The Growing Call of Indian eSports

Gaming, Mouse, eSports
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India's professional video gamers make a living playing their favourite games. Has playing eSports become a career option?

Playing videogames for a living isn’t exactly an appealing pitch modern Indian gamers can make to their parents and get away with. But increasingly, India’s best gamers have been trying to step out of the ‘part-time’ appeal of videogames, and take the competition seriously.

Omkar Yadav makes a living setting up the Indian eSports scene, as a business accounts manager. He helped organize the 2016 Indian e-Sports Championship – with a prize pool of $29,394 for the winning team. It was enough to make more than a thousand gamers participate. Says Omkar:

eSports in India started growing from almost 20 people playing in a café, to about 200 at a time today…eSports in India is still quite raw. We have to give directions. In 2014, there were only about four [major] tournaments in India, the entire year. In 2016, we had at least eight large tournaments, six online normal tournaments, and as many LAN events.

One of the teams he used to manage, Overcome, represented India at the ESports World Championship in Paris. They reached the final rounds of the qualifiers before being defeated, but it was the highest an Indian team had reached in ESWC, in the game Counter Strike: Global Offensive.

Anuj Sharma is the team’s In-Game Leader (IGL). Using the team radio, he communicates orders to his team for what is essentially a coordinated, virtual military operation – pitting terrorists against counter-terrorists in a simulated urban battlefield. He’s been playing CS:GO for eight years, professionally for five. He, along with two of his other teammates, quit their jobs to pursue CS:GO fulltime, thanks to a salary and sponsorship given by the company Omkar works for.

I started gaming by playing Counter Strike 1.6 in internet cafes, because the system requirements for CS:GO were too high.

He says the eSports scene in India has grown larger every year, but to truly put Indian gaming on the map, the team needs a coach. Coaches usually come from veteran, retired players. But with Indian gaming in its infancy, it might be a while before any turn up. Luckily, that’s one of the long-term prospects for competitive gamers.

Long term – one can become a shoutcaster (live commentator), or a coach also. Indian sponsors usually don’t provide coaches.

Behind one of India’s leading DotA teams

Gaming, house, pad, profession
(Image courtesy Neerav Rukhana) The house team Entity live and practise in

Competitive gaming in India is mostly split between CS:GO and DotA. In 2016, DotA players across India held their breath when team Entity made it to the TI open qualifiers (DotA’s World Cup equivalent). They subsequently lost to a rising Filipino team called TNC.

Nevertheless, it was called a ‘landmark event in the Indian eSports scene’.

They had their next break in 2016, when they made it past the qualifiers at the Electronics Sports League One in Manila. But then, they were pitted against team Fnatic – one of the world’s top professional eSports organizations. They lost – but it was a chance to play with legends – and learn from their mistakes. “You have to adapt to the game. Every two or three months…there could be one strategy, and then another because there’s a game update,” says Neerav Rukhana, the team’s owner.

Neerav encourages a sense of ritual. Players wake at nine in the morning, exercise for an hour, meet for brunch, and then practice online for five hours straight. They take a break, strategize, and practice again until 10pm. 12am is lights-off. With high-end equipment sponsored by a major tech company, team Entity get a salary, travel expenses and live in a house given to them by Neerav.

For any gamer, it’s a dream gig. But is the game still fun at this level of intensity?

“Sometimes it takes a toll on the players. When you’re playing pro, there is heightened stress… that’s why we encourage players to take up physical activity,” says Neerav.

Business, and lifestyle

Competitive video gaming (or eSports as it is better known) is a fast growing phenomenon. Deloitte Global predicted revenues from the industry to touch $500 million in 2016, with over 150 million people as an audience. Such is the optimism around this sport, that Amazon purchased videogame-streaming service Twitch for $970 million in March.

Like with any sport, there’s a chance for a rags-to-riches story. With recruiters and sponsors like Omkar and Neerav keeping an eye out for talent and funding the expense of travel, stay and hardware, India might just become the next big underdog in global eSports.

The underdog spirit; the feeling of getting back up after a fall, drives players. Aniruddh Das of team Flux explained how getting knocked out of his first competitive tournament drove him to take up the game professionally.

We thought of participating for fun, so we created a team called ‘God’s Favourite Team’ (for the lulz, we are not religious). We got knocked out in the quarter finals. I think that’s what ignited our competitive spirit. We continued to play almost every day after that.

Videogames are now firmly in the realm of sports – there’s a clear divide between playing for fun and playing competitively. It takes determination, training and more than a bit of failure, to make your way to the top. India’s pro-gamers might have a long way to go before they get there, but they’re on the right track.

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