It’s 4 pm and 24-year-old Ben Varghese has a long to-do list. But everything must wait. Ben has to practice for an upcoming tournament. He’s been the best assaulter in the country for nearly half a decade, now. And for the next three hours, all he can think of is killing 5,000 bots. Virtually.
But it’s not all fun and games for Ben. Gaming is a serious business, a potentially lucrative career choice. Ben does it for a living and makes Rs 4 lakh a year, and he gets free keyboards, consoles, headphones – the fringe benefits of being a gamer.
Don’t drop your jaw yet. Pro-gamers abroad (North America, Europe, and especially South Korea) are practically celebrities. They make thousands, even millions of dollars every year, playing in televised tournaments. South Korean gamer Lim Yo-Hwan (SlayerS_`BoxeR`) makes $400,000 a year. American gamer Johnathan Wendel (Fatal1ty) wins about $500,000.
And if you think this is one of those "crazy things that happen abroad," consider this: the seven major gaming tournaments in India offer prizes worth lakhs. Still not impressed? The upcoming Indian Gaming Carnival in April in Greater Noida has a total prize purse of R1.5 crore. Simply put, most winners can make a few lakhs in prize money.
And this isn’t a case of all play and no work. It is a lot of hard work. The gaming community stays up all night to practice online with their friends, acquaintances or complete strangers. They interact with gifted amateurs and international cyber athletes, and practice for hours (sometimes days at a stretch).
"You just connect to the servers online and play with anyone. Plus, spectator modules let you watch the game. If you miss a tournament, you can always catch it online. It’s a good way to learn," says 19-year-old gamer Siddhant Mehra.
Gamers aren’t always socially awkward, solitary geeks, shying away from the real world. "Several American studies suggest that kids who play games are more social than those who don’t," says gaming expert Gopal Sathe, editor of gaming blog split-screen.com.
Gamers have a life, a job, a family. Some are married, but most are single (the average age is 14-27 years). Some have supportive girlfriends who accompany them to events, some are "practically married to the game". One gamer, say rumours in the circuit, even took a console along on his honeymoon. "It’s a very broad audience. There are parents who play the games they don’t let their kids play," adds Sathe.
Some are engineers, graphic designers, post-graduates. And an increasing number of people, like Varghese, are giving up their jobs or education to game full-time.
Besides the lakhs at the aforementioned big events, there are events (offering a respectable Rs 10,000-Rs 20,000) in colleges and gaming cafes to get by.
"But gaming is a costly sport. It’s definitely easier to support it with a job," says Mukul ‘terminator’ Sabhani, a hardware engineer at Dell. He was once a full-time gamer, but prefers having a consistent source of income. "I still attend all events, and practice as much – every night and all weekend."
A 2011 Grant Thornton report predicts that the gaming market in the country is estimated to grow from R900 crore in 2010 to touch Rs 2,125 crore in 2013. The urban Indian is getting hooked on to gaming like never before. "Games are another form of entertainment, a form of cultural expression – especially for the younger generation. You can hunt down a civilisation, you can explore continents... there’s so much you can do," says Sathe.
And there’s something for everyone. First-person shooters for action-lovers, real-time strategy for planners, role-playing for daydreamers, and sports games for those who love the outdoors.
Or you could be a casual gamer. It could be blowing up those nasty green pigs in Angry Birds, or living the good life as an avatar in The Sims. According to an Internet and Mobile Association of India report, 41.2 per cent of the total active Internet users in 2010 were gamers.
It’s not much, but it’s a start. The gamer is no longer the good-for-nothing bum or the weird geek, he or she could be training to be the next big cyber athlete – rich, famous and successful. Player 1
Game: Counterstrike (CS)
Online gamer name: Rs 4id (read: raid)
Ask any gamer for the one who makes the most money, and you’ll get one answer: Ben Varghese. A full-time gamer, the B Com graduate never played computer games while growing up. He still doesn’t really like the computer. But, gaming is something else.
Ben was 17, and his friends always hung out at a gaming café in Kings Circle. "But I never really played. At most, I was a casual gamer," he says.
One night at the café, a fight ensued. Someone mocked his gaming skills (or lack thereof), and Counterstrike became Ben’s counter strike. "I wanted to prove a point, it was all about that one game," he says.
He started practicing every day, often for 10-15 hours. Sometimes for four-five days at a stretch, with no sleep and little food. "I practiced alone. On an average, I’d kill 5,000 bots (characters controlled by the computer) a day. The idea was to become faster."
And he did.
Ben started playing with others, and they formed a gaming team: ATE. They managed to find sponsors in 2007, and have remained undefeated in India since then. His five-member Counterstrike team makes about R15-20 lakh every year. It’s R3-4 lakh per person, and that’s just in cash. Every event comes with freebies and goodies.
They travel abroad for international events, watch televised tournaments online and practice often.
It was hard work, but Ben grew to love the game. "Counterstrike is the best stress reliever," he says. "It strengthens your reflexes, increases your hand-eye coordination… and it’s the show stealer at every event."
Game: Call of Duty (COD)
Online gamer name: Iron Babe
Gaming is in her blood. Her dad games, as does her little sister. For Apoorva Mohan, it started with Mario, Contra and Bomberman, when she was three years old. As a teenager, it was Virtual Cop, Motorcross Madness, Duke Nukem and everything else she could get her hands on – including the X-rated ones.
Now, it’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Iron Babe is a girl who plays a First Person Shooter. And that by itself, ask any boy, is impressive. “I always preferred shooting games. And COD makes you feel like you’re actually fighting a war for your country. I come home from work at 8 and game all night, and all weekend,” says Apoorva.
She makes about R20,000 a year, and some more in goodies. But her clan, Evox, is doing well and the future looks bright. Besides, she works as a full-time graphic designer, so money isn’t an issue. “Gaming is like my second life, so I don’t go out much.”
There are barely any female gamers in the circuit. And the boys like it that way. “It’s hard because people don’t take me seriously. It’s the Indian male mentality, many say it directly: gaming is not for girls,” says Apoorva. “It’s so much fun to beat a guy, especially an Indian guy. They go into shock.”
But Apoorva’s very clear about one thing: she’s not one of the guys. She likes pink, and she cried when Captain Price, a major character in Call of Duty 4, died at the end of the game. She’s here to play, and she’s good at it.
First-person shooters (FPS) are a type of 3D shooter games, where you see the action through the perspective of the protagonist. You are the main character you’re controlling. The gameplay centres on gun and weapon-based combat.
Popular games: Counterstrike, Call of Duty, Battlefield, Crysis
These are the strategy games played in real-time. Essentially, you control a large number of units in a tactical game scenario. You plan a city, build an army, construct a town hall… you play king, commander, God, anything.
Popular games: StarCraft, Warcraft, Age of Empires
Role-playing games (RPGs) let you control a character, and live as this character in a fictional virtual world. These include massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), where a large number of players interact with one another.
Popular games: Skyrim, Deus Ex, Final Fantasy, World of Warcraft
You can play a sport, virtually. Football, cricket, golf, you name it. The video game imitates the real game, some feature real teams and players.
Popular games: FIFA, Tiger Woods PGA Tour
From HT Brunch, March 11
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