Bengaluru: Inspired by the rapid pace of growth in the Indian esports sector, Animesh Agarwal, an esports professional, decided to move from just playing games to becoming an entrepreneur. The 25-year old, who launched a gaming talent agency recently, now divides his time between his gaming talent agency and attending invitation-only esports tournaments globally.
Esports, which takes the form of organised, multiplayer video game competitions, particularly between professional players who are playing individually or as teams, is broadcast live for interested audiences, much like athletic sporting events.
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“Covid-19 really helped the gaming industry a lot because the only form of leisure apart from OTT platforms was gaming. We saw a huge surge of people following us across YouTube, Instagram, Loco,” Agarwal said. “Since we are very optimistic about how 2021 would be for gaming, we are going heavy with investments that we are putting into our company.”
Agarwal’s rise from a professional player to an entrepreneur over the last three years points to the growing prominence of esports in India, where viewership doubled to 17 million in 2020. At the same time, the prize pool for esports grew about 25-30%, according to industry estimates.
The ecosystem consists of players, tournament organisers, streaming platforms and brand sponsors—much like cricket and basketball. Unlike traditional sporting events, these tournaments can be played online too with referees.
Consultancy KPMG estimates that the audience for esports will exceed 130 million by 2025. Recently the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) included esports as a medal sport for the first time at Asian Games 2022.
Global gaming firms, such as Activision, Garena and Supercell, which publish Call of Duty, Free Fire, and Clash of Clans, are lining up to invest in India’s esports ecosystem after PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) had to exit late last year due to the Indian government’s clampdown on Chinese or China-associated apps.
Consumer and electronic brands are increasing budgets for sponsoring these tournaments, said industry executives who estimate that the highest prize pool in India was Rs1.5 crore and lowest has been Rs 1,000.
“We are at most a couple of years behind (the US and China),” said Anirudh Pandita, founder of Pocket Aces, which owns game-streaming platform Loco. “PUBG had really set up the market. Now other publishers have seen that and that is why you see companies like Activision invest. They are looking at the market and saying there is real potential here.”
Activision did not respond to queries emailed by The Economic Times.
“In the aftermath of the pandemic, mobile esports and streaming witnessed a significant surge in user base as people had more time on hand. In order to cater to this audience, multi-gaming platforms, streaming players and telcos have started to invest in esports tournaments to capture or engage their users,” said Girish Menon, partner and head-media and entertainment at KPMG in India.
India has seen brands—including Mountain Dew, Poco, Qualcomm, Logitech, Airtel, Dell, Acer, Coca-Cola, and Oppo—sponsoring esports tournaments and teams in the last two years.
The increase in commercial interest is spurring greater interest in esports as a viable career option, according to industry executives. Sidharth Kedia, group CEO at esports company Nodwin Gaming, said that despite the cut in advertising budgets in 2020, the percentage contribution for esports has increased.
Several companies that are part of the burgeoning esports ecosystem in India approached the government recently seeking a sports categorisation for the sector, and to separate it from online casual and real money gaming.
“Esports is the only sport that can outrun cricket easily. We need government support to recognise it as a sport and not mix it with online gambling,” said Lokesh Suji, director of Esports Federation of India, who estimates there are 200 million esport enthusiasts in the country. “The biggest benefit of sports categorisation will be getting parental approval. Our athletes have a short shelf-life and peak at the age of 15-19.”
Underscoring the growing interest in this category, Winzo, a real-money gaming platform, is organising online tournaments for esports such as Free Fire and Call of Duty. The platform, which regards esports tournaments as a source of content creation, also streams these events on YouTube.
“Esport players have longer session durations and deeper engagement (compared to casual or real-money card games),” said Saumya Singh Rathore, co-founder at WinZO, who estimates that of the 60 minutes spent on the platform by a mobile gamer, a third or about 20 minutes is spent consuming content.
“Esports is the next big thing and India is warming up to it gradually,” Rathore said.
Real-money gaming platforms such as Winzo and MPL also categorise casual online games such as chess, carrom, and pool as esports—a practice that is unique to the Indian esports sector– and also hosts online tournaments for these e-games.
Sai Srinivas, Co-founder and CEO at Mobile Premier League (MPL), estimates that “in the next 5-6 years, an incredible number of digital athletes will emerge from India and win medals”. The company held a total of 432 speed chess, carrom, and pool tournaments last year. “As data becomes cheaper and devices become more accessible, the best way to enable physical sports is through digital sports,” he said.