It was a meeting like no other they had imagined, but one that the Esports Federation of India had been longing to have for a very long time. When the Indian Olympic Association came calling on them, and eight other non-Olympic sports federations, for a meeting earlier this week, the ESFI saw it as an opportunity to increase their standing in India’s sporting ecosystem.
Esports will make its debut as a medal-event at the Asian Games later this year, and Narinder Batra, the IOA president, wanted to meet with the national federation to understand the preparation it had in place. For the ESFI though, the meeting was the recognition they craved.
“It’s the first time Esports has been included as a medal event, so Mr Batra wanted to appraise us, tell us what are the things we should keep in mind, how do we progress,” says Lokesh Suji, ESFI director, of the meeting that took place in New Delhi earlier this week.
“We had already been in touch with the IOA, but he wanted to call upon everybody to understand what we are doing. Importantly, he wanted us to know what are the things we should be doing. It was more like a briefing meeting.”
For a discipline that has struggled to assert its validity in India, the IOA calling upon the national Esports federation was the vote of confidence it had never received before. And it all stems from Esports being promoted to a medal-event at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou.
“Any sport getting included into the Asian Games or Olympic program is an achievement in itself,” says Suji, who is also the vice-president of the Asian Esports Federation.
“During the pandemic, there was actually a good impact on the industry. People started to know more about the existence of Esports and there is now a buzz. Now when our team goes to participate at the Asian Games, the masses will know about it and will recognise it. When people get to see it, especially parents, they’ll understand that this is a viable career opportunity.
“And if we win a medal or two, we’re confident that we will, that might catapult us further.”
Globally, Esports has generated a great degree of appeal, especially reflected when it comes to the prize money available at major events. The Dota 2 (a multi-player online game) World Championship – simply dubbed ‘The International’ – has been largely crowdfunded since the 2013 edition. The event that took place last year in October, in Bucharest, Romania, had a total prize purse of $40,018,194, with the winning team pocketing $18,208,300.
In India, there are about four events – offering prize money of Rs 50 lakh each – every quarter. And this doesn’t include the various individual events sponsored and organised by companies.
Globally, according to statistics compiled by the Federation of Indian Chambers for Commerce and Industry and United Kingdom-based professional service company Ernst & Young, there was a total global prize purse of Rs 25 billion in 2021. Of that number though, only 0.61 percent, or just over Rs 150 million, came from events conducted in India.
Awareness, Suji says, is what has been lacking when it comes to the sport growing in India.
“Right now, there is a common misconception that Esports is the same as the fantasy leagues and card games like rummy and all,” he says.
“There’s also the perception from parents that they’d rather have their children go out and play rather than sit in front of the computer, thinking that there is no physical activity. But if you want to increase or enhance your reflexes to play, you need to be physically fit.
“It’s not a case of just moving the mouse and clicking. You need to have a diet plan and focus on specific muscular groups. The arms, back, lumbar, neck…they have to be strong.”
That’s what will be expected of the teams that compete at the Asian Games.
There are eight game titles that will be used for the quadrennial event that starts in September. And India stands a chance to send one team for each.
“In 2018, when Esports was a demonstration sport, we had to send our teams to a regional qualifier. If they did well, they went to Jakarta. This time all teams that win the national qualifiers get to go to China,” Suji says.
The qualifier dates will be announced shortly, but the final teams have to be declared before the end of March.
And there won’t be a paucity of competitors vying for a spot at the Asian Games. According to Statista.com, there are over 1,50,000 Esports players in India, an increase from 80,000 in 2020. The number is expected to grow to 15,00,000 by 2025.
In the Gongshu district of Hangzhou, hosts China have built the Xiacheng District Esports Venue, a 4500-seater that will host the Esports disciplines during the Games.
The last time there was an Esports event – in any capacity – at an Asian Games, India returned home with a bronze medal. Now that the sport has become a permanent fixture in the continental sporting extravaganza, and with the IOA intrigued, there is a hope for a few more medals coming from Esports to increase India’s overall tally this September.