Eliott  Brennan

On the first day of the Commonwealth Esports Championships, Haikal stood surrounded by media figures all searching for a brief conversation with the brimming Malaysian.

There was little wonder why Haikal was in such hot demand because, moments ago, he had defeated Scotland’s BigStuff 1-0 and 2-1 to claim a series win in the eFootball open final.

While the swarm of journalists could be intimidating for any young athlete, the esports player could hardly be more comfortable.

He was simply soaking in everything he had just achieved, and there was little chance he could drop his wide smile even if he tried to.

After all, this was his moment in the sun, and he was relishing it.

Looking back, his zeal was symbolic of the tone the esports community experienced at the International Convention Centre during the course of its three days at the forefront of the Commonwealth.

Global Esports Federation officials, the organisation’s partners and other esports figures from around the world travelled to Birmingham for the occasion that the sport had waited anxiously for.

It was joyous, relaxing and celebratory, with families of the competitors and young fans alike coming and going depending on the discipline that was being held.

The Rocket League open matches, which were the first of the Championships, arguably had the most electric of atmospheres as the bouncing crowd equalled the fast-paced tempo of turbo-charged flying cars playing a football match.

All the eFootball fixtures were calmer while Dota 2 varied but peaked with the open grand final between Malaysia and England.

The Malaysian team set the mood during their introduction video, jesting "it’s coming home" which the English fans then chanted repeatedly during the closely fought three-match series.

Unfortunately for the hosts, it turned out the Malaysians weren’t joking.

Haikal, right, soaked in the moment when he became a Commonwealth champion ©GEF
Haikal, right, soaked in the moment when he became a Commonwealth champion ©GEF

However, the moment that has stuck with me most appeared randomly and innocently.

A young fan, possibly no older than 10, found himself just seats away from where I was based to watch England triumph over Scotland in the Rocket League women's final.

The fan warmly poured out their love for the sport throughout the tie only through his enthusiastic support for the hosts.

There is always something special about witnessing a fan of such young age enter a sporting arena and display the purest of emotions.

For esports, fans like the one that sat close to me briefly are significantly important to its future and are responsible for making the sport a growing force.

YPulse, a dedicated gen Z and millennials authority based in the United States, found last year that their trend data showed one in five of consumers aged between 13 and 39 said they already watch esports and another 25 per cent in the same age range claimed they are interested in watching the sport.

Its research also found that 32 per cent of 13 to 39 year olds stated they would prefer to watch esports rather than traditional sports, such as football, baseball and basketball.

The debate between traditional sports and esports is just as significant, with the latter battling to prove to sceptics it has a rightful place among the ones we are accustomed to.

This topic regularly featured naturally in the Commonwealth Esports Forum as panellists returned to the subject with varying views.

In one circumstance, British Esports chair Andy Payne suggested that the link between traditional sport and esports has always been strong.

A young fan enthusiastically supported England's push for gold in the Rocket League women's event ©GEF
A young fan enthusiastically supported England's push for gold in the Rocket League women's event ©GEF

On the flip side, Sport England's executive director of partnerships Phil Smith claimed traditional sports were in fact "fearful" of esports because of its ability to draw large audiences.

Newzoo, a company specialising in games market insights and analytics, produced its annual Global Esports and Live Streaming Market Report in April, which predicted that the global esports audience will grow 8.7 per cent year on year to reach 532 million in 2022.

"Esports enthusiasts" - those who watch esports content more than once a month - are expected to make up an excess of 261 million of this figure.

It forecasted that the total audience number will exceed 640 million and the number of "esports enthusiasts" will tally to an estimated 318 million in 2025.

There is little doubt esports is a rising phenomenon, but to establish itself in the pinnacle of the sporting world is a long-term challenge.

Notable successes have come in Asia, with a medal event being held at the 2019 and 2021 Southeast Asian Games as well as the Hangzhou 2022 Asian Games, which previously staged it as a demonstration sport at the 2018 edition.

Next up on the horizon could be the potential inclusion in the Trinidad and Tobago 2023 Commonwealth Youth Games after Commonwealth Games Federation chief executive Katie Sadleir told insidethegames that it was a "possibility".

Whether esports will launch a bid to be included at the Victoria 2026 Commonwealth Games is yet to be seen.

It is likely that esports will remain hovering around discussions related to Commonwealth Games events because it is one of the exploration areas identified in the Commonwealth Sport 2026-2030 strategic roadmap.

Katie Sadleir suggested that it is a
Katie Sadleir suggested that it is a "possibility" for esports to appear at the 2023 Commonwealth Youth Games ©Getty Images

When I asked Rocket League open gold medallist Tadpole of Wales on esports' future relationship with the Commonwealth Games, he was clearly hopeful that such a collaboration will not fade away.

"As long as we can do it right - to make sure it is done properly - I see no reason why it can’t expand from here and become such a big global event," he said.

"I would love to see the event happen again in four years.

"I would love to see even more teams come to the live event.

"It could be brilliant."

Paul Foster, chief executive of the GEF, is among those who continuously displays optimism about esports’ future, believing that it has "limitless potential" due to the prominence of technology, but also because of the people involved.

Whatever the future holds, it is the people’s unyielding enthusiasm that will continue to drive the sport to greater landmarks and, crucially, greater acceptance from the wider sporting community.

Because, at the end of the day, people of all sports can relate to one thing: they were once that one young fan on the edge of their seat releasing emotions they could barely explain.

It was what makes sport great, and, most of all, human.