He’s going for a drush with his vills!"

With that incomprehensible statement, all hell breaks loose. A couple of people groan loudly in disbelief, one man howls with laughter, while yet another hurls expletives at the flat-screen TV that is the centre of everyone’s attention. Outside, on the balcony of a second-floor Worli flat, two young men are sitting across a table and typing away furiously on their laptops, engrossed in a highly competitive game of Age Of Empires II: The Age Of Kings. The rest of us are in the living room “speccing"—short for spectating—the game on the TV.

The Mumbai chapter of AoE India at a LAN party in Worli. Photo: Devendra Parab/Mint
The Mumbai chapter of AoE India at a LAN party in Worli. Photo: Devendra Parab/Mint

Tiny pixelated characters scuttle across the screen, constructing farms, hunting boars and occasionally attacking each other, though the action moves far too fast for me to follow. The other people in the room have no such problems though, and for the next 25 minutes the energy never lets up. When the game finally ends, everyone troops out to the balcony to thump the winner on the back and immediately fall into a jargon-heavy discussion about tactics. It’s all a little Silicon-Valley-meets-football-hooligans, the boisterous atmosphere belying the sheer geekery of the conversation.

When I received the invitation to attend a LAN party hosted by the Mumbai chapter of AoE India—an underground gaming community dedicated to a 19-year-old strategy video game—this wasn’t exactly what I was expecting.

To be fair, I’m not quite sure what I had in mind going in. The last time I played Age of Empires II was in the early 2000s, a few years after its release in 1999. That was the golden era of the real-time strategy (RTS) game, a subgenre of strategy video games where the action takes place in real time rather than the conventional turn-based gameplay. The early 2000s saw the release of a number of seminal RTS titles, including Rise Of Nations, Command & Conquer: Generals and StarCraft. But it was Ensemble Studios’ Age Of Empires franchise—and in particular the critically acclaimed Age of Empires II—that represents the pinnacle of the genre. Sadly, it was also the genre’s high watermark. By 2010, the RTS game had retreated from centre stage, replaced by first-person shooters and role-playing games.

A screenshot from ‘Age Of Empires II’.
A screenshot from ‘Age Of Empires II’.

But Age of Empires II never truly went away, kept alive by a small global community of fans. When Ensemble Studios shifted attention to newer iterations of the game—before being shut down by Microsoft in 2009—they took up the mantle of refining the game and adding new content through fan-created patches and mods. When the official multiplayer servers went offline in 2006, players found alternatives in third- party multiplayer networks like GameRanger and current favourite Voobly. These efforts were rewarded in 2013, when Microsoft brought modders-turned-developers Forgotten Empires on board to release a high-definition remaster of the original. Three expansions followed, and last year Microsoft announced that they were working on a definitive edition, with 4K graphics, a remastered soundtrack and improved gameplay.

This is all to say that 19 years after its release, Age of Empires II is in the middle of an extraordinary revival. And this time around, the AoE India community is determined to ensure that Indian players make their presence felt in the international community.

*****

In India, the biggest incubator for Age of Empires players has been the college campus. That’s where most people get introduced to the competitive side of the game, playing against each other in computer science labs and over hostel LANs. But few continue playing after they graduate. And, in the absence of an organized Indian community, those who do, struggle to find fellow Indians to play with. That changed in June last year, when a small group of players—including Sounak “KTGO" Mukherjee, Raunak “Vizrd" Sudhakar, and Arnab “ass_kickerwa" Chakraborty—found each other in the YouTube comments sections of Age of Empires gameplay videos.

“I found Sounak’s channel on YouTube (KTGOZone, dedicated to Age of Empires content) and pestered him to start a new Facebook group for Indian players, since all of the old ones were defunct," says Chakraborty, a biological sciences student at BITS Pilani, and one of the country’s highest-ranked players. “Whenever we met other Indian players online, we sent them a link to the group. It kept growing, and now we have some 150 active members."

Around the same time in Mumbai, Rohan “BDK" Sabnis was trying to put together an Age of Empires community of his own. A chartered accountant by training, Sabnis works as product evangelist at the GlobalGyan Academy of Management Education, a start-up that focuses on management education through gaming and simulations. “I used to play Age of Empires II as a kid, and last year I and a few friends decided to give the game a try in adulthood and see if we still enjoyed it," he says. “We had such a great time that we wanted to do it more regularly, so we started to look for more people to play with."

An avid board gamer, Sabnis first looked for other players in the city’s board-gaming scene. Pretty soon, every time he met someone new—whether it was at a party, or a start-up conference—he would find a way to bring up Age of Empires II in conversation in the hope of finding a new player. Within a month, he put together a group of 8-10 players who meet up every Sunday for a few intense hours of empire-building and warfare. When Sabnis stumbled upon the fledgeling AoE India community on Facebook, he quickly signed up and brought his new friends along.

The community’s members come from all sorts of backgrounds. They include directors, photographers, engineers, game designers, and even a music blogger. The youngest are still in college while the oldest member is a 47-year-old start-up director with two children.

What brings them together is an almost masochistic passion for a game that takes years to master. Unlike most modern video games, Age Of Empires II is brutally unkind to newcomers. There are 31 civilizations, each with their own advantages and disadvantages, and you need to learn everything about them to have a chance of winning. There are hidden bonuses to discover, hundreds of stratagems to experiment with, and even more pitfalls to avoid.

“It’s like 3D chess, but played on a very large scale," says Pavan “Wildling" Reddy over video-chat. A co-founder of the community, Reddy is currently in Germany, finishing his PhD thesis in transplantation biology. “And it keeps evolving, so no game is ever the same and every move matters."

The real-time element adds another layer of complexity. Not only do you have to manage your economy and engage in warfare, you also have to constantly anticipate what your opponent is doing and figure out ways to counter it. Each game is a taxing exercise in strategic thinking, micro-management and high-stress multitasking. “In this game, you can’t be afraid of losing," says film-maker Aniket Rumde, whose Worli flat is a regular venue for the Mumbai AoE meet-ups. “Because you’re going to lose a thousand games before you reach a respectable level."

Despite its age and the steep learning curve, Age of Empires II boasts of a small but thriving international tournament scene. Games between top players like The Viper and Liereyy carry rewards of up to $2,000 (₹1.3 lakh). There are also a number of online competitions, with the prize money ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. But the holy grail is the Escape Champions League (ECL). An elite competition organized by Escape Gaming, this year’s edition of the ECL has a prize pool of $60,000. An Indian team has never qualified for the competition, a fact that the members of AoE India are determined to change.

*****

“The first objective is to have an Indian team representing the country in the SY Nations Cup," says Sabnis, referring to an annual tournament in which teams from different countries compete against each other. “But right now, there is a big skill gap we have to bridge. A couple of our best players got a chance to play in an international tournament, and they got hammered in every match."

India’s best players—Chakraborty, and Ashwin “Dragonstar" Kumar—hover in the 1,900 points range on Voobly’s rating system. In comparison, most pro players come in at 2,200-2,300 points. With even 30-40 points representing a major difference in ability, Indian players have a lot of catching up to do. To that end, the community members put together the country’s first Age of Empires tournament last year, a team-based competition called Rise of the Sultans. Organized in a team-based 4v4 format, the competition aims to not only find more good players, but also help others raise their level by competing with, and alongside, the country’s best. It seems to be working. The first edition had only 10 players. When applications closed for Rise of the Sultans 2 earlier this year, that number had gone up to 36.

“We’re also planning to create software that analyses each player’s play style and develop an algorithm to help them fine-tune their strategies," says Reddy, who hopes that this will help Indian players leapfrog up the rankings.

But other obstacles remain. In the absence of a pro eSports scene in India, it’s hard to balance professional and personal commitments with the long hours required to reach the top.

“It’s a bit of a vicious cycle," says Chakraborty. “Sponsors are attracted if there are good players and good players are committed to playing if there are sponsors."

Despite these hurdles, the community members remain optimistic. There are over 120 million Indians now playing online games regularly, with an estimated 10 million serious e-sports viewers, according to an ESPN story. As broadband penetration and speeds rise, that number is expected to grow. Companies like Nazara Technologies and JetSynthesys are already investing heavily in the e-sports space. Most of that money is going towards popular games like Dota and Counter-Strike, but community members hope that some of it will find its way to the Age of Empires II scene, especially given Microsoft’s renewed interest in the franchise.

AoE India has already drawn up plans to hold five online tournaments a year, culminating in an annual offline LAN tournament, and are currently looking for sponsors.

The community’s younger members, like Kumar, dream of going pro and getting paid to play the game they love. Sabnis, for his part, is just happy to have found a group of people who share his passion. “I want the community to grow, but numbers aren’t the endgame. A community is about passion, and how close you are to each other. So I just want to make more friends who are interested in Age of Empires."

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