Esports in India: Athletes, officials explain difference between gaming and esports, talk about sport's lucrative business in modern era
Esports athletes and officials from the Esports Federation of India explain why India's overwhelmingly young population and gains in internet penetration could facilitate a potentially billion-dollar esports industry
The world has come to a standstill. Deserted cities are a marker of the deplorable status quo where an invisible enemy has fundamentally altered our workaday lives. The coronavirus pandemic isn’t selective with its targets. All industries are bearing the brunt of heavy losses as governments have imposed lockdowns to keep the virus at bay.
The sporting world is no exception. While some athletes are quarantining lavishly, others are counting their financial losses. Stadiums are eerily quiet, the seats in the arena gathering dust, while some house patients as governments move frantically to gather more space for those afflicted with the virus.
Most football leagues – the likes of the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga – in the world have been suspended until June. Although, some enterprising youngsters aren’t letting the lockdown dampen their passion for football. Stadiums might not be witnessing any play, but the leagues are playing on, albeit in the virtual realm.
In Pune, Saransh Jain, a college-going student is relishing the extra time on his hands during the lockdown, as it allows him to play video games from the comfort of his bedroom. Those mistaking his gaming habits as a way to kill time would be wrong. Saransh is one among the growing tribe of gaming aficionados in India who’ve earned the distinction of being called esports (short for electronic sports) professionals. The distinction is important, for it separates the likes of Saransh, from those engaged in casual video gaming on their smartphones.
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Saransh, on the other hand, plays only FIFA – the popular football simulation video game whose latest edition is FIFA ’20 – and actively participates in tournaments where podium finishers earn from a prize purse. Last year, Saransh had won the India-leg of the esports FIFA competition sanctioned by Germany's top-tier football league, Bundesliga. The competition, known as Virtual Bundesliga International Series, saw Saransh represent India in Germany, where he finished as the runner-up. “As with other sports, esports also calls for a lot of time spent in training, looking to get fast with our movements on the controller, experimenting and honing different moves, tactics, playing formations, strategies. It’s a different ball game,” explains the 18-year-old, a five-time national champion for FIFA.
In fact, lack of an understanding about what separates gaming and esports is harming the budding esports industry, believes Lokesh Suji, director of the Esports Federation of India (ESFI), a not-for-profit organisation established to promote and organise esports competitions in the country.
“Often, people fail to distinguish between gaming and esports. I’d like to point out that games like Candy Crush and Fruit Ninja aren’t esports titles,” says Suji. “Esports consists of limited video games across select genres. The genres are Real-time Strategy (RTS), Fighting, First-person Shooter (FPS) and Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA).”
“Amongst the most popular video games for professional esports tournaments, there are games like FIFA, Defence of the Ancients (DOTA2), League of Legends (LoL), Counter-Strike, Call of Duty, Hearthstone, StarCraft, and Vainglory, among others,” says Suji.
Saransh and Suji’s clarifications hit home, as it would be wrong to be dismissive about an esports professional’s athletic credentials or confuse esports with casual gaming. Multiple studies have found that First-person Shooter video games like Call of Duty and Counter-Strike require high levels of concentration, hand-eye coordination, quick-thinking, and real-time decision-making, skills which need to be honed relentlessly with hours of practice, as for any sport. Studies reflect that children who’ve played video games even recreationally can develop better cognitive and retention abilities, clinical terms which translate to better learning capabilities.
Countries like South Korea, Finland, Japan and Malaysia realise the same and choose to back esports, recognising their national governing bodies as sports federations, replete with training facilities, coaches, national competitions, and the works, making it a viable career option for video-gaming enthusiasts.
Esports was also played as a demonstration sport at the 2018 Asian Games, meaning that medals won in esports didn’t count in the countries’ final medal tally. Even so, India’s Tirth Mehta won the bronze medal while competing in Hearthstone, a strategy-based collectable card game.
When asked about the kind of training he underwent to excel in Hearthstone, Mehta shed light on the unique challenges faced by a professional esports athlete. “In Hearthstone, there are a lot of cards, each with a different function. Getting better means watching your replays, collecting data, assessing your moves by weighing their effectiveness in the situation. Participating in offline sessions with other players is one of the best ways to train but in India, I don’t have that option as there aren't any esports organisations which could facilitate these sessions.”
We may still be some time away from seeing offline training sessions for esports being facilitated by a government-recognised National Sports Federation (NSF). However, of late, the signs have been encouraging.
In November last year, the ESFI organised the Nations Cup in Bangalore, in conjunction with the Services Export Promotion Council (SEPC), which saw participation from esports athletes of seven foreign countries, including Sri Lanka, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam among others. The competition was played for eFootball Pro Evolution Soccer 2020 (PES ’20) a popular football simulation video game. India's Moin Amdani finished second in the competition, which was won by Kyrgyzstan's Samat Temirov.
Suji believes that these accomplishments should help the government realise the latent potential in esports, a potentially billion-dollar industry in India waiting to be tapped by all stakeholders. “We have college kids in India who’ve turned professional with their passion for esports, some of them earning handsome money from competitions.”
“Many have found sponsorships where they join a team, run by the likes of Tech giants like Dell or Indian start-ups like Global Esports and 8BIT, or other companies like Red Bull, and are paid monthly salaries,” says Suji.
“Some stream their plays on live streaming platforms for gamers, such as Twitch.tv. Popular streamers can earn anywhere between five to six lakhs per month, as these streams are watched by millions of gamers around the world.”
“Many streamers are approached for brand deals. So there’s no dearth of career opportunities in esports. Active support from the government, by recognising esports as an official sport and bringing it under the purview of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports will help further.”
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Suji’s assertions are based in pragmatism. Globally, revenues from esports have touched $1 billion. Moreover, contrary to popular perception, esports is a spectator sport, with an audience of 433 million people across the world – more than American football and Golf – tuning into streaming platforms such as Twitch.tv and YouTube Gaming to watch esports tournaments. Japan is planning an ambitious expansion of its esports industry to power its economy in the coming years. The US government considers esports as a legitimate sport, even granting visas to professional esports athletes. Currently, three American universities offer athletic scholarships to esports athletes. There are enough examples from across the world to suggest that India, with its overwhelmingly young population and ever-increasing internet penetration, shouldn’t miss the boat.
“You’d normally think that esports would only flourish in the bigger metropolitan cities but what has happened has surprised us. The smaller towns, Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities in India are coming up in a big way, because of the internet penetration which has grown by leaps and bounds here,” says Suji. “This phenomenon will only grow more pronounced during the ongoing coronavirus lockdown. Even though most of the LAN (local area network) events – where participants are required to assemble in one place – have been cancelled, there’s been a surge in the number of online tournaments and we’re already seeing huge numbers participating.”
When asked about the model country whom India should be aping in its approach towards esports, Suji unequivocally asserts South Korea’s supremacy in the domain. “South Korea is the mecca of esports. From governmental support to training facilities, to the number of competitions and the prize money offered for the same, they’re top of the world.”
“In India, our esports athletes have been doing well in international competitions. We’re good with technology anyway. The government should take note of the same and start lobbying for esports to be included in multi-sport events like the Asian Games as a medal sport, and in the Olympics.”
Mehta, too, concurs with the observation. “The foreign players whom I’ve interacted with are treated like professional athletes, whereas, in India, esports isn’t treated as a sport but comes under the entertainment domain, which hampers societal acceptance for esports.”
Mehta further adds that societal acceptance could go a long way in spurring the video-gaming enthusiasts to take to the field wholeheartedly and forge a career in esports. “In recent years, I’ve seen esports gain more prominence because of the evolving PUBG (PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds) Mobile scene in India. I want to see Indian esports athletes focussing on the international scene. Most esports titles have a clear path to compete at the highest level and players should always have that as their goal over a regional event.”
“Most importantly, players need to show the strength of their community, actively participate and engage in esports activities. That would help esports enter the mainstream in India.”
Suji feels that esports is the perfect solution for a world starved of sports amid the coronavirus pandemic. “The governing bodies for tennis and Formula One have already taken note of the viability of esports in this scenario and have sanctioned virtual competitions. It’s in times like these when the world starts looking for alternatives to its traditional sports. Hopefully, people will sit up and take notice of esports.”
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