Athletes like Emma McKeon, Georgia Godwin and Oliver Hoare have caught the attention of Australians at the Commonwealth Games, and one day ‘Rin’, ‘Jakino’ and ‘Fern’ may also be there.
It’s not as imaginative as it might sound. During the final weekend of the Birmingham Games, the inaugural Commonwealth Esports Championships were held as a pilot to see if they could be part of the actual Games.
There are currently 16 sports already confirmed for Victoria 2026 and organizers aim to add three or four more to the final program by the end of September.
“We have signed a MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with the Global Esports Federation that will not stop after these games,” said Katie Sadleir, Chief Executive of the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF).
“It’s a long-term commitment to learning and knowledge transfer.”
Ms Sadleir said the CGF would conduct an independent review after the Birmingham event to look at what the future of sport might look like at the Games.
“We will examine all options and see what is the best win-win situation for the partnership,” she said.
“It’s not just about whether we want eSports to be in the Games or not, it’s also whether we want eSports to be in the Games or not.”
Exorcisms and dragon slayers at the new sporting frontier
After watching rioting crowds pour into venues across Birmingham to cheer on athletes from Niue to Nigeria in sports as diverse as weightlifting to rhythmic gymnastics, it feels a little odd stepping into the esports arena.
Taking place at the Birmingham International Convention Center, a small crowd is gathered to watch Australia and Singapore face off in the Women’s Dota 2 Bronze Medal Match.
Two teams of five are placed on an impressive looking stage, each player with their own computer and headset while the multiplayer battle arena video game is shown on a large screen overhead.
There’s even live commentary, albeit very different from a typical sporting event.
“A lot of Australia’s damage comes from exorcism,” says one commentator.
Cheers and applause erupt when there is a lot of activity on the big screen. It’s hard to tell what’s going on, but maybe a dragon slayer?
That’s different, but that’s the point. The CGF wants to reach a new, younger audience that is not traditionally involved with mainstream sports.
And the potential money supply doesn’t hurt either — the global esports market is currently valued at around $2 billion and dominated by Asia and North America.
There are various bodies that regulate esports. This event is overseen by the Global Esports Federation (GEF).
The players are not involved in behind-the-scenes politics, but they look forward to being on the world stage, just like any athlete representing their country.
Lynley-Ann Dodd or Rin from Adelaide is a member of the Australia Dota 2 Women’s Team.
The 29-year-old has played games for most of her life and said the growth of esports means a lot to people uninterested in traditional esports.
“I wish I could turn it around 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 there was that possibility “, she said.
“I gave up on several occasions because there was no such opportunity.
“And I think now being able to be a role model for … women, teenagers, kids who really enjoy gaming, who want to take it seriously, that’s the best gift of all.”
Another member of the Australia team, Antonia “Jakino” Cai, 28, from Sydney, also sees market value in established sports organizations dedicated to esports.
“Esports will only get bigger over the years as technology gets better and all young people will hear about it,” she said.
“A lot of money is invested here. We already have tournaments that are [worth] millions of dollars.
“So that’s going to be bigger and the next step is to put it in the Commonwealth Games or the Olympics.”
Can esports be a sport for everyone?
The Commonwealth Games ethos is to be 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 that good, and I think that’s because we don’t have that many women in the area,” said Kanyarat “Fern” Bupphaves, from Sydney.
“We don’t have that much attention to show how good and how talented women can be. The boys have been playing for years while the girls haven’t had as much support to grow in that area.”
The topic was taken up at a forum organized by the GEF as part of the trade fair event. It examined whether open and female categories in tournaments are the answer.
Sophie Spink, of global sports management firm Portas Consulting, said parallels could be drawn with Formula 1, which is open to all drivers – but there has never been a female F1 driver.
“And in recent years they’ve put out the (all female) W series and it was very controversial when it first came out because they said people can compete in F1, they don’t need that platform.” , she said.
“But the athletes themselves [were] challenged them to put their skills to the test.
“And yes, probably the end goal is full integration, but those milestones in between are really important. And to give those base riders the visibility, the role models are so important.”
Global Esports Academy head Tom Dore also told the forum that esports offers unique opportunities for people of all genders, ages and abilities.
“We have the case studies of engaging neurodiverse, young people in wheelchairs, playing with their able-bodied friends in esports in ways they can’t or couldn’t do in traditional sports,” he said.
Rebecca Smith, a member of the GEF committee and a former player with the New Zealand women’s national soccer team, said esports could help young people who don’t engage in usual team-based activities.
“I’m finding it really hard to see some of the kids pull through who don’t know how to deal with the pressure or some of the challenges that are coming [in life]and that’s what sport teaches you,” she said.
“So I think there are so many opportunities in esports to learn traditional sporting values like communication, resilience and teamwork.”
Esports will be a part of next year’s Asian Games, and if the Commonwealth Games gets the green light, maybe an Olympic Games appearance could be on the cards as well.