Into the world of gaming's desktop athletes

  • After hosting its biggest event to date, India is set to become a hot destination for e-sports tournaments
  • Though still a small market, it is already disrupting traditional mediums of advertising and creating new career options

At the National Sports Club of India’s Dome, an indoor sports arena in Mumbai, a few thousand mostly young men gathered over from 19-21 April. Dressed mostly in black, they were seated in front of three giant screens, their focus on the proceedings being telecast accompanied by live commentary

Under the screens, on a stage, two competing teams of five people each sat behind computers, wearing headphones and staring into their PCs. The result of their actions was being shown on the screens, amid intermittent cheers from the audience.

For the uninitiated, the ESL One Mumbai Dota 2 event was not easy to comprehend. The screen was a cluster of action, colours and widgets. The commentary, too niche. The only indication of the contest’s results would come when someone from a team raised an arm or let out a hint of a smile. Unlike cricket, you can understand Dota (Defense Of The Ancients) 2, an online multiplayer battle arena video game described by someone as basketball and chess on steroids, only if you have played it.

This was the biggest-ever e-sports (electronic sports) event in India—the Wimbledon of e-sports, as one of the stakeholders put it. Eight of the world’s best Dota 2 teams, including Signify from India, contested the $300,000 (around 2 crore) prize-money event, which filled a majority of the Dome’s lower levels. This event also marked a shift in paradigm, with India emerging as a hot market for e-sports, even if its players and teams have some catching up to do at the Asian and global levels.

While India has been a late entrant in the field—primarily owing to social biases against professional gaming, its relationship with gambling, the high cost of computers and data, poor internet speed, etc.—there has been a change in the last few years. Though still a small market, it is already disrupting traditional mediums of advertising, creating new career options and pushing the gaming subculture into the mainstream. In a young country with growing mobile consumption, internet reach and plummeting data costs, the impact of this could be massive.

“E-sports pros in the West are not (college) dropouts (as in the past). This requires a high level of intelligence. Because the smartest children in our generation went into engineering or medicine, they didn’t have this opportunity. Now we are seeing high-IQ pro-gamers in India," says Prashant “Aequitas" Prabhakar, CEO of Bengaluru-based SoStronk, one of the top platforms for another game, Counter Strike.

IT’S NOT JUST A GAME

India is considered among the top 4 countries in the world in participation in professional gaming competitions, with over 150 million people playing e-sports tournaments, according to some estimates. The online gaming industry in the country is a $1 billion opportunity, with an estimated 310 million online gamers by 2021, according to a May 2017 study by KPMG in India and Google.

“What’s the size of the gaming market in the country? It depends on who you ask," says Akshat Rathee aka LordNOD, managing director of e-sports company Nodwin Gaming, the licensing partner of ESL (Electronic Sports League), an e-sports organizer that also produces video game competitions worldwide. “It’s like the elephant in a room with five blind men. So people dealing with hardware, software, plus OEMs, developers, telecom…all will have their numbers but this industry is the sum of all parts."

Everyone in the e-sports business agrees that the market is evolving fast. One of the top professional teams, Entity Gaming, recently got a one-season sponsorship deal with HyperX, a product division of memory devices manufacturer Kingston Technology. The ESL One event was telecast on the digital platform Voot; Hotstar is another active supporter of e-sports.

Gaming cafés have changed, from dingy dark rooms with old machines to certified 50 seaters with the latest graphic cards. Insider.in, which sold the tickets for ESL One, dealt with over a thousand e-sports events in 2018-19.

“This market is maturing, coming out of the garage, so to speak," says Roshni Das, director, marketing, Intel India, which is one of the largest companies invested in e-sports globally.

The resistance to categorizing e-sports as a “sport" comes from the seeming lack of physical activity or visible athleticism. But followers refer to its exponents as “athletes", arguing that this is as much a sport as chess or shooting because it has a challenge, a competition and a score at the end. Its inclusion in the last Asian Games as a demo event has added to its credibility.

Numbers back this claim of “athleticism". A regular gamer does about 200-500 actions per minute—a “normal human" would carry out 12-15 actions a minute. Multiplayer games require coordination, strategizing and this multitasking can last up to 8 hours. An average person has a reaction time of 300-350 milliseconds. For athletes, it’s about 200-220 milliseconds. For e-sports, it can be as little as 120 milliseconds.

The difference between amateur gaming—playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds—and e-sports is the equivalent of gully cricket versus the Indian Premier League or WWE versus wrestling at the Olympics, explains Rathee.

GETTING THE EYEBALLS

The Dota 2 Mumbai event had a host of sponsors and associate partners, including Intel, Mercedes, Vodafone and DHL. E-sports is a marketing vehicle for game publishers and a media vehicle for brands to reach millennials, says Manish Agarwal, chief operating officer of gaming company Nazara Technologies Ltd. “My guesstimateis that the total spend on gaming from all these is 100 crore."

The broadly accepted age bracket for followers of e-sports is 16-24, a demographic that does not watch television much. “TV channels do not understand us when we tell them it’s an 8-hour broadcast. They think we are nuts," adds Rathee.

For companies trying to reach this set of spenders, e-sports provide the ideal platform to ride on. “This age group uses ad blocks, is tech-savvy and difficult to get marketing messages across to. One of the ways to talk to them is to serve them native content via e-sports," says Nishant “Cloudx" Patel, co-founder of e-sports content company AFK Gaming.

India is expected to lead the world in e-sports mobile consumption on video, which is “growing like a mutant". Publisher Tencent Games’ PUBG Mobile, launched in India in March 2018, has seen over 200 million downloads. The size of the audience and the ability to work with local companies make India an ideal destination for international tournaments, content and activity rather than being a source for creating players and teams.

“This (year) is the equivalent of 2007-08 for music festivals," says Shreyas Srinivasan, founder and CEO of Insider.in. “There are a core set of followers and people will pay money to watch. College festivals are gaming-specific markets."

Nodwin, a subsidiary of Nazara, had events over 214 days last year and will have over 400 days of live gaming events this year, according to Rathee.

“The real boom hasn’t even happened yet," adds Prabhakar. “It will happen with a generational shift when people like us become parents and understand that this is like cricket and tennis."

Even if most experts paint a rosy picture, they are not averse to laying down the challenges for growth. It’s a nascent space and perception—political and media-generated—can reverse opinion. The industry does not have the wherewithal to influence policy. E-sports, like cricket with the 1983 World Cup, needs heroes, big successes and celebrities for increased viewership.

WHERE THERE’S A SPORT, THERE’S A TEAM

“It’s India’s largest and best boot camp," says Vishal Parekh, while describing Entity. Parekh is managing director of HyperX, which makes gaming accessories like headsets and mouse pads. He is right about the boot-camp description.

In an unpretentious building in Santacruz, Mumbai, boxes lie piled up along with PCs, wires and furniture. In this six-bedroom flat, with a kitchen, gym equipment on the balcony, and air-conditioned bedrooms, one of India’s leading teams is in the midst of a shift in location.

This “boot camp" houses the three teams that Entity has in Dota 2, Counter Strike and PUBG Mobile. Each of the first two teams has five members and a coach, including two players from the Philippines (in Dota 2), three Serbians (in Counter Strike) and a Serbian coach. Some Entity players are currently in Serbia for training.

Their whole CS team consists of professional players, who take breaks from colleges and careers to focus on this because they see the potential to earn money from salary, sponsorship and prizes. The average daily schedule includes waking up at 10-11am, playing six team games, followed by individual practice. The Dota 2 players do 10 games a day, each lasting 40 minutes to an hour. Other preparation includes watching replays and studying other teams, all of which goes on till about 10pm.

“Before tournaments, you have to scout and google other teams as well," says Raunak “Mr Crowley" Sen of Signify, the team that qualified for ESL One.

Entity is still not fully equipped to provide everything the players need, like analysts, fitness trainers, dieticians, physiotherapists and sports psychiatrists. “Once that happens, there is potential for India," says Neerav Rukhana, its director and CEO.

He says this team uses the same economics as any sports franchise. It takes many years to develop as a brand, with the main source of revenue coming after a few years with sponsorships, event wins and media partnerships.

“People don’t understand the level of complexity that goes into successful e-sports team," says Prabhakar, who has also done some coaching. “It includes studying the opponents, to individually helping players, reviewing matches and mistakes. It requires scheduling, ego management. You have to be like a dad for the team."

A day after his team finished fourth in their group at ESL One, and after playing their biggest tournament till date, Sen said they lacked the requisite experience.

IT’S ALL IN THE MIND

In October, a 19-year-old Delhi boy who killed his parents was reported to have been addicted to PUBG. Earlier this year, the Gujarat government banned PUBG after parents complained that their children spent too much time on it. The ban was later lifted in Ahmedabad. The Maharashtra police has also prepared a dossier listing the reasons why PUBG is harmful–that it’s violent, addictive, and affects mental health—based on a high court directive, according to Mid-Day.

The shooter who killed 49 people in two mosques in New Zealand in March urged his viewers to subscribe to PewDiePie or Felix Kjellberg, who has 90 million YouTube subscribers from his mix of commentary and video game narration.

All this points to a stigma that remains associated with video games, which parents of growing children are prone to bring up. “Parents have always hated—not just in this generation—technology and tech-related manifestations," adds Rathee.

“It’s not true that if you play violent games, it will give rise to violence," says Gayatri Vartak, co-founder of sports psychology consulting firm Samiksha.

Some argue that mental health is an issue of internet addiction—more people are addicted to social media than gaming. “Parents have to make sure, like an adult movie, you don’t download a game and give to children. Gaming is just an easy target," says Vishal Gondal, CEO, GOQii and founder of Indiagames.

“E-sports players are not violent or aggressive," adds Rukhana. “Their aim is to play all day, crush opponents in a game, not in real life. These are guys who are socially awkward, who would rather play a game than spend a night out."

Some professional e-sports teams hire sports psychologists to deal with issues of stress, communication, how to express criticism because most players are teenagers with too much screen time.

“Sometimes, they (the players) just don’t have the professional attitude. They think: I travel, I play and I get paid, but it’s more complex than that. We should change their mentality and that’s a job for psychologists," says Igor Sydorenko, manager of the Ukranian side Na’Vi, which finished third in ESL One Mumbai. Their team has used life coaches in the past to help players.

“The help needed is different," adds Vartak, who has worked with gamers. “Other sports are physical. The problems with e-sports are lethargy, pressure, or feeling nervous. Since there is no physical output or emotional involvement, the escalation of anxiety is higher."

A day after their campaign ended in ESL One, as Sen waited in the media room for his press interviews, he said that they hoped to qualify for more events. “We play every tournament that comes to us," he said. “We usually win everything."

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