So how do you do, fellow kids? Gaming came to the Commonwealth Games on Saturday, in the inaugural Commonwealth Esports Championships. It was a two-day exhibition event at the International Convention Centre and it posed all sorts of interesting questions. Like what was it about this multi-million participant multi-billion dollar industry that persuaded the ailing Commonwealth Games Federation they ought to bring it into the fold along with squash and lawn bowls?
Thankfully, the CGF’s chief executive, Katie Sadleir, was on hand to explain. “We want to be edgy, we want to be relevant and we want to embrace new sports.”
Sports like Rocket League. Which is 3×3 football played by turbo-charged flying cars. They had 109 players from 20 different territories enter this Championships, but most of them had been knocked out in the qualifying rounds. So now it was down to the two medal matches, one between Australia and South Africa for the bronze, the other between England and Wales for the gold.
Wales, who had brought a few dozen fans with them, won handily. So let history show the first Commonwealth esports champions were George Rusiecki, Owain Lloyd Lamb and Euan Ingram, better known as Breezi, Foxy and Tadpole.
It was a desperate business, though. It wasn’t the gaming, which is as good a way as any to spend your screen time, or the players, who were mostly teenagers, it was all the executives trying to get in on the action.
The CGF has teamed up with a non-profit organisation called the Global Esports Federation, which was founded in 2019. The GEF seems to be one of a number of bodies (there is also the International Esports Federation) which has decided what esports really needs if it’s going to be legitimate is some old people in suits to tell the kids in hoodies what to do.
You know them. They’re the same sorts who run all these sports. Their interest in this is strictly transactional. In this particular deal the GEF gets the credibility of being included in a multi-sports championship, which they hope to parlay into negotiations with the International Olympic Committee, and the CGF gets a share of their audience, which trends somewhat younger than the one they usually pull in.
The first medal was the bronze won by three Australian kids, Tai Kibble, Finn Mawer and Josh Watters, aged 16, 18 and 19. So what did it mean to them to be involved in a big championship like this?
“Not sure, to be honest,” said Kibble. “I’ve never really watched the Commonwealth Games before.” Well, he’s not the only one who’s learning. “I’m 57,” says Sadleir, “but I’m picking it up fast.”
Presumably her daughter, who works for the GEF, has been filling her in. Apparently Sadleir has already seen enough to know that esports are just as rigorous and demanding as any of the others going on in venues around Birmingham this weekend.
“There’s a whole continuum of sports that have different physicalities and different challenges. What I like about sport is that it creates an opportunity for people to be exceptional through practice, and these people practice,” she said.
So do topiarists, but the CGF hasn’t been handing out any medals to them yet. I suppose their business doesn’t have a billion-dollar market valuation from Goldman Sachs.
“Gamers have high-performance coaches, they have nutritionists, they have doctors working on their posture and their eyesight and their mindset. So this is a sport. That’s my perception.”
Sadleir, who used to be a synchronised swimmer, and spent years working for World Rugby, ought to be embarrassed by this argument, which made her sound like Will Ferrell’s character in Blades of Glory explaining away his sex addiction – “it’s a real disease with doctors and everything”.
There are plenty of reasons to be cynical about Big Sport, but at the bottom of it all is the idea that it is unequivocally a good thing to get more kids playing. On the other hand, one argument you don’t hear so often is that the world would be a better place if only children spent more time on their phones.
Esports already have their own championships. And once you scrub out all the stuff about their power to build communities and bring people together, the only argument left for including them in the Games begins with the fact that lots of people think they are fun to watch and ends with the truth that there’s oodles of cash to be made out of helping them do it. Just don’t ask how much of it is going to those teenagers who play the games.
Still, it’s happening now. Esports are going to be included in the Asian Games this year, the CGF is thinking about bringing them into the full Commonwealth Games programme and the IOC has got an eye on them too.
There was a lot of talk about how this is a “watershed moment” for esports, that they had “finally arrived in the big time”. And you could tell it was true, too, but it wasn’t the medals around the players’ necks that gave it away, it was all the acronyms tripping over themselves in the rush to put them there.