Athletes such as Emma McKeon, Georgia Godwin and Oliver Hoare caught the attention of Australians at the Commonwealth Games, and the likes of ‘Ryn’, ‘Giacchino’ and ‘Fern’ could one day be there too.
It’s not as fancy as it might sound. The final weekend of the Games in Birmingham saw the inaugural Commonwealth Esports Championship as a pilot to see if it could be part of the real Games.
There are currently 16 sports confirmed for Victoria 2026, with organizers looking to add another three or four to the final program by the end of September.
“We have signed an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the Global eSports Federation that does not stop after these Games,” said Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) chief executive Katie Sadleir.
“It’s a long-term commitment to learning, imparting knowledge.”
Ms Sadleir said the CGF would conduct an independent review after the Birmingham event to assess what the future of eSports at the Games might look like.
“We will evaluate all options and look at what is the best win for the partnership,” she said.
“It’s not just about whether or not we want eSports in the Games, it’s about whether or not eSports wants to be in the Games.”
Exorcism and dragon slaying the new sports frontier
Watching raucous crowds gather at venues across Birmingham to cheer on athletes from Niue to Nigeria, in sports as diverse as weightlifting to rhythmic gymnastics, it feels a little strange to step into the eSports arena.
It’s being held at the Birmingham International Convention Center and there’s a small crowd gathered to watch Australia and Singapore square off in a 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 displayed on a large screen above.
There’s even live commentary, albeit quite different from typical sporting events.
“Much of the damage to Australia comes from the exorcism,” says one commentator.
Cheers and cheers erupt as there is a flurry of activity on the big screen. It’s hard to say what’s going on, but maybe a dragon that kills?
It’s different, but that’s the point. CGF wants to reach a new, younger audience that is not traditionally involved in mainstream sports.
And the potential cash 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 several different bodies that govern eSports. This event is supported by the Global eSports Federation (GEF).
The players are not involved in the politics behind the scenes, but are excited to be on the world stage, just like any athlete representing their country.
Adelaide-based Lynley-Anne 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 she said the growth of esports means a lot to people who aren’t interested in traditional sports.
“I wish I could go back and look at my younger self – 13, 14 – when I first started this game and say, ‘You can do it,’ because I never felt like there was opportunity,” she said.
“Many times I gave up on myself 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 be able to take it seriously, that’s the best gift of all.”
Another member of the Australian team, Sydney-based Antonia “Giacchino” Cai, 28, also sees market value in established sports organizations involved in esports.
“Esports is going to get bigger over the years as technology improves and all the young people will know about it,” she said.
“A lot of money will be invested in this. We already have such tournaments [worth] millions of dollars.
“So it’s going to get bigger and bigger and the next step is to get it into the Commonwealth Games or the Olympics.”
Can eSports be a sport for everyone?
The idea of the Commonwealth Games is to be a friendly and inclusive Games, with a special 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 a perception that women aren’t as good, and for me I believe that’s because we don’t have that many women in the area,” said Kanyarath “Fern” Bupfaves of Sydney.
“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 develop in that area.”
The topic was discussed at a forum organized by the GEF as part of the exhibition event. It looked at whether having open and women’s categories at the tournaments was the answer.
Sophie Spink, of global sports management company Portas Consulting, said a parallel could be drawn with Formula One, which is open to all drivers – but there has never been a female F1 driver.
“And in the last few years they’ve launched the (all-female) W series and that was very controversial when it first came out because they said people can race in F1, they don’t need that platform,” she said .
“But the athletes themselves [were] calling it an opportunity for them to showcase their skills.
“And yes, probably the ultimate goal is full integration, but those stages in between are really important. And to give visibility to these grassroots leaders, role models are so important.”
Global Esports Academy head Tom Dore also told the forum that eSports provide unique opportunities for people of all genders, ages and abilities.
“We have case studies of including neurologically diverse individuals, 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 do in traditional sports,” he said.
GEF panel member and former New Zealand women’s national football team player Rebecca Smith said eSports can help young people who don’t participate in regular team activities.
“It’s really hard for me to watch some of the kids go through that they don’t know how to handle some of the pressure or some of the challenges that come [in life]and that’s what sports teaches you,” she 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 they get the green light for the Commonwealth Games, perhaps an Olympics could be on the horizon.