With one gold, silver and bronze medal in the first-ever commonwealth games, is Wales ready to take on the esports battle?
The Insomnia gaming festival in Birmingham was filled with gaming enthusiasts from all over the UK. The energy and the excitement in the air was unbelievable. The giant LED screens, the sounds of bullets being fired and the players’ emotions on the stage set apart a feeling like any other traditional sports match. A mass of young and old people was visible from the front seats supporting their favourite teams in their virtual battle for the grand prize.
Walli is an esports player for the Wales national team. He finished third in the CS: Go section with his friends. “I started playing Counter-Strike during school with friends and we just kind of found people networking through Twitter and playing at UK LAN events,” Walli said.
Walli is a Counter-Strike player who has played competitively for six years. He’s represented Wales at the world championships and has played on several top European teams.
For many, esports may still be a relatively unknown concept. But for the young people of Wales, it’s quickly becoming a way of life. According to a recent survey, 88% of young adults between 16-24 play video games regularly, and the number is only growing. And with major tournaments like the League of Legends World Championship drawing millions of viewers, it’s clear that esports is rapidly gaining mainstream popularity.
And it’s not just the players who are getting excited. Major brands like Coca-Cola and Red Bull already sponsor esports events and teams. With the industry set to grow even further, it’s clear that there are plenty of opportunities for investment and development in Wales.
John, the CEO of Esports Wales, has been at the forefront of the esports movement in Wales, working tirelessly to bring attention to the industry. “Esports Wales was established with a vision to foster and grow the esports community within Wales.” John said. “The creation of the national team was a natural progression, as we recognized the need to showcase the exceptional skills and abilities of Welsh esports players on an international stage, fostering national pride and recognition,”
In 2020, Asian esports viewers were estimated at 618.4 million, predicted to increase by another 50% by 2025. But Wales has been struggling to put esports at the forefront of mainstream media.
Despite the passion and dedication of players like Walli, esports still needs to gain mainstream attention in Wales. “We need more support from the media and the general public to help esports grow in Wales,” Walli said. “We’re just as dedicated and competitive as any traditional athlete, and we deserve the same recognition.”
But how are these players selected to play in the national team? According to John, it is a meticulous process. “We look for players who not only possess exceptional mechanical skills but also demonstrate good sportsmanship, communication abilities, and the willingness to continuously improve,” he said. “We have a talent scouting team that closely follows the Welsh esports scene,”
The Esports industry has grown massively over the last few years, with the esports market size valued at $1.39 billion in 2022. However, esports is still not considered to be real esports by everyone.
Walli disagrees with this and says, “It may not be as physically challenging as traditional sports, which tech, which normally use a lot of physical attributes. However, mentally within video games, it’s a lot more tasking on the brain,”
Foxy, another top player in the Welsh esports scene, agrees.”Esports is just like any other sport, except instead of using your body, you’re using your mind and your reflexes. Foxy said, “We train hard, we compete at the highest level, and we experience have same highs and lows like traditional athletes. We deserve to be taken seriously.”
Foxy added that mental toughness is also key in esports. “You have to be able to stay calm under pressure and make quick decisions under stress. Esports is like chess, but with a lot more adrenaline.”
John says it is one of the biggest challenges that also affects funding, “the initial scepticism surrounding esports and gaining recognition as a legitimate sporting activity which would open up funding,”
Walli adds and says, “There’s gotta be a lot more people open-minded to change, and I just think that is why it is taking time to get the foundations in for the industry,”
The Welsh government has officially recognised esports and awarded £25,000 to Esports Wales, who represented Wales in the Commonwealth Games held in August 2022, where the Welsh national team qualified for Rocket League, Efootball, CS: Go and DOTA 2 championships.
The Welsh national women’s team placed Top 5 in Dota 2, while the men’s Efootball secured the bronze medal and the women’s team bagged the silver medal.
Amidst this, Foxy, the teenager from Wrexham, bought home the first Commonwealth gold medal for Wales in the Rocket league open, defeating England in the grand final.
For Foxy, the training and hard work have paid off through the Commonwealth win, “I still am in shock,” Foxy says. “It’s a validation of all the hard work we’ve put in, and it’s a testament to the strength of the Welsh esports scene.”
Foxy added that the encouragement and support from fans and the community are also important. Remembering his medal moment at the commonwealth games, he said, “It felt great being on that stage, and I kinda want to be on a stage again,”
Despite achieving so much, esports athletes still believe that a lot of work needs to be done to establish esports a mainstream sport. Wales needs the infrastructure that needs to foster the rapidly growing esports scene.
Esports is a constantly changing industry. Keeping up with the new trends, mastering the individual skills, building team strategy, and synergy between the team is crucial to play at the highest levels.
Walli says, “I go to the gym every day, and then I set aside thirty minutes to an hour for practising alone, and then we play scrims as a team depending on future tournaments,” Walli said, “We only play four days a week. Because people work, people have lives, people got school, so it’s tricky sometimes,”
Scouting new talent and preparing them for the biggest stage is a challenging task to carry on. John says, “We have Welsh masters where everyone showcases their talent, and our scouting team is on the lookout for players all year round,”
To ensure the national team is prepared to compete at the highest level, Joh says, “We had implement comprehensive training programs, coaching support, and give players access to state-of-the-art gaming facilities,”
Walli says, “Keep working hard, keep focusing on your own individual practice and make sure you’re a good teammate,”
Esports and gaming have a lot of taboos associated with them as well, and they are always considered bad for health. But a recent ADL study found that gaming helps in cognitive skills improvement. But people are slowly changing with time. John says, “We have focused on community engagement, educating the public, and organising professionally run tournaments to demonstrate the positive aspects of esports, that helped in gaining support from both the gaming community and external stakeholders,”
The rise of esports in Wales is just beginning, and with players like Walli and Foxy leading the charge, it’s clear that this is an industry with a bright future. John says. “We’re just getting started.”