Sometime in 2004, 15-year-old Ankit Panth was walking home from school in the northern Mumbai suburb of Borivali when he came across a shop with black-tinted glass and posters of video games plastered on it. It was like catnip to a teenager. Panth entered.
It was a gaming parlour, brimming with youngsters sitting in front of computer screens yelling at each other in what probably felt like a foreign language. Eager to find out more, Panth took money from his parents on the pretext of buying food and returned to play Counter-Strike – one of the most popular first-person shooter games in the world at the time. Soon, he was hooked.
Today, Panth is one of India’s best and most well-known electronic sports, or e-sports, players. Known as ‘V3nom’ in the competitive gaming universe, he is the founder and director of operations of an e-sports team called Brutality. He is also the brand ambassador for Intel and Alienware in India. It’s a far cry from 2004.
“When my dad visited the gaming parlour, he was shocked,” Panth told Firstpost on the sidelines of the Mumbai edition of ESL One, one of the most prestigious e-sports tournaments in the world. “He saw gamers who were obese, drinking, smoking, abusing each other, playing violent shooting games… He pulled me out of the parlour by my collar.”
After much pleading, Panth made a deal with this parents. He asked them to list all their concerns and promised to address each of them if they allowed him to continue gaming.
“Today, I am a graduate; I neither drink nor smoke; you will never catch me abusing on my YouTube channel where I stream my games; and I go to the gym every day without fail,” said Panth whose muscular build and towering appearance goes against all stereotypes associated with gamers. “I understand the concerns of parents, but I am a living example of the fact that it doesn’t have to be that way,” he added.
Panth believes that the societal mindset is changing as India’s exposure to the e-sports ecosystem increases. “Now, you are seeing parents coming with their gamer kids to watch tournaments like ESL One,” he said.
Aparna Shanker, a fund manager, was taken aback when her son Sharang ‘Sharkky’ Naicker, a mechanical engineer, told her in 2016 that he wanted to build e-sports teams as a career. “I was very sceptical about it,” said Shanker. “I was of the point of view that these games are very disruptive by nature and can cause you to lose focus from studies.”
However, instead of dismissing the notion out of hand, Shanker read reports, gathered data and spoke to people from the gaming industry. She decided to give her son six months to prove himself.
Today, Naicker is the founder and managing director of Yuvin Esports, one of only four professional organisations to own e-sports teams in India. “If Sharang had pursued engineering he would also have earned Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 a month to start with,” said Shanker. “Today, at 25, he pays that much to his players.”
Shanker, who is an investor in her son’s company and speaks to all parents whose children are joining the team, is surprised at how perceptions around e-gaming are changing.
“I know a parent who gave his son a two-year break from academics to let him play,” she said. “I know parents who are letting their kids as young as 11-12 take part in competitive gaming. The change is already happening.”
Balaji ‘BlizzarD’ Ramnarayan had an easier time dealing with his parents than V3nom and Sharkky. “I just had to complete my engineering degree,” said the 22-year-old, who plays for Signify, a professional Indian Dota2 (Defense of the Ancients 2) team.
Five years in, Balaji earns up to Rs 1.5 lakh a month which includes a fixed salary and a cut of tournament winnings and sponsorships. He stays with his teammates at Signify’s boot camp, which is a flat in Mumbai.
A typical day begins at 9 am with breakfast and freshening up. The practice games (called scrims), begin at 11 am and go on till 7 pm. Each player then practices individually for a couple of hours. Dinner is at 9 pm and lights out by 11 pm. There is hardly any off-season but Balaji isn’t complaining. “It’s not a boring 9-to-5 job,” he said.
Signify was the only Indian outfit to qualify for ESL One Mumbai, a $300,000 tournament. When Signify entered the Dome indoor arena at the National Sports Club of India for their first match, they were greeted by a huge roar from the crowd. “It was spectacular,” said Balaji. “Not just gamers, but I was thrilled to see parents come to watch our matches too.”
Over at the Intel booth, brand ambassador Panth returns after talking to a 14-year-old kid and his father. “You won’t believe what the father just told me,” said Panth. “He said, ‘My son used to follow Virat Kohli and Lionel Messi. Now, he says he wants to be a gamer and V3nom is everything for him. You are his idol.’”
Jaideep Vaidya is a freelance sports journalist
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