Darshan Bata and Mayank Prajapati will line up next to the likes of Neeraj Chopra and PV Sindhu for the Asian Games opening ceremony on September 23. Of course, they’re known more commonly by two very different names.

In the world of Esports, Bata goes by the name “A35”, Prajapati is “MiKeYROG.” And as Esports gets set to makes its debut as a medal event in the Asian Games roster, the duo are a part of a 15-member contingent from their discipline.

“It’s like a dream because I didn’t ever imagine that Esports will get added to an event like the Asian Games with all the other sports,” Bata, the captain of the Indian team’s five-member Defence of the Ancient Art 2 (a video game popularly known as Dota 2) squad, told Scroll.

“People didn’t consider Esports to be a proper sport until now. They’re slowly accepting that there’s some kind of skill required.”

Tools of the trade

With the amount of money being pumped into the industry by gaming companies, gamers have become more and more professional in the way they approach tournaments. Just like Chopra will carry his javelins and Sindhu her racquets to China, India’s Esports athletes will also be carrying their own custom controllers, keyboards and gaming equipment.

Prajapati, who uses an arcade gamepad, has spent a considerable amount of money for parts to repair the instrument.

“It’s actually an antique right now because the company that used to make these has shut down,” explained Prajapati, 32. “When I bought it, it was Rs 27,000, but now I think it costs around Rs 60,000. I basically have to carry a special bag and it weighs almost six kilograms.”

Bata and his Dota 2 teammates have their own individual sets of keyboard and mouse that they use for competitions. However, gamers tend to stick with hardware they are used to rather than go for frequent upgrades.

“My mouse, keyboard and my mouse pad, these are the most important things,” said 29-year-old Bata. “We’ll keep buying the same mouse again and again if we’re comfortable with it. It’s more of a comfort thing.”

Mayank Prajapti’s gamepad (Special arrangement)

Prajapati, who competes in the Street Fighter V game, first came across the world of fighting games in the early 2000s while accompanying his mother to her doctor’s appointments. He recalled slipping away to play games like Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, Street Fighter and Tekken at a nearby arcade.

Around the same time, Bata was, as he puts it, grinding to improve his skill at Dota 2. The game is a multiplayer online battle arena game where two teams of five players try to defend their base while also capturing the opposition’s base.

It would be another decade before the duo would begin actively competing in tournaments.

In contrast, Charanjot Singh’s rise has been meteoric. As a 13-year-old, Singh used to play the popular football game FIFA with his friend who owned a PlayStation 4 console.

In 2018, Singh, now 19, tagged along with his friend to compete at the EA (creators of the FIFA game) Road to Russia competition held in his hometown of Chandigarh and ended up winning the tournament. Since then, Singh has won the All India Football Federation Football Challenge 2021 and has become a mainstay in the AIFF’s eTigers team.

Coaches and data analysis

Along with helping Esports athletes with their gaming set-ups and a place to come together and practice, companies are also hiring former gamers as coaches to help their athletes sharpen their skills.

The Esports Federation of India, Bata said, has collaborated with FITGMR, a portal which helps gamers stay in optimal condition and grow, to help India’s Esports athletes. With a majority of gamers either studying or working in different jobs, having a coaching set-up helps them streamline their efforts.

“If you’re mentally clear in what you have to do, then you’ll properly play the game,” Bata said.

“Some of us are students right now, some of us are working. We spend two hours per day for individual practice and two more ours of training as a team. The main part of practice is watching replays and picking out mistakes we made or what we can do better in the next game.”

Singh explained to this publication that his coach helps him analyse opposition trends. Accordingly, Singh builds up his own strategies ahead of a match.

Prajapati added: “I guess we are still athletes because of the kind of mental fortitude that we have to maintain. The kind of practice sessions that we have to put in, and the kind of dedication that we have to show towards the game, it’s actually pretty similar to sports like boxing, running or swimming. You have to be dedicated to the game and be mentally fit.”

Family support

It took time for the families of the gamers to come around to the idea of their craft being a crucial part of their child’s lives. With Esports still at a nascent stage in India, unlike in Western and East Asian countries, the prospect of being in a very niche industry is difficult for many gamers.

For Prajapati’s wife, it took for her to accompany him to competitions and see the work behind it to actively support his passion.

“I took my wife to a tournament [where] there was a big production crew and they took interviews of the gamers,” he recalled. “It was a full-fledged tournament with us playing on the stage and people watching on the big screens and cheering for us. When she saw all that, she said that I was doing something that people actually dream of.”

Bata, meanwhile, was among the first gamers to have a regular stream of income when the earliest gaming leagues took off in the country a decade ago.

“I think at that time, we were one of the very first teams to get a proper salary for playing Dota,” he said. “That was like a having a stable job or a stable income. It was one of the main reasons why my parents supported me.”

Before becoming a freelance gamer in 2019, Bata said he drew a salary of Rs 50,000 per month while also earning anything between Rs 2-3 lakhs a year through prize money. Prajapati has raked in Rs 3 lakhs in prize money so far and also makes $1,500 per month through his streaming channels.

Similarly, since winning his first tournament in 2018, Singh has approximately earned $30,000 in prize money.

Esports has grown from an early 2000s niche culture to a multi-million dollar industry with broadcasters and telecom companies jumping on the bandwagon.

According to ‘State of India Gaming Report 2022’ by gaming venture capital fund Lumikai and Amazon Web Services, India’s Esports industry is expected to grow from $40 million in 2022 to $140 million by 2027.

But in India, the trio believe that Esports’ inclusion in the Asian Games roster is a shot in the arm for the small, yet growing, gaming community in the country. It brings with it a sense of legitimacy to a sport often viewed as unserious and wasteful.

“The inclusion of these games helps a lot,” Prajapati added. “For a niche game like Street Fighter V, we only have around 20 players in India. But as soon as people heard that the game will be at the Asian Games, it charged everyone up. We need that kind of commitment from players because everybody wants to represent their own country.”

Dusty maidans across India have unearthed hundreds of medallists over the years. Come the Asian Games, India might just get new sporting icons whose journeys began at cyber cafes and video game arcades.