Well Known Players Battle Underground

MS Dhoni plays it. So does Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, Saurabh Chowdhury, or Amit Panghal. How one game unites athletes from across sports
Photo illustration(Ajay Thakuri)
Photo illustration(Ajay Thakuri)
Updated on Dec 22, 2019 10:53 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | BySomshuvra Laha

Post-training recovery is an exhaustive routine that starts from the room of Gigy George, the physio of the Indian national football team. When the players drag themselves out of the training ground, this room is where they head—two at a time, for sessions lasting 20-30 minutes.

Right now, it’s defender Sandesh Jhingan and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu on the table. Even while their muscles are being released and lulled into a state of restfulness, their eyes and fingers are deftly navigating on their phones.

“Daine, daine. Left se jaa (Shift to the right, take your left),” says Sandhu.

Jhingan taps the screen furiously, rattling of rounds of automatic gunfire.

Goalkeeper Amrinder Singh, who is next on George’s list, is sitting in a corner of the room—he too is engrossed in his phone, playing the same game.

They are all hooked to PUBG – short for PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. So is the Indian cricket team. And India’s top badminton players. The country’s best boxers. The table tennis players. The Olympic-bound shooters.

No matter what sport they play, PUBG is the one game that rules them all (though women seem to be an exception—none of the female athletes we reached out to for this story had any interest in the game).

In the Indian cricket team, spinner Yuzvendra Chahal is one of the squad’s acknowledged PUBG champions.

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“It’s very difficult to sit idle when the game is not on. Even during the (2019) World Cup, Mahi bhai (MS Dhoni), Manish Pandey, Rishabh Pant and I would play the game after dinner. And since we play online, the game connects me with my family and friends when I am far away,” said Chahal.

Dhoni, like so many other things when it comes Indian cricket, led the pack till recently. Last year, on Virat Kohli’s 30th birthday, Dhoni paid him a PUBG tribute, tweeting a photo of a young Kohli holding a toy gun, with the text:

“Wish you a very very happy birthday. I know you are a big PUBG fan because I just found this old picture of yours.”

PUBG, for those of you who may not know of it, is a last-man/woman-standing shooting game: a 100 players are air-dropped on an island, where they go madly rushing around scavenging for weapons and hunting each other down till only one survivor remains.

When it comes to addictive qualities, the game is all kinds of genius: The adrenalin rush of being on a mission. The visceral excitement of being in a kill-or-be-killed situation—this is Hunger Games meets zombie apocalypse meets Black Hawk Down. You can play it as an individual, or as part of a team.

It features in-game communication; you can talk to your teammates as you play, and immerse yourself in a fantasy warfare where that slightly crackly radio voice cutting across the sounds of gunfire and explosions—you know, like the ones you hear in Hollywood action thrillers—is your own, or your friend’s.

It’s free to download and light on the phone, but features excellent graphics. It has been downloaded on mobile phones more than 600 million times since its launch in 2017—a staggering number, despite the fact that the game was pulled out of China, one of its biggest markets, in May (and replaced by a “patriotic” version of the game by Tencent, the game’s makers).

It is, in 2019, the second most downloaded mobile game in the world, and the country that downloads the game more than any other is India.

Thumb warriors

All of this could happen only when PUBG liberated itself from desktops and gaming consoles and made the jump to smartphones. The game was no longer confined to the dark corners of the living room or hotel room; it soon spilled over to physio rooms, hotel lobbies, cafeterias, subways and classrooms. Subscriptions multiplied, more hours were logged and even the tiniest breaks were put to use.

Like at airport departures.

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Remember the series of photos tweeted by the official handle of the Indian cricket team just before they were to embark for the 2019 World Cup in England? Most cricketers in those photos were playing PUBG. Fast bowlers Mohammad Shami and Bhuvneshwar Kumar probably took a second to look up from the action on their screens and flash a confident smile for the photographer. Till earlier this year, Shami was impervious to the charm of PUBG.

“Everybody seems to be fan of PUBG. I however prefer the company of people. Talking and listening to them. Only if I am bored, I might play video games,” Shami told HT in an interview during the IPL. Now he has turned.


Not all cricketers are too attached to PUBG though. Krunal Pandya says he doesn’t play the game as much as he used to. “Hardik is good at it. I do play with my friends but not on a regular basis. It’s just a time-pass thing. Once in two-three days to be honest,” says Krunal.

This is particularly true for the face of Indian football as well. While most of his lads are into the game, captain Sunil Chhetri never did quite take to it, or find it appealing.

“I don’t play PUBG but Vinit Rai, Anirudh Thapa and Udanta Singh, the younger lot, are some of the India players who, I know, play,” says Chhetri.

Chhetri is 35-years-old. But his lack of interest in video games has little to do with age – a fact underlined by 37-year-old table tennis player and double Asian Games medallist, Achanta Sharath Kamal, a PUBG fanatic. “Every time we are on a tour, I join in because that’s a major way to kill time. It is a sport which can be played collectively,” Sharath Kamal says.

But that’s the thing about video games—it helps sportspeople (across age groups and the globe, for that matter) to while away their time between matches. Just ask Italian midfield legend Andrea Pirlo, who has dedicated a few pages of platitudes for the PlayStation in his biography ‘I Think Therefore I Play’.

“After the wheel, the PlayStation is the best invention of all time,” writes Pirlo. “And ever since it’s existed, I’ve been Barcelona [in ‘FIFA’, the annual video game series produced by Electronic Arts], apart from a brief spell way back at the start when I’d go Milan. I can’t say with any certainty how many virtual matches I’ve played over the last few years but, roughly speaking, it must be at least four times the number of real ones.”

FIFA on PlayStation has long been a favourite for sportspeople across the world (before the switch to PUBG, it was the preferred downtime activity for both the Indian cricket and football teams).

A rush of adrenaline

In a life often lived out of airport lobbies, team buses and hotel rooms—the modern sportsperson’s life—ways and means of killing time takes on serious significance.

The Indian cricket team, while playing home tournaments, can’t even step out of their hotel rooms for dinner, and are often left with very little choice but take to their gaming consoles, or in this case, their phones.

India’s goalkeeper, Amrinder, came into the game, while trying to kill time. “I was waiting at an airport. That’s when Sandesh and Gurpreet told me about PUBG and I joined them,” he says. “When athletes are resting, it’s easier to replicate that adrenaline rush that they get in training through playing that e-game,” says sports and performance psychologist Sumiran Tandon, who has been working on mental and sports science management of athletes for 12 years now.

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“It’s easier for the players to achieve while they are sitting in their hotel rooms because they can’t go out. The brain automatically tries to replicate it through a device. That adrenaline rush keeps you involved in a pattern of 15 minutes, half an hour or even an hour (making it perfect for airport departure waits),” adds Tandon. “In corporate sectors, we have ‘players’ who are addicted to PUBG and similar esports for the same reason. They get the same rush when they are trading.”

To play or not to play

For all the rush it tends to give, PUBG has set off some heated debates on its social impact, and has even faced a temporary ban in some parts of India. But are athletes immune to its trappings, given that gaming disorder is a real threat?

According to the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) by the World Health Organisation last September, gaming disorder has been defined as ‘a pattern of gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterised by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.’

However, the WHO spoke of a diagnosis as well: ‘For gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the behaviour pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months.’

That may rule out most sportspeople from the ambit of a “disorder” since they simply don’t have enough time to devote to gaming. And there are some athletes for whom playing PUBG is a natural extension of their sport. Like Amit Panghal, the flyweight boxer who earned recognition with a silver medal at the World Championships.

“Thoda maar dhaar wala game toh accha lagta hai (I quite like games that have a bit of action). I am a boxer so it fits the bill,” Panghal says.

“There is no specific amount of time that I spend on the game. But after a training session, and if my roommates at the national camp are up to it, then I play one or two matches. It helps keeping your mind off from the pressure for a while.”

It’s a pretty standard response from athletes across different sports. “It’s not an addiction. I play PUBG when I have 10-15 minutes to kill,” says Amrinder. Jhingan agrees.

“I like reading, studying football, watching different tactics and set-pieces. That works a lot for me as a stress buster. Sometimes when I am with Amrinder or Gurpreet I do play PUBG but I do that only for laughs,” he says.

A cautionary word from Chhetri, however, tells players are being strictly monitored.

“I don’t think the coach or the psychologist has ever spoken to them about this being an addiction but on a couple of occasions, they did hear from the captain,” he says. “The captain doesn’t mind them playing games but not them playing around midnight.”

And what about the violence inherent in the game? Badminton player Satwiksairaj Rankireddy—who recently teamed up with Chirag Shetty to become the first Indian pair to win a Super 500 title at the Thailand Open in August—makes no bones about using the game as a vent.

“If I am irritated I switch on the game and kill everyone, to take out my frustration,” says Rankireddy.

It reminds this correspondent of a recent day, travelling in the metro and watching two teenage boys sitting next to each other, immersed in the game. One of them says under his breath, furiously pumping away at the phone, “die, f**ker, die, die, die, why don’t you just die…”. He then goes on to pump in about 15 rounds on a figure desperately and hopelessly crawling away on his screen. “He’s dead, I f**ked him up, yes!”

This is precisely how athletes react, according to Tandon. “Most athletes know that competitions are not in their control. But this is more in control. If they win a match or tournament, they might have an adrenaline rush they might want to distribute or project through playing an e-game,” she explains.

But it’s not just adrenalin, violence, or control; this game can also be about communication.

A Crown 1 (level) player, Rankireddy downloaded PUBG to stay in touch with his friends. “We talk about the automatic guns and all that stuff. In PUBG, we message our friends regularly. If we get time we play, I play with my school friends. The four of us fight against 96 others. There’s also competition amongst us,” he says. “We discuss ‘tune kitne kills kiye (how many kills did you have?).”

Rankireddy admits that PUBG sometimes affects his sleep.

“At times seniors suggested I go to sleep because I was playing at 1am. This was during some tournament and I couldn’t sleep (because of jet lag),” says Rankireddy.

Bonus points

Like with anything that has addictive qualities, there are telltale signs that athletes must not overlook when it comes to gaming. Changing sleep patterns is usually one of them.

“A lot of athletes play PUBG but it has to be monitored like any other sport. There are certain hours they are supposed to play and certain hours they are not supposed to play before their training because it drains you mentally,” says Tandon. “You should be able to retain your mental capacity to be able to contribute to the job.”

Chess Grandmaster Vidit Gujrathi didn’t take a chance when he realised computer games could have a negative impact on him. “I used to play video games during my younger days, mostly PlayStation and other things. But now I have taken to outdoor sports like badminton, football. I think video games have a negative effect. It is quite addictive and can be distracting also. So, I have stopped playing it altogether,” he says.

Sharath Kamal counters that playing PUBG has positive effects—“the best part about it,” he says, “is team work.”

“It keeps the spirit high,” Kamal says. “We are a team both on and off the table. It’s the younger guys who are into it. “I am the one who is providing them the backup. It’s a good way to spend time.”

Tandon, while agreeing, points out that there is one crucial difference between playing PUBG and an actual team sport—training together.

“It’s more of a group sport,” she says. “Yes, you are sort of coordinating with each other during the whole game. Participants find that very interesting because playing a game alone can be somewhat tiresome. There is not a huge difference between a group sport and a team sport but psychologically, there is one. In PUBG you can’t train together.”

There is at least one instance where PUBG has even led to, inadvertently, the rise of a promising athlete.

Asian Games gold medal winning pistol shooter Saurabh Chaudhury, 17, one of India’s biggest Olympic hopes right now, famously came into the sport after his parents, concerned with his growing PUBG addiction, took his phone away and enrolled him in a shooting range instead.

Chaudhury, 17, still plays the game, and even credits it with improving his sport.

Speak to other shooters and they have similar stories, like 16-year-old Shardul Vihan, who says the game helped him better his reaction times and hone his (killer) instincts.

Mansher Singh, India’s shotgun coach during the 2018 Asian Games, has this story to tell about Vihan, who won silver at the double trap event.

“In video games, Shardul is constantly trying to beat someone, so he brings that mindset into competition. For him, it’s cool to beat someone. For him it’s not about money, that he’ll get a prize-money of ~1-2 crore. He is too young to think about money,” says Mansher.

“But I always draw a line. I don’t want to see those gizmos after 10 pm. That’s the time my wards should be in bed.”

(With inputs from AIFF, Abhishek Paul, Sandip Sikdar, Sanjjeev Samyal and Dhiman Sarkar)

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