for the partnership,” he said.
“It’s not just about whether or not we want esports in the Games, it’s also about whether or not esports wants to be in the Games.”
Exorcisms and dragon slaying the new sporting frontier
Having watched raucous crowds pack into venues across Birmingham to cheer on athletes from New Zealand to Nigeria, in sports as diverse as weightlifting to rhythmic gymnastics, it’s a little strange to step into the esports arena.
Held at the Birmingham International Convention Center, there’s a small crowd gathered to watch Australia and Singapore square off in the Dota 2 Women’s bronze medal match.
Two teams of five are placed on an impressive stage, each player with their own computer and headphones, while the multiplayer battle arena video game is displayed on a large screen.
There is even live commentary, albeit quite different from the typical sporting event.
“A lot of damage in Australia comes from exorcism,” says one commentator.
Cheers and applause erupt when there is a flurry of activity on the big screen. It’s hard to tell what’s going on, but maybe a dragon slays?
This is different, but that’s the point. The CGF wants to tap into a new, younger audience that may not traditionally engage with mainstream sports.
And the potential money on offer doesn’t hurt either – the global esports market is currently valued at around $2 billion, dominated by Asia and North America.
There are many different bodies that govern esports. This event is curated by the Global Esports Federation (GEF).
The players are not concerned with behind-the-scenes politics, but are excited to be on the world stage, just like any athlete representing their country.
Adelaide’s Lynley-Ann Dodd, aka Rin, is a member of the Australian women’s Dota 2 team.
The 29-year-old has been playing games for most of her life and said the growth of esports has meant a lot to people who are not interested in the traditional sport.
“I wish I could go back and look at my younger self – 13, 14 – when I first started this game and say ‘you could do it’, because I never felt like that was a possibility,” he said.
“I gave up on myself many times because this possibility did not exist.
“And I think now being able to be a role model for … women, teenagers, kids who really enjoy gaming, who want to be able to take it seriously, that’s the best gift of all.”
Another member of the Australian team, 28-year-old Antonia “Jakino” Cai from Sydney, also sees the market value in established sports organizations involved in esports.
“Esports will get bigger over the years as the technology improves and all the young people will know about it,” he said.
“A lot of money will be invested in it. We already have tournaments that are [worth] million dollars.
“So this will get bigger and the next step is to put it in the Commonwealth Games or the Olympics.”
Can esports be a sport for everyone?
The ethos of the Commonwealth Games is to be a friendly and inclusive Games, with a particular focus on women and people with disabilities.
And esports has its challenges when it comes to being a truly welcoming environment for women.
“There’s this perception that women aren’t as good, and for me I think it’s because we don’t have that many women in the area,” said Sydney’s Kanyarat “Fern” Bupphaves.
“We don’t have as much exposure to show how good and how talented women can be. Boys have been playing for years, while girls haven’t had as much support to grow in this area.”
The issue was discussed at a forum hosted by the GEF as part of the exhibition event. He considered whether having open and women’s categories in tournaments was the answer.
Sophie Spink, from global sports management firm Portas Consulting, said parallels could be drawn with Formula One, which is open to all drivers – but there has never been a female F1 driver.
“And in recent years they’ve launched the (all-female) W series and it was very controversial when it first came out because they said people can race in F1, they don’t need this platform,” he said.
“But the athletes themselves [were] asking for this as an opportunity to show off their skills.
“And yes, probably the ultimate goal is full integration, but those milestones in between are really important. And to give those grassroots drivers the visibility, standards are so important.”
Global Esports Academy head Tom Dore also told the forum that esports provides unique opportunities for people of all genders, ages and abilities.
“We have the case studies of including neurodiverse people, young people in wheelchairs playing alongside their able-bodied friends in esports in a way that they can’t or haven’t been able to in traditional sports,” he said.
GEF panel member and former New Zealand women’s national football team player Rebecca Smith said esports could help young people who are not involved in the usual team-based activities.
“I have a really hard time watching some of the guys who don’t know how to handle some of the pressures or some of the challenges that come their way. [in life]and that’s what sports teaches you,” he said.
“So I think there are so many opportunities in esports to learn traditional sports values like communication, resilience, teamwork.”
Esports will be part of next year’s Asian Games and if it gets the green light for the Commonwealth Games, perhaps an Olympic appearance could also be on the horizon.