“It’s an opportunity for us to educate on esports and it being about much more than just playing a game.”
The news that this year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham would include esports as a pilot event faced opposition from traditionalists.
The inaugural Commonwealth Esports Championships will run alongside this summer’s Games, but have separate branding, medals and organisation. But there is hope that esports could become part of the full programme by the 2026 event.
After being appointed as team manager of the England esports squad, Mark Weller spoke to BBC Sport about leading the country into a new era of competitive entertainment.
A competitive outlet
The Commonwealth Esports Championships are due to take place at the International Convention Centre in the heart of Birmingham on 6-7 August.
The event will feature esports athletes from across the Commonwealth – with DOTA 2, eFootball series and Rocket League the three titles featuring in the competition.
All three titles will also include a women’s category as well as an open category.
Weller, chief gaming officer of the Manchester-based Vexed Gaming team, was appointed team manager of Esports England in February.
“It’s a really proud moment for me. As a child I watched the Commonwealth Games. I enjoyed sprinting and as a young person I used to dream about one day being there,” he told BBC Sport.
“It’s a bit mad coming full circle and being a part of it in a way I never thought would be a route 10 years ago.”
It was a major life event in his teens that kickstarted Weller’s pathway into competitive gaming and led to him to lead his country at the Games.
“Late in my teens I was in a car crash which stopped me from doing much physical activity,” he added.
“Prior to that I enjoyed sprinting, skateboarding with friends and it was during this period that I fell in love with the competitive side of games which we call esports today.
“It gave me the competitive outlet I’d lost due to the car crash. Gaming and esports has given me a career, allowed me to buy a house, meet friends across the world.
“I’ve travelled the world off the back of it and experienced things I never would have thought were possible for someone of my background.”
‘It will inspire youth who find sport difficult to reach’
Hamilton, in Canada, is the frontrunner to host the Commonwealth Games in 2030, and the team leading the city’s bid is understood to be keen on including esports as part of the schedule.
There is hope within the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) that esports could be included sooner, with the body said to be exploring esports as part of its strategic roadmap.
Despite opposition from some traditionalists, others believe such moves are needed to engage younger audiences.
“It will inspire the youth and a lot of sports are currently finding them difficult to reach,” Weller said.
“If you asked me five years ago, maybe even two years ago, I don’t think I would have anticipated the level of growth that we’ve seen.
“I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that we’d be piloting at the Commonwealth Games. It’s certainly not going to slow down, gaming is becoming ever more accessible.
“I think it’s only going to become more prevalent in the mainstream media. Gaming is here to stay. Esports is certainly the future of competitive entertainment, in my opinion.”
‘There’s more to it than people realise’
Despite esport’s growth in the recent past, the activity still receives criticism.
Former swimmer Sharron Davies, who won gold medals at the 1978 Commonwealth Games, said: “I would have loved to have seen the Commonwealth Games introduce things like parkour or BMX or skateboarding, which was so successful at the Olympics.
“I just believe we should try to evolve [the Commonwealth Games] with physical activity sports that engage young people, not ones that require people to sit on their backside and use their two fingers and their thumb. “
Weller draws parallels between esports and chess, which is a recognised sport by the International Olympic Committee, as an example that physical activity does not always translate to an activity being classed as sport.
He said: “I get it. You are sedentary and sitting there. Both esports and chess are similar in that it’s extremely competitive where every decision you make in one moment really matters.
“[In esports] You have to make decisions in seconds or even milliseconds. The stresses at this level and mental endurance required to perform at this level is just mindblowing.
“You don’t have to be as physically fit in terms of strength, muscle mass or how well you can breathe, but there’s a lot more to it than people realise.
“[Esports] has given me everything. It does annoy me when I see people slating it, but it just comes down to education.”
Do you need the best equipment to be a competitive gamer?
If esports are to continue to gain in popularity, leading to it being included in more events, the sport needs to look to a new generation.
But with hardware costs rocketing for high-powered graphics cards, pushing up the price of gaming-centric PCs, what advice does Weller have for those looking to find their own pathway into competitive gaming?
“I definitely didn’t start on the best equipment. I do now thanks to [Vexed’s] growth over the years and sponsors. But you don’t need some sort of £3,000 or £4,000 PC,” he said.
“You can pick up consoles for around £500 and most households find them accessible nowadays.
“If you’re in an area where you can’t afford or don’t have a console, there are certain places where you can drop in, pay £5 for an hour on a console or PC and start your journey there.
“The barrier to entry is so low at the moment and it’s only going to get lower.
“Don’t just play casually or play any game online and that’s it. Start looking into some online leagues where you can play. Get some friends together and start playing in some leagues.
“Be active in the competitive scene. Grind as much as you can to get as good as you can with your friends. The more you do that, the more you make a name for yourself and the more you’ll grow.”