New high score: Inside the Indian esports boom
As gaming transitions into esports, India is stepping onto the global stage. The first medals are arriving on our shores. Tournaments are being streamed live on major TV networks. Esports companies are wooing players with lucrative deals, plush gaming houses. As business booms, the one dark cloud: game bans, and the worry over which might be the next to go.
India won a first-of-its-kind medal at a Commonwealth event in Birmingham last month, one that went largely unnoticed.
The Indian DOTA 2 (Defense of the Ancients) esports (yes, the term is now mainstream enough to drop the hyphen) team beat New Zealand to win bronze, at the first-ever Commonwealth Esports Championship. As they destroyed the Kiwis’ Ancient, the heavily-guarded structure that signifies home base within the game, India cemented their position on the global stage.
Already, the DOTA 2 team — Moin Ejaz (captain), Ketan Goyal, Abhishek Yadav, Shubham Goli and Vishal Vernekar, aged 21 to 30 — is looking ahead to its next international event: the 2023 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China.
“Playing on such a big stage, against famous players, knowing that a prestigious medal was at stake was nerve-wracking,” says Ejaz, 30, who is based in Kolkata. “But we managed to keep calm. It helped to have so many Indian supporters at the venue, cheering us on in Hindi.”
Esports will make its debut at the Asian Games. Crowds are likely to throng arenas there too.
Over the past decade, the esports community in India has evolved from niche groups of leisure players to an increasingly dense matrix of leagues, professional teams, highly-sought-after stars and a committed audience. Behind the scenes, sponsors and esports companies are putting together tournaments on the domestic and international circuits, and running elaborate gaming houses with plush accommodation and personalised studios, in an attempt to build and retain the best teams.
As newer platforms emerge and prize pools boom, expect funding and representation to grow. Already, an 18-member esports contingent has been selected to represent India at the 2023 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. The Esports Federation of India (ESFI), recognised by the Asian Electronic Sports Federation (AESF) and the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), held national qualifier rounds across eight days in April, selecting gamers for a total of five esports: the football simulation game FIFA 22, the combat game Street Fighter V, the strategy card game Hearthstone and the multiplayer online battle arena games League of Legends and DOTA 2.
Indian esports players aren’t topping global leaderboards yet, but at a demonstration event during the Asian Games in 2018, India had the second-highest number of teams, and won a medal. Tirth Mehta took home bronze in a Hearthstone contest, beating Vietnam’s Nguyen Anh Tuan.
Upon their return last month, the DOTA 2 team was felicitated by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). “Recent achievements have changed how esports is viewed in the country,” Vinod Tiwari, director of international relations with the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), which oversees selection for the Asian Games, told Wknd. (The IOA declined comment as they are in the midst of a reorganisation.)
How big is the boom?
According to a 2021 EY-FICCI report, India has 150,000 esports players, and esports tournaments generate viewership (on platforms such as Loco, Facebook, Rooter, Twitch and YouTube) of 17 million.
By 2025, the number of professional players is predicted to rise to 1.5 million and the audience for esports tournaments in the country is expected to hit 85 million. “In the last decade the esports industry has seen a paradigm shift from local tournaments that happened at college fests to a ₹250 crore industry (revenue from tournaments, televised events, sponsors and wins) that is predicted to grow over four-fold, to ₹1100 crore by 2025,” says Lokesh Suji, director of ESFI.
It helps, of course, that both smartphones and data in India are among the cheapest in the world.
As the stakes get higher — the Battlegrounds Mobile India (BGMI) Master Series tournament held in Delhi in July 2022 boasted an overall prize pool of ₹1.5 crore — investment, interest and funding are growing. The July tournament was the first to be aired live on a mainstream sports channel, Star Sports, and attracted an estimated 1.2 million TV viewers.
“Today, the top 10 Indian esports players in the country are earning about $500,000 a year. It’s a very aspirational place to be,” says Animesh Agarwal, co-founder of the private esports company S8UL and the talent agency 8bit. In addition to opportunities for players from across the country, the boom “is also generating new career opportunities in the fields of content creation, game commentary, talent management and public relations,” Agarwal says.
Despite the boom, and amid the growth, there’s a high degree of anxiety and uncertainty associated with esports in India today, and it comes not from the challenges of the games but from the very real risk of more bans.
PUBG was banned in 2020. The BGMI app was rendered unavailable by order of the Indian government in July. Both actions are part of the ongoing stand-off with China (the government has cited concerns over data-sharing; both games are owned or part-owned by Chinese companies. Incidentally, those who had downloaded BGMI can continue to play it.)
The bans take a toll. PUBG will feature at the Asian Games, for instance; no Indians will be playing in that contest.
Legislative grey areas threaten growth too. While esports has been included in OCA events since 2007, it still hasn’t been recognised as a sport in India. Bracketed under online gaming, it is often confused with fantasy sports and online gambling. “Recently, a new bill in Rajasthan clubbed esports with fantasy gaming, which goes against the principles laid down by the Olympic Council of Asia,” says Tiwari.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. The average esports career lasts five years, as high-stress lifestyles contribute to dips in mental agility and a slowing of reflexes. Athletes do transition to content creation. Former PUBG athlete Naman Mathur’s YouTube channel Mortal, for instance, has 7 million subscribers . “The switch is easy because you have already built up a strong fan base. You just need to keep coming up with creative ways to keep the fans engaged, experiment with new games. You can also offer consultation to those who want to join the industry,” he says.
AT THE BATTLE STATIONS
Meet some of the players representing India in esports on global platforms.
A real-life hero too
Zeel Patel’s parents were so set against him pursuing a career in esports that he would practice Call of Duty Mobile (CODM) at night, when they thought he was sleeping. Sometimes he’d go all week with only five hours of sleep a day.
Then his father Jayesh Patel, an Ahmedabad businessman, died in the second wave of Covid-19. “That was when I stepped up and managed to pay a part of my father’s hospital bills using my earnings as an esports athlete,” he says. Patel’s six-member team had already qualified for the 2020 CODM World Championship, representing Eastern Europe and Asia. The event, which was scheduled to be held in Los Angeles, was eventually cancelled because of the pandemic but the prize pool was divided between the global qualifiers, and amounted to $107,000 (about ₹77 lakh) per team.
Now, Patel aka Neutrino, 24, has been signed by esports company GodLike, and will be representing India at the 2022 CODM World Championship in December. But the achievement he’s proudest of is spending about ₹20 lakh on his sister’s wedding in December. He likes to think his father would be proud of how he has stepped up for the family. “Relatives look at me as someone who has been holding the fort in my father’s absence. They value my opinion and even turn to me for advice,” he says.
Dad, designer, Street Fighter
From the moment Mayank Prajapati first heard that Street Fighter V had been included in the 2022 Asian Games, he knew it was his time to shine. The 32-year-old interior designer from Delhi carefully scheduled his day so that he could look after his one-year-old son, work on his design projects, and spend at least four hours a night practising his moves in the online combat game. The hours of dedication helped him win a spot on the India squad. “My wife accompanies me to my games and is my biggest supporter.”
Prajapati started playing the game in 2009, after he purchased it accidentally and then fell in love with it. “Whenever my relatives ask what I do for a living, my mother proudly forwards them videos from my wins at tournaments,” he says.
He’s won the Dreamhack Delhi tournament by Nodwin Gaming in 2019, beating the reigning Street Fighter V champion Ayan Biswas; he has made it through the qualifiers for the upcoming Asian Games.
Prajapati is now prepping for China by studying the moves of players he expects to encounter at the tournaments. “We don’t get to play against too many international players but I get my friends to challenge me with unexpected moves and strategies,” he says.
What’s in the cards?
Shikhar Choudhary, a data scientist from a farming family in Ghaziabad, began playing the fast-paced strategy card game Hearthstone as a way to pass the time during the Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020. In April this year, he beat India’s only Asian Games esports medallist, Tirth Mehta, at the National Esports Championship, and will now represent India at the Asian Games in China next year.
“It feels like an unexpected win for me,” says Choudhary, 25, who works with a finance company in Bengaluru. “Although I’ve always been good at card games, representing India as an athlete is a huge honour.”
Choudhary is extremely rigorous about his gaming hours. He begins practice at 7 am, but first spends an hour either at the gym or on a run. He then plays until work begins at 12.30. “Hearthstone is a mental strategy game where you try and get into your opponent’s mind and guess his next move, so despite how hectic my workdays get, I look forward to my morning sessions,” he says.
Ahead of the Asian Games, he plans to spend even more time practising. “I’m all set to give up on a social life on weekends. I am learning a lot,” he says.
Charanjot Singh, a 19-year-old political science student from Chandigarh, describes himself as first, a football fanatic. “When I’m not playing FIFA on my console, I’m watching it on TV or I’m out on a field playing football,” he says. He’s now one of two FIFA 22 players selected for the 18-player esports contingent that will represent India at the 2023 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China.
Singh didn’t own a console until a few years ago, and started out playing on a friend’s desktop. It was after his first win, a prize amounting to ₹80,000, at the EA Road to Russia FIFA 22 tournament in 2018, that his parents bought him his own PlayStation 3 console.
Last year, Singh won All India eFootball Federation Football Challenge. Seeing their son represent India at FIFA 22 tournaments in Denmark, Britain, Malayasia and Qatar over the past two years has convinced his parents that this is a viable career option for him.
“It’s now at the point where my mother, who doesn’t watch any of my games, has taken an interest in how I am performing. She asks for regular updates and advises me to focus on honing my skill. This is motivating enough to make me want to bring a medal home,” Singh says.
“I am happy to see him pursue his dreams but I also keep an eye on his education and advise him on how to balance both,” says his mother, Jaskirat Kaur, an assistant director with the Punjab school education board.
A Commonwealth star
In August, Moin Ejaz, 30, was pleasantly surprised to be received at the Kolkata airport with much fanfare and press coverage. The captain of India’s DOTA 2 (Defence of the Ancients) team had just returned with bronze after a historic win against New Zealand at the Commonwealth Esports Championship 2022.
“I didn’t expect this kind of a turnout for an esports athlete,” he laughs. But things have changed in the seven years since he opted out of his BSc IT course to pursue gaming full-time. “My father, a businessman and also a huge cricket fan, understood my passion and supported me through my worst financial phase during the pandemic,” he says.
The Commonwealth Games event has been a game-changer. Congratulatory calls and messages are still flowing in; his Instagram message folder is filled with texts from people who want to be like him. Ejaz will lead a five-member DOTA 2 team to the Asian Games next year. “Being a captain means donning several hats: motivational speaker, exemplary player, disciplinarian. But I love every moment of it and after our first win, our hearts are set on bringing home gold,” he says.
Changing the game
Balancing a triple-degree course in economics, sociology and industrial relations and scheduling practice sessions with team players scattered across the country is hard, but 20-year-old Akshaj Shenoy, captain of the five-member team that will represent India in the online battle arena videogame League of Legends, can’t wait to show off his skills at the 2022 Asian Games.
“Compartmentalising your life is the key,” says Shenoy who has been striving to break stereotypes about gamers, and scored 95% in his Class 12 board exams in 2020. “I want to have a solid educational background and pursue an MBA in HR management while being a professional gamer. That’s how I keep myself motivated and keep haters at bay.”
When not strategising with his team over Discord, the Bengaluru boy spends his time watching streams of players from other regions. “We’ve got some time till next year but that isn’t time for slacking off. We are already the underdogs because we don’t have our own servers to play the game with a stable ping,” he says.
League of Legends currently does not have an India server and players have to rely on Garena, a consumer internet platform provider for South-East Asia, or EUW, the provider for Europe West. “We are also going against professional players from countries where esports is recognised as a sport. There’s a huge amount of support they get in terms of infrastructure, sponsorships and coaching. But for us this is an exciting chance to prove our mettle and we plan on putting up a tough fight.”