New Delhi: Considered to be one of the fastest growing “sport" in the world, eSports is now making its foray into India, with the Indian Gaming League (or IGL), which launched on Thursday. eSports, as the name goes, refers to “electronic sports", which essentially is competitive gaming, is professional in nature, where gamers are often paid by their respective franchises to... play.

eSports, while big in the West and Asian markets like South Korea, is yet to make a mark in India. “We want to revive the gaming culture in India," says Siddhanth Valecha, IGL spokesperson. “We interacted with India’s gaming community before launching the league, and we received a tremendous response." The Indian gaming community, Valecha says, is above 10,000, and is highly urban, concentrated in Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru and Delhi (in that order).

Billion-dollar market

India’s gaming market, according to Yash Pariani, a Mumbai-based disc jockey and IGL co-founder, is highly mobile-centric. “At the moment, the mobile game market is valued at around half a billion." Together with console-based games (which include Nintendo, Sony etc), the figure, Pariani says, would increase to $1 billion. These numbers, along with a constantly growing gaming community is what convinced the founders to start their latest venture. “In India, most gamers spend eight to nine hours in a cafe, playing games as a hobby, or as a passion. We want to give them a platform where they could convert their hobby into a profession," Valecha adds.

For example, Valecha says, a player can earn up to 15,000-20,000 a month by playing FIFA, one of the games to feature in the IGL. Similarly, a dedicated manager, who will assist the player with strategy or tactics, could earn between 20,000 and 25,000 a month. In the case of a multiplayer game, say, Counter Strike, a team could earn around $1,000 per month, says Valecha.

The league, the IGL says, will be played both online and offline. The offline model, is loosely based on the highly popular cricket tournament, the Indian Premier League (IPL), with city and game-specific franchises (for example, Fifa Mumbai or CoD Mumbai) vying for the right to compete or represent India in international competitions, including the Major League Gaming or the MLG, one of the biggest eSports competitions in the world.

While the IGL hasn’t auctioned or sold these franchises yet, the founders claim that interest levels are high. “Everyone we have spoken to, including corporates, startups or even Bollywood personalities, have expressed interest in buying teams in the league," says Valecha.

The league says it has tied up with beverage giants RedBull, Sony and Paytm on sponsorship deals. “Sony will be our hardware partner, Paytm our monetary transactions partner, while RedBull is our events sponsor," says Pariani. The games featured in the league include Fifa, Call of Duty, Dota 2, League of Legends, Halo and Counterstrike.

Situation has improved, though nascent

Mumbai-based gamer Arjun Sen says, “eSports are still nascent in India. As a market, India has always traditionally been an offline gaming market. With cheap, pirated games available for as low as 70 in the grey market, the focus has always been on single player campaigns. However, with internet speeds upwards of 50mpbs available now in all major cities, there is a shift to online gaming."

Another gamer from Mumbai, Jayesh, who has been involved in some form of online gaming for over a decade, says, “The state of gaming in India in general is abysmal despite some decent growth." He adds, “In 2016, the situation has improved a lot, specially with the proliferation of Singapore-based servers, enabling low-level latency. However, the real challenge remains the complete lack of infrastructure and local support without accountability, which has prevented any kind of realistic growth in eSports."

The other issue, Jayesh says, is that of pricing. “The absurd pricing of console gaming is a massive barrier, which restricts it to a very limited niche. Gaming is not as mainstream here, as much as it is in developed markets like South Korea, Japan and the US and is just treated as a waste of time by most parents."

This is probably what the likes of Pariani and US-based Krish Galani are trying to change.

Unemployment turns to opportunity

The recent history of the professional gaming industry has interesting origins—the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which as per this ESPN report, “spurred the government to invest in broadband". The report quoted Crisis Wi, head of South Korea’s dedicated e-sports channel OGN as saying that the recession, essentially, “helped spawn the Korean eSports craze". Wi told ESPN, “The unemployment rate went up, and there was a huge amount of people looking for things to do. So they started playing video games." Korea, is an interesting basket case for the emerging eSports phenomenon. It even has a ‘Korea eSports Association’, in Jung-ju district of Seoul. Interestingly, it is affiliated to the Korean Olympic Committee and is an arm of the Ministry of Youth, Culture, Tourism and Sports in that country.

Likewise, the US, where eSport is as good as a professional sport by itself, is home to the MLG. Founded in 2002, the MLG holds professional gaming tournaments in the US and Canada and is considered to be one of the most prestigious eSports organizations. In 2006, MLG also became the “first televised video game console gaming league in the United States" when their Halo 2 Pro Series was broadcast by USA Network.

In January 2016, the MLG was acquired by video game publisher Activision Blizzard for a reported sum of $46 million.

As of 2015, the worldwide eSports market is valued at $748 million, and is expected to rise to $1.9 billion, according to Superdata’s playable media and games data research.

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