Following the success of the inaugural Commonwealth Esports Championships earlier this year, the Home Nations are slowly growing their teams in order to develop further in the industry.
We recently spoke to Aaron ‘Gillzo’ Gillen, Rocket League coach at Esports Northern Ireland, about accessibility, and his journey from being a Rocket League player for NI to coaching the new squads representing their country.
Getting involved in esports:
Everyone has their own ‘gaming introduction’ story, and Gillzo’s journey began almost a decade ago and is still continuing to flourish today.
He said: “The first game I ever played ‘competitively’ was an Air combat simulator called War Thunder way back in 2013. Then in 2016 I started to get involved in the F1 scene, both running and competing in different leagues between 2016-2020. However, for me personally, these were more for fun and I didn’t really view it as “competing” at the time.
“My first true experience competing in esports was February 2019 when I competed at my first LAN event in a Rocket League tournament hosted by RL Ireland. This is when I began to see that esports was much more than just playing a game online, and that there were many opportunities available from it. Since then, I’ve competed in 3 more Rocket League LAN events and many more online tournaments, winning a few along the way!
“I also had the opportunity to work with the Ball State University esports team in Indiana, USA, in 2018 when I attended the University for 6 months as part of a study abroad programme with the University of Worcester. It was there where I learned a lot about the content creation and production side of esports,” Aaron explained.
Climbing the competitive ladder was an easy game for Gillzo, and some of his biggest career moments have been through competitive play.
“Winning the inaugural Slíbhín Series in Rocket League in July 2021 was by far my biggest achievement in esports. This was an Irish tournament and going into league play we were predicted by most to come last. We went on to come 1st in league play and then came back from 3-1 down in a BO7 in the Upper Bracket Final before winning the Grand Final in a nerve wracking 7 game series. I ended up getting MVP for the event and this was the tournament that gave me a bit of notability within the Irish community. This was also the first time I’d ever won money in an esports event (tournament prize pool was €810 euro) so it was definitely my biggest achievement,” he said.
Having been introduced to a wide variety of sectors in esports, Aaron had so much potential for a career in the industry – and he utilised every opportunity to get himself in good stead with Esports Northern Ireland.
CEC 2022 and career development:
Having established himself as a prominent player in the Northern Ireland esports scene, Aaron was asked to represent his country in the Commonwealth Esports Championships.
Aaron explained: “It was a surreal experience to say the least. For me personally, getting the opportunity to play against people that I’ve looked up to massively in the pro scene like Tadpole was incredible, and also getting to experience how things are run at that level was something I never thought I’d get to see, so I just tried to take as much of it in as I could. Then being able to go to Birmingham and experience the event in person far exceeded my expectations.
“Also representing my country in esports was an incredible honour, I played for the Northern Ireland wheelchair basketball team between 2012-2019 so to be able to do it again but this time with esports is something I’m incredibly proud of and thankful for.”
From here Aaron was able to blossom even further, and is now the Rocket League coach for Esports Northern Ireland – developing the next cohort of talent to compete for their country. In working to coach future players, Aaron has high hopes for the future of the industry, and where the CEC has provided opportunities for development.
“I think the near future of esports is looking extremely bright in the UK. For me, the CEC was the catalyst needed to show people that esports could become a major staple of entertainment here in the coming years. My hope is that more events are created following the success of the CEC. I think something like the six nations we see in rugby could work really well in an esports setting, even if it was just between the home nations, as it would give the scene the time and platform needed to develop and grow. When we look at places like Asia and America, esports is such a large and booming industry there, and I see no reason why we can’t achieve the same success here,” he said.
Accessibility for people with disabilities in esports:
More people with disabilities are getting involved in esports, and the scene is slowly developing to become more inclusive and accessible. Aaron uses a prosthetic leg, and mobility aids, but does not let anything stop him from progressing in the world of esports.
However, as the scene is still in its infancy, there’s a lot more work that could be done to ensure further accessibility.
Gillzo explains: “I think there could definitely be a lot more done in this regard. In my time in esports I’ve only ever come across a handful of other people with a physical disability like me, and of that handful I’ve never actually met them at an event, only online in discord servers.
“I would love to see some attempts at increasing awareness of gamers with a disability in esports, whether that’s through showcase matches or spotlight pieces like this, the more we can show people that it is possible to go places in esports and be successful at it with a disability, the more inspiration people will have to get involved themselves. I know from personal experience that whenever I see someone similar to me achieve something, it makes me realise that it is possible, so I hope that I can do that for others within esports!”
One of the biggest issues that people face in the industry is the restriction on adaptive technology in competition – as tournament organisers prevent any form of adapted equipment as a preventive measure for cheating. But, some people with disabilities require this equipment to be able to even play, so discussions in the scene are being looked into to ensure esports can be inclusive.
“It’s sad to see that some players that may be skillful enough to make a career out of esports are being potentially denied the opportunity simply because they have to use equipment slightly different to the “standard” and therefore are unable to compete. However I also get it from an organiser’s point of view, it’s easier to just eliminate the risk of cheating at events completely, rather than have to deal with the potential problems if someone is accused of it.
“My worry would be that if someone who didn’t ‘need’ this adaptive technology but used it to gain an advantage and was caught, it could actually set back inclusion in esports 5 years at least. One way we could potentially get around it is to have individual assessments of those looking to use adaptive technology at events done prior to the event, where the person is required to provide medical proof that they need this technology to compete. We see similar processes used in disabled sports like wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby, so I see no reason why something similar couldn’t be adapted to fit the esports scene,” he explained.
The future of the inclusivity in esports is uncertain, but there are ways that esports can become more accessible to those with disabilities and additional needs.
Aaron suggests: “I think showcase matches where the competitors all have a disability are definitely a great way to show people the kind of talent that exists but may not be getting the opportunities they need. Another thing I would like to see at least attempted is the allowance of adaptive technology at LAN events, maybe not at the bigger, mainstream ones, but I see no reason why it can’t at least be tested at some events.
“I think having more stalls dedicated to disabilities and inclusion in esports at large events like Insomnia would be a great way to give people an opportunity to learn more and potentially get involved. All these things combined would really give a lot of attention to inclusivity within esports, and that will only help things improve as we move into the future.”
To learn more about Aaron and the work he is doing in the Northern Ireland Rocket League scene, check out his Twitter to follow his journey.
For more information about inclusion and accessibility in esports, read this article, or check out this video discussing the ins and outs of accessible technology with gaming charity Everyone Can.