In the late 1970s and ’80s, when the concept of internet bandwidth was unknown, the word ‘cloud’ had nothing to do with storage or computation and the first personal computer was making a tentative entry on Indian desktops, the universe of sports and entertainment saw a unique entrant. There arrived machines that sparkled with colourful lights, reverberated with weird sounds and promised to satisfy every childhood fantasy. Coming at the back of the first Star Wars movie in 1977, video games made a booming entry into the sporting arena. Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) only helped whet the appetite of a generation that was fast getting addicted to playing Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Grand Prix and Digger. No amusement arcade was complete without a video game parlour.
Over four decades, video gaming has seen a dramatic transformation. Technology and telecommunication have played a significant part in its evolution and electronic sports, or e-sports, has found a foothold in India where the internet and the smartphone have radically changed the way sports and entertainment is being consumed. Corporate support and the ability of e-sports to grow online gaming communities facilitated its growth. Social networks and social media are two parts of the ecosystem that have majorly changed the gaming landscape.
Although Esports has picked up pace in the last couple of years, India had rather quietly hosted a World Cyber Games for a decade in the 2000s. Backed by corporates like Samsung and Maruti Suzuki, e-sports was then a major draw for college goers and their fun fests.
From the days of coin-operated machines to PCs to play stations to high-end mobile phones, the change has been mind-boggling. Mobile gaming is growing at a rapid rate due to the development and affordability of smartphones. With more than 75 per cent of population below the age of 45, India is one of the largest potential market for online gaming in terms of volume. Approximately 55 per cent of casual gamers (who play Minesweeper, FreeCell or Solitaire) and 66 per cent of the heavy gamers (who play Dota 2, Hearthstone or League of Legends, where strategies are tested) across India were below 24 years old in 2016. The market value of mobile gaming in India is estimated to reach about US$ 405 million (Rs 30.45 crore) by 2022, according to Statista.
Online gaming is expected to reach US$ 1 billion (about Rs 7,500 crore) in 2021 as per KPMG estimates. The overall revenue numbers in India—miniscule compared to leading online gaming markets like US, Japan, China and South Korea—may look promising, but can be misleading. “E-sports started to grow rapidly in India only recently, and the lower visibility is because e-sports companies have raised lesser funds than fantasy and card games. We shall soon see that change,” says Ashwin Haryani, who runs Gaming Monk, an online gaming company that organises e-sports tournaments and offers cash prizes.
Among all genres of online gaming, only e-sports offers gamers the opportunity to represent India at the Asian Games or the Olympics. Tirth Mehta won a bronze medal for a real time strategy (RTS) game called Hearthstone at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games, and Karan Manganani was placed fourth in another RTS game called Clash Royale. E-sports was a demonstration event in Jakarta, but will be a full-fledged medal event at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. And the 2024 Olympics in Paris will include demonstration e-sports events.
“It’s like any other sport and very competitive,” says the 25-year-old Mehta, who started as a gamer in 2010 and works for an e-sports startup in Hyderabad. “Though you can simply watch the games and have fun, if you can acquire knowledge and watch, the enjoyment is greater. E-sports offers a proper career path now. While the dream of representing India will always be a priority, my job of content creation, video editing and digital marketing is no less than any top corporate job.”
Prize money in Indian e-sports is already in crores, and gamers are making money not only by winning, but also by live streaming their style of playing. Aaditya Sawant, known as Dynamo in the gaming world, specialises in PUBG, one of the most popular mobile games in the world. His live videos that involve a lot of shooting and killing are watched by lakhs on YouTube. PUBG is one of the 50-odd Chinese apps under the government’s scanner in the wake of the Galwan standoff between Indian and Chinese armies.
Raj ‘Snax’ Verma, a 19-year-old from Hyderabad, is a not a ‘streamer’, but a ‘competitor’. He leads a team owned by e-sports company Insidious. The team plays international tournaments that offer large prize pools, often running up to US$ 850,000. “We train for anything between eight to 12 hours a day. To win tournaments, we must practice like any other professional would. And you can win a salary too…the best guys can get Rs 1.5 lakh a month,” says Verma.
The biggest challenge in India is coordination. With companies like Gaming Monk, Nodwin, MPL, Paytm and Nazara all running independent businesses and essentially looking at their balance sheets, it is a free for all. The Chinese, for example, have invested heavily in Indian companies and want their returns. And there is no system in place to help identify the best players who can one day represent India.
According to industry insiders, the Indian government usually controls sports through federations, but e-sports can’t have one federation as every game has its own intellectual property right and copyright. For example, PUBG is controlled by Chinese behemoth Tencent. “You can’t have a federation that can control a corporate biggie. You need game publishers to be part of the federation and usually they are big transnational companies on which the government has no control,” they say.
While the Indian sports ministry is rather clueless, at least eight countries have recognised e-sports. The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) admits that e-sports is a sector worth looking at and hasn’t ruled out affiliation in future. “As and when we receive information about any developments/guidance from International Olympic Committee, only then we will proceed,” says IOA president Narinder Batra. “The Commonwealth Games Federation has announced its partnership with the Global Esports Federation, and we are awaiting more information from them.”
Ishaan Arya, whose The Esports Club recently hosted an international prize money tournament featuring gamers from the subcontinent, has launched a five-month-long league for its members. “Our goal is to help create a sustainable ecosystem for both players and sponsors. And as there is never any fixed calendar, we hope to bridge that gap by providing players assurance and opportunities over multiple months rather than one-off events,” says Arya.
Globally, one is witnessing crossovers and collaborations with brands outside gaming like Mercedes, Gucci and Louis Vuitton. E-sports is starting to rival traditional sports in terms of viewership and prize pool, and as the world gets more connected through digital platforms and content, the scale of e-sports will continue to grow as it becomes mainstream. Cricket must watch its back!
By Soumitra Bose with inputs from Jyotika Sood