Picture a well-furnished living room with soft lighting, cosy couches and brightly coloured bean bags on one side and, on the other, a row of high-performance gaming PCs, sound equipment and a group of excited 20-year-olds hammering away at their keyboards.
This is one of two gaming houses or boot camps in suburban Mumbai, and there are more like it in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Thane, where professional gamers spend all their waking hours waging the same war, over and over, on a virtual battlefield.
Don’t be too hard on yourself if most of that made no sense to you. Professional gaming is so new to India that there are few sponsors and just a handful of gaming houses -- as against the scores in countries like South Korea, and, increasingly, hyper-competitive China.
The format is the same, though. A sponsor picks a game he adores or wants to invest in, puts together a team of five people (they must love to play, have serious skills and want to go pro), and jams them up in a house where everything is taken care of and all they have to do is play -- sometimes for 15 hours a day.
The sponsor is usually an avid gamer himself -- a wealthy startup whiz or someone who runs his own chain of gaming parlours. In some cases, it’s the company that makes the game and organises the tournaments.
Inside the gaming house, nothing matters but the virtual battle. In addition to paying for food, supplies and utilities, the sponsor usually hires a housekeeper to do the cooking, cleaning and grocery-shopping.
As far as the team is concerned, friends are forsaken, families won’t hear back for weeks at a time and cellphones are often turned off. Food is incidental and nourishment often comes in the form of protein-rich energy drinks.
“We literally eat, sleep, and talk gaming. From the time we wake up, through practice sessions, lunch breaks and till we go to bed, all we do is discuss gaming strategies,” says Balaji Ramnarayan aka Blizzard, 21, who lives in the Mumbai gaming house.
It’s a plush three-bedroom flat but it feels a bit like a barracks -- the sense of purpose, the intense camaraderie, the nicknames and house names. This house is called Beyond Infinity and it has been set up to create a winning Dota 2 team.
This is an e-game where two teams of five ‘heroes’ each compete to destroy each other’s base — a huge virtual building called Ancient. Along the way, they can work together to collect virtual gold and other incentives that allow them to buy weapons and tools to give them an upper hand in their quest.
Beyond Infinity currently plays at the local and state level, and hopes to someday advance to the big international tournaments where the first prize can be as big as $9 million (Rs 50 crore).
Who are these people?
Blizzard is a mechanical engineer from Pune. His team captain, Moin ‘NO_Chanc3’ Ejaz, 24, is a BSc dropout who moved from Kolkata to live at Beyond Infinity and play full-time.
While some teams are paid salaries of about Rs 15,000 a month, others take home only their winnings.
In Bangalore’s only boot camp, situated on Haines Road, the five Dota 2 gamers collectively make about Rs 40,000 in prize money every two months or so, at state- and national-level games. It will be about five years before they begin to compete internationally.
“I am committed,” says Hesham Zakey, 25, their sponsor, who owns and runs a local gaming parlour called Gamers for Life (G4L) and set up the boot camp eight months ago. The players are committed too.
For the next few years, they plan to live in this one-room flat, air-conditioned but otherwise sparsely furnished, with just five mattresses on the ground and a refrigerator. Most of the space is taken up by six monitors, one for each player and one for reviewing taped replays of their performance so they can tell exactly where they need to improve.
Abhinay Thapa, 24, had to strike a deal with his parents to sign up — a chance at a career in e-gaming in exchange for a degree in engineering. Thapa is finally living his part of the deal after getting that degree from MS Ramaiah Institute of Technology in Bangalore.
“I’ve wanted to be a professional gamer since I was in my teens, but in my parents’ eyes, it’s not a real profession,” he says.
In Hyderabad, a four-month-old boot camp called Roar is sponsored by businessman Willy Hmar, who runs an internet service company based in the Mizoram.
This space is just two bedrooms in a five-bedroom heritage home owned by the dad of one of the players. The team of five are all still in college. “We have one room to sleep in, which has nothing but mattresses, and another one to play in, which has just the five monitors in a line,” says Syed Khursheed Hassan, 21.
Hmar is however paying for the team to fly to Mumbai next weekend for the Taiwan Excellence Gaming Cup 2016, for which they have qualified.
One of his players, 19-year-old Khaled Ansari, is fighting an offline battle similar to Thapa’s -- his parents are not impressed by talk of Excellence Cups and can’t believe he’s wasting his time like this in a Board exam Class 12 year. “I am constantly negotiating with my parents over how much time I can spend training,” he says.
The hierarchy of gaming houses differs. Beyond Infinity and the Thane Counter Strike Go team, Invisible Wings, currently have a common team manager, 25-year-old business management graduate Siddhant Joshi, an avid gamer who has been managing teams for two years. Joshi is responsible for discipline in both houses.
“We have a strict regime to ensure every player gets enough practice time and enough rest,” Joshi says. ““Fitness is crucial because it affects their concentration levels and reaction time. CS Go, for instance, is an even more aggressive game. While Dota 2 is about strategising and execution, CS Go needs raw energy.”
Hours are also set aside every day to review the performance videos uploaded online by international teams.
In Bangalore, for instance, the team watches playback of their own practice games to see which ‘hero’ performed the best or improve strategy — can all the gold be collected quicker, for instance. “We also watch Twitch.tv, a website that uploads games played by people around the world, the best professionals, giving us a chance to study their performance.”
We never really criticise each other, because we always have to keep morale high, Blizzard adds. “But yes, taking corrective measures as a team is extremely important in our profession.”
At Invisible Wings, they also watch demo videos of rival players, says Ritesh ‘RiTz’ Shah, 27, who also runs a lighting business.
Highs & lows
“There is a constant self-consciousness among the boys, even though they are doing what they love. And that’s because they know that society sees their chosen career as a waste of time,” says Zakey. “That gets them feeling low at times.”
So the young men sometimes head to the café for a little breather and some company beyond their teammates. When they lose a game, it is here that they congregate to hear Zakey tell them they’ll surely do better next time.
The situation is drastically different in countries like China, that recognise e-gaming as a legitimate sport, Zakey says. “In China, professional gamers have support from the government, which provides financial backing to the best players to ensure they make it to international tournaments.”
Most people don’t realise that there are international e-gamers such as Gizmo and Dendi who are earning thousands of dollars a year, year after year, in the form of winnings, adds Kashif Mohamed, 21, a gamer at Zakey’s boot camp. “It can be a very, very lucrative career, as lucrative as some of the mainstream professional sports.”
As in an army barracks, tempers can soar and egos can clash suddenly and without warning. “That’s where the manager comes in. A key role is sorting out differences and keeping morale up,” says Kanishk Singh, 24, who runs a business organising e-sports tournaments and owns Invisible Wings.
Although it sounds like the professional gamers have it all, from luxurious flats to a job ‘playing games all day’, life is hard for these youngsters. “They have sacrificed a lot to be here, from stepping out of their comfort zones to striking ‘deals’ with their parents. And they practice for up to 80 hours a week, which is way more than any regular job would demand,” says Neerav Rukhana, 28, a realty developer and owner of Beyond Infinity.