Esports could be included in the Commonwealth Games Victoria 2026, after the inaugural pilot event in Birmingham
Athletes like Emma McKeon, Georgia Godwin and Oliver Hoare captured the attention of Australians at the Commonwealth Games, and athletes like ‘Rin’, ‘Jakino’ and ‘Fern’ may one day be there too.
It’s not as fancy as it sounds. During the final weekend of the Games in Birmingham, the first Commonwealth Esports Championships took place as a pilot to see if they could be 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 have signed a memorandum of understanding (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, knowledge transfer.”
Ms Sadleir said the CGF would conduct an independent review after the Birmingham event to determine what the future of esports at the Games might look like.
“We will evaluate all options and consider what is the best win-win solution for the partnership,” she said.
“It’s not just about whether or not we would like esports at the Games, it’s also about whether or not esports wants to be inside the Games.”
Exorcisms and dragon slaying the new sports frontier
After seeing rowdy crowds gather at venues all over Birmingham to cheer on athletes from Niue to Nigeria, in sports as diverse as weightlifting to rhythmic gymnastics, it’s a little strange to step into the arena of electronic sports.
It’s taking place at the Birmingham International Convention Center, and a small crowd has gathered to watch Australia and Singapore go head-to-head 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 headset, while the multi-player battle arena video game is displayed on a large screen above.
There’s even live commentary, albeit quite different from the typical sporting event.
“A lot of Australia’s damage comes from exorcism,” said one of the commentators.
Cheers and applause erupt when there’s a flurry of activity on the big screen. It’s hard to tell what’s going on, but maybe a slaying dragon?
It’s different, but that’s the point. The CGF wants to tap into a new, younger audience, who might not traditionally engage in 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 several different bodies that govern esports. This event is supported by the Global Esports Federation (GEF).
The players aren’t involved in behind-the-scenes politics, but they’re thrilled to be on the world stage, like any athlete representing their country.
Lynley-Ann Dodd, or Rin, from Adelaide, is a member of the Australian Dota 2 women’s team.
The 29-year-old has played games for most of her life and she said the growth of esports meant a lot to people who weren’t interested in traditional sports.
“I wish I could go back and look at my younger self – 13, 14 – when I started this game and say, ‘You could do it’, because I never felt like it there was that possibility,” she said.
“I gave up on myself several times because there was no such possibility.
“And I think being able to now be a role model for…women, teenagers, kids who really love games, who want to be able to take it seriously, that’s the best gift of it all.”
Another member of the Australian team, Antonia “Jakino” Cai, 28, from Sydney, also sees the market value of established sports organizations engaging in esports.
“Esports are going to get bigger over the years as technology improves, and all young people will know that,” she said.
“There’s going to be a lot of money invested in that. We already have tournaments that are [worth] millions of dollars.
“So it’s going to gain momentum and the next step is to bring it into the Commonwealth Games or the Olympics.”
Can esport be a sport for everyone?
The philosophy of the Commonwealth Games 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 as good, and for me, I think it’s because we don’t have a lot of women in the area,” said Kanyarat “Fern” Bupphaves from Sydney.
“We don’t have as much exposure to show how good and talented women can be. The guys have been playing for years, while the girls haven’t had as much support growing up in that area.”
The subject was discussed at a forum organized by the GEF as part of the exhibition. He considered whether having open and women’s categories at tournaments was the solution.
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 the last few years they’ve released the (all-female) W-series and it was very controversial when it came out because they said people could compete in F1, they didn’t need that platform. “, she said.
“But the athletes themselves [were] calling it as an opportunity for them to showcase their skills.
“And yes, the end goal is probably full integration, but those intermediate steps are really important. And to give visibility to those local riders, the 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 case studies of the inclusion of neurodiverse individuals, young people in wheelchairs playing alongside their able-bodied friends in esports in ways that they cannot or have not been able to do in traditional sports,” he said.
WEF commission member and former New Zealand women’s national football team player Rebecca Smith said esports could help youngsters who don’t engage in usual team activities.
“I find it really difficult to see some of the kids who don’t know how to handle some of the pressure or some of the challenges that come their way. [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, teamwork.”
The esport will be part of next year’s Asian Games, and if it gets the green light for the Commonwealth Games, perhaps an Olympics appearance could also be on the horizon.