Athletes like Emma McKeon, Georgia Godwin and Oliver Hoare have captured Australians’ attention at the Commonwealth Games, and the likes of “Rin”, “Jakino” and “Fern” could one day be up there too.
It is not as fanciful as it may sound. On the final weekend of the Games in Birmingham, the inaugural Commonwealth Esports Championships were held as a pilot to see whether it could be a part of the Games proper.
There are currently 16 sports already confirmed for Victoria 2026, with organizers looking to add three or four more to the final program by the end of September.
“We signed an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the Global Esports Federation which doesn’t stop after this Games,” Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) chief executive Katie Sadleir said.
“It’s a long-term commitment to learning, transferring knowledge.”
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 look at what is the best win-win for the partnership,” she said.
“It’s not just about whether or not we would like esports in the Games, it’s also about whether or not esports wants to be inside the Games.”
Exorcisms and dragon slaying the new sporting frontier
Having watched rowdy crowds pack into venues all over Birmingham to cheer on athletes from Niue to Nigeria, in sports as diverse as weightlifting to rhythmic gymnastics, it feels a little strange stepping into the esports arena.
It is being held at Birmingham’s International Convention Centre, and there is a small crowd 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 multi-player battle arena video game is displayed on a big screen overhead.
There is even a live commentary, albeit pretty different from the typical sports event.
“A lot of Australia’s damage is coming on the exorcism,” one of the commentators says.
Cheers and applause break out when there’s a flurry of activity on the big screen. It is hard to tell what’s going on, but maybe a dragon slaying?
This is different, but that’s the point. The CGF wants to tap into a new, younger audience, who might not traditionally engage in mainstream sport.
And the potential money on offer does not hurt either — the global esports market is currently valued at about $2 billion, dominated by Asia and North America.
There are several different bodies that govern esports. This event is being looked after by the Global Esports Federation (GEF).
The players are not involved with the politics behind the scenes, but they are excited to be on a world stage, just like any athlete representing their country.
Adelaide’s Lynley-Ann Dodd, or 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 meant a lot to people who were not interested in traditional sport.
“I wish I could turn it back and look at my younger self — 13, 14 — when I first started this game and be like, ‘You could do it,’ because I never felt like there was that possibility,” she said.
“I gave up on myself multiple times because there was not that possibility.
“And I think now being able to be a role model for… women, teenagers, children who actually enjoy games, who want to be able to take it seriously, that is the best gift of all from this.”
Another member of the Australian team, Sydney’s Antonia “Jakino” Cai, 28, also sees the market value in established sporting organizations engaging with esports.
“Esports is going to be getting bigger over the years as technology gets better, and all the young people will know about it,” she said.
“There’s going to be a lot of money invested into this. We already have tournaments that are [worth] millions of dollars.
“So this is going to be getting bigger and the next step is putting it into the Commonwealth Games or Olympics.”
Can esports be a sport for all?
The Commonwealth Games ethos is about being the friendly and inclusive Games, with a particular focus on women and people with a disability.
And esports has its challenges when it comes to being a truly welcoming environment for women.
“There is that perception that women aren’t as good, and for me I believe it’s since we don’t have that many women in the area,” Sydney’s Kanyarat “Fern” Bupphaves said.
“We don’t have as much exposure to show how good and how talented women can be. The guys have been playing for years on end, whereas the girls haven’t had as much support to grow in this area.”
The topic was tackled at a forum hosted by GEF as part of the exhibition event. It looked at whether having open and women’s categories at tournaments was the answer.
Sophie Spink, from global sports management company 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 the last few years they’ve released the (all-female) W series and it was highly controversial when it first came out because they said people can compete in F1, they don’t need this platform,” she said.
“But the athletes themselves [were] calling for this as an opportunity for them to demonstrate their skills.
“And yes, probably the end goal is for full integration, but those milestones in between are really important. And to give those grassroots drivers the visibility, the role models are so important.”
Head of Global Esports Academy Tom Dore also told the forum that esports provided unique opportunities for people of all genders, ages and abilities.
“We have the case studies of the inclusion of neurodiverse individuals, young people in wheelchairs playing alongside their able-bodied friends in esports in the way they can’t do or haven’t been able to do in traditional sports,” he said.
GEF commission member and former New Zealand national women’s football team player Rebecca Smith said esports could help young people who did not engage in the usual team-based activities.
“I find it really hard watching some of the kids come through that don’t know how to handle some of the pressure or some of the challenges that are coming [in life]and this is what sports teaches you,” she said.
“So I think that there’s so many opportunities in esports to learn traditional sports values, like communication, resilience, teamwork.”
Esports will be a part of next year’s Asian Games, and if it gets the green light for the Commonwealth Games, perhaps an Olympics appearance could be on the horizon too.