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The government blocked 118 mobile applications, including popular gaming app PUBG, on 2 September. Credit: PTI (PTI)
The government blocked 118 mobile applications, including popular gaming app PUBG, on 2 September. Credit: PTI (PTI)

PUBG ban: what does the future hold for Indian e-sports teams and players?

The ban on PUBG in India has hit professional gamers hard—but there are grounds for optimism as opportunities beckon

On 2 September, the Indian e-sports and gaming community suffered a rude shock. With the border standoff with China intensifying, the Union government banned an additional 118 apps on Wednesday, including Tencent Holdings’ popular mobile video game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, or PUBG, as it is commonly referred to among million of e-sports gamers in the country.

The list included PUBG MOBILE Nordic Map: Livik and a lighter version of the game, PUBG Mobile Lite, among other apps that are owned by Chinese technology companies Baidu and Xiaomi. The official line from the ministry of electronics and information technology was that it had received several complaints from various sources, including several reports about the misuse of some of the apps available on Android and iOS platforms for stealing and surreptitiously transmitting user data to servers located outside India. “The compilation of these data… which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India, is a matter of very deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures," noted a government press release.

While some professional PUBG gamers anticipated the ban, given similar action against video-sharing app TikTok and Alibaba’s UC Browser apps in June, the announcement caught many off guard. “The move was completely surprising. We were preparing for our next tournament on Saturday (5 September). As a team, in the back of our minds, we were all prepared for it. But we never expected it to be this soon," says Gnana Shekar, CEO of the Chennai-based e-sports organization Team Tamilas, one of the top-ranked PUBG Mobile teams in India.

The tournament Shekar mentions is the Skyesports Championship 2.0, one of India’s biggest e-sports competitions, which had a prize pool of 6 lakh for its PUBG event alone. While the championship will go ahead with other gaming titles and events, there will be no PUBG. The four-member PUBG team at Tamilas will now have to look beyond the popular battle royale game. “We also have a Valorant and Clash of Clans team… But the four players and coach (in the PUBG team) would be the most affected because this is their career, right? There is no fall-back option as of now because it's a well-structured, well-invested team. We had put in a lot of time into this," adds Shekar.

The official PUBG Mobile India YouTube page alone has some 2.15 million subscribers.
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The official PUBG Mobile India YouTube page alone has some 2.15 million subscribers.

To put things in perspective, the official PUBG Mobile India YouTube page alone has some 2.15 million subscribers. According to a report released in March by Ernst & Young and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, titled The Era Of Consumer A.R.T.—Acquisition Retention And Transaction, PUBG was one of the top mobile games in the country in 2019—it was ranked first in terms of monthly active users and consumer spends, losing out to Ludo King only in the number of downloads.

“It is the largest single entertainment source for India after cricket," says Akshat Rathee, founder and managing director of the Gurugram-based e-sports company NODWIN Gaming. As Rathee says, a big part of the Indian gaming community is scared and confused after Wednesday’s developments. “Influencers who had built a community around that on YouTube don't know if this will continue.... Players are scared their teams will fire them. Teams are worried about revenues and livelihoods."

Rathee uses the example of PUBG’s fortunes in China to explain possible future scenarios for the game in India. PUBG Mobile does not actually exist in China, where it was refashioned and launched as Game for Peace in 2019 after failing to get regulatory approvals from the Chinese authorities, who felt PUBG Mobile was too violent. “Tencent simply built another version of the game for China.... Yes, it (the ban) will go hurt certain communities in India very quickly—e-sports players, teams and content creators. Some of them will evolve. There are opportunities—ludo, cricket, FIFA, Call of Duty: Mobile," he adds. “Some people will shift to supplementary games temporarily, while some will move to PC gaming and hope for PUBG to be unbanned."

Rajan Navani, founder and president of the Indian Digital Gaming Society, a not-for-profit comprising stakeholders from the digital gaming ecosystem, says that while the loyalty players felt towards the game and the gaming community “will be missed", this move could open the window for casual gamers to look beyond PUBG. “There is this whole streaming community that watches PUBG... There are commentators, casters, production people who could lose their livelihoods. For casual gamers, there is an immediate short-term impact, but this gives them a chance to spend more time in other gaming genres," adds Navani.

Shekar, of Team Tamilas, says that while the move came as a “shock" for its PUBG players, there is still room for optimism. A gamer’s skill-set, he tells me, does not stop at one gaming title, though it will be a challenge to understand the mechanics of a new game. “The positive side is that these are not just gamers, these are also content creators. Streaming is one source of income for them too…. There's always Call of Duty (by Activision) and Free Fire (published by the Singapore-based Garena). These are the two immediate games that people are going to jump towards," he adds.

The overall sentiment in the gaming community is mixed but on Wednesday evening, some popular streamers took to YouTube and Twitter to interact with anxious gamers and remind them that this wasn’t the end of the road. As Naman Mathur, also known as "MortaL", tweeted, “#pubgban… One door closes, another door opens."

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