What does it take to become a championship level gamer?

7 min | 25 July 2022

Janice Warman
Janice Warman

Esports is taking the stage beside the Commonwealth Games for the first time. We'll share the info on this fast-growing sport that can have big rewards to match.

For the first time, the Commonwealth Esports Championships will be held in Birmingham in August 2022 alongside the more traditional sports of the Commonwealth Games.

The competitive video gaming championships had over 350 athletes participating in various stages of regional qualifiers. From there, over 150 athletes who qualified will compete live in Birmingham for the finals.

The esports world is far from the computer games that teenagers play at home. And the rewards can be high. The top prize pool was US$40 million in 2021. The prize for the winning team was US$18m. "That's just one game, split between five places," says Dave Martin, Head of Strategy at the British Esports Federation. "There are plenty of seven-figure prize pools in different games. So top players can potentially earn in excess of US$3 million a year."

What skills do you need?

"You need to have a level of mechanical skill and the ability to be very good at competitive video gaming," says Dave Martin. "You also need to have the mental composure and ability to deal with pressure, a raised heart rate and expectation. We're talking about some 15-year-olds playing in World Cup finals here. So mental health and wellbeing is really, really important to British Esports."

"More organisations are starting to use performance coaches, fitness, nutrition, mental health and stability as esports starts to professionalise itself further and more investment comes in, and competitions get bigger and bigger. People are looking for marginal gains and are looking at sports science more than ever," he says.

"Natural ability may mean that you don't need to spend as much time training as you do for other sports. But you need commitment and dedication, you need to practise, and you need to hone your skills."

The kit is costly

"Some of the first-person shooter games with heavy-laden graphics will require faster and more expensive equipment, and the core issue for any gamer is your internet speed," he explains. "That includes latency and ping – in effect, how quickly the button press you make, whether it be on a keyboard, a mouse, or controller, sends back to a server – that reaction time is incredibly important."

He also notes that some gamers put in dedicated lines, which "can give you an advantage because a lot of the tournaments are run online during qualifiers with grand finals happening in person."

The cost of hardware is dependent on the games

"If you’re PC gaming, you can spend thousands on a setup that will get you faster graphics and help you with response times. A PC that's running at such a high rate in terms of its graphics card actually needs systems to keep it cool, otherwise it overheats and shorts. A monitor is also very important, as they come in different refresh rates (i.e. how many times per second a display is able to draw a new image). You have to link your systems together to make sure that your internet can support your monitor, which can support your PC, so that it works at the effective rate. Prices start in the hundreds of pounds, but for the top pros playing on PCs, it can be in the tens of thousands of pounds. However, pro gamers are often sponsored by hardware companies or other resellers."

Competition earnings can be high

Earnings for some players can exceed seven figures. There are endorsement deals. There are salaries. There are a number of teams competing in the big leagues for a share of the prize money.

"The event in August is a different matter," Dave Martin says. "The Commonwealth tournament is not about money. This is what I love about it. This is about medals and representation. This is about the ability to stand on a podium and win a medal representing your nation. Of course, it's not a Commonwealth medal. It's a Commonwealth Esports Championships medal, but there's still a lot of pride in this. We want to create heroes – we want people to get involved in representation. There's a lot of pride and passion in terms of representing your country in esports and we’re sure this will help inspire future generations."

"I've never seen anything that engages young people as much as this does. When I think about all the challenges that education has, why not go into the community and be able to move the needle?"

Belle Howard, who is from the Isle of Wight, is an England women’s team member for the Commonwealth tournament. She has been playing at pro level for seven months. She plays a multiplayer online battle arena game.

She started playing in Sixth Form, when her then boyfriend introduced her to the game.

What made her stick with it? “It was a hobby that I could play during my free time. It was a completely new game to me. And there was a very big competitive esports scene. It made me want to play the game.”

So, what does it take?

"It’s a lot like any other professional sport, a lot of time of dedication." She says "You can't just expect it to happen. You have to put in the effort, you have to see where your mistakes are and see how you can improve. A coach helps you see where maybe you can change. It's literally about time dedication, seeing where you're going wrong to see where you can go right."

There are far fewer women players, and she would like to see that change, she says. “There have been some organisations working to promote this. One has been specifically tailored for assisting women in esports by giving them a space to play at a competitive level.”

The Global Esports Games, which ran in December 2021, had 500 million views and nearly 4.5 million people watched it live. There are multiple ways to get into esports, says Dave Martin. "We run the British Esports Student Champs, so if you're at school or college, you can enter a team. If you're at university, NUEL (originally the National University Esports League) and the National Students Esports, run university tournaments, and these are all talent-finder pathways. But ultimately, you tend to get more well-known due to the fact that most of the publishers will put the rankings of players on their platforms."

"We also organise projects and pilots with schools and other partners throughout the UK to promote esports, and many of these include dedicated esports tournaments. We run a nationwide volunteer network for anyone looking to get involved in esports, in whatever capacity. The Esports BTEC is a business qualification, teaching about the industry and contextualising an education around esports."

The UK ranks 11th globally behind China (1st), the US (2nd) and South Korea (3rd) in terms of total prize money won.

"The UK is the second highest earning European country in gaming with over $5m in prize money won in 2021, so we definitely compete well with other countries," Dave says.

Esports may soon rival physical sports like football, tennis and golf in terms of participants, audiences, sponsors and prizes. For a taste of what it’s all about, keep an eye out for the Commonwealth Esports Championships in August.

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