Not a lot of people recognised Tirth Mehta when he boarded a flight from Bhuj Airport on August 28 to leave for the Asian Games in Jakarta. Even if the airport staff had announced that Tirth was among the 570-plus athletes representing India at the multi-sporting event, people might have been a bit skeptical. For, Tirth doesn’t look like an... athlete. In his Whatsapp DP, you’d find a bespectacled, moderately built guy, clad in a loose Polo T-shirt (untucked), standing in front of a giant board that says ‘Hearthstone’. He appears geeky, like a stereotypical IT guy (he, in fact, is an IT guy – he awaits his MSc (IT) degree). So, it’s understandable that there wasn’t much fanfare when he left Bhuj.
When he returned home on September 1, however, Tirth was surprised. The airport staff congratulated him. There were a lot of people, who recognised him, who awaited his arrival. This included the who’s who from his community, local politicians and other VIPs. Heck, the Chief Minister of Gujarat wanted to meet!
Tirth Mehta, 23, had become India’s first e-sport medallist in Asian Games. He finished third in Hearthstone, an online collectible card game.
The bronze medal he won wasn’t added to India’s tally. For, e-sports was just a trial event at Asian Games. But Tirth got to stay in the Athletes’ Village in Jakarta. He got to meet fellow (and more celebrated) athletes of his country.
“Yeah, I met Hima Das and Amit Panghal. They were amused that one could win a medal playing video games,” he tells Scroll.in.
Because of the increasing media coverage Tirth got (and is still getting after his medal), the rest of India – like Hima and Amit – is slowly realising the existence of e-sports, which is rapidly growing, in the country.
According to a Forbes report, the number of game-developing companies in India has increased from 25 in 2010 to 250. The country’s gaming industry’s worth over $890 million. By 2020, India’s mobile games market alone will be worth over $1 billion. The proliferation of inexpensive smartphones and high-speed internet is a primary catalyst for this rapid growth of the gaming industry here.
Newzoo – an organisation that tracks the markets of games, esports and mobiles – estimated last year that there were approximately 263 million gamers in India. The number of people who game in this country is higher than the entire population of many countries.
According to Newzoo, more than one-third Indians play mobile games at least five days a week. Many of these people play on their smartphones on their way to work or perhaps to take a break from household chores.
Then, there are those who play for 16 hours, everyday, like Animesh Agarwal, 24, from Bengaluru. His daily life, sometimes, obeys the diktat that you’d find on a quirky T-shirt: Eat. Sleep. Game. Repeat.
Ahead of important tournaments, Animesh, doesn’t do anything else apart from the three aforementioned activities.
He lead his team, 8bit, to the Asian title in PUBG Mobile Star Challenge (an online multiplayer battle royale game). Animesh and company beat 19 other teams to qualify for the world championships in Thailand. This tournament’s important for Animesh. Hence, the eat-sleep-game-repeat routine.
“As soon as I wake up, I have my breakfast and I get my laptop doing stuff. I have to manage my team, I have to speak to my (online gaming) community, I have to answer queries…” he says, matter-of-factly.
From what he says of gaming and how he says of it, it appears to one that the life of a gamer is not all fun and, er, games.
‘Great hand-eye coordination and mental fitness’
Once, when he was visiting his parents in Guwahati (his hometown), he had to be on a conference call with his teammates for nearly four hours to settle an argument over a gaming matter.
Due to several factors, but mainly the lack of conspicuous physical activity, it’s easy to undermine the difficulty of e-sports.
Tirth recalls his chat with Hima and Amit. “Because their sport is very physical, they couldn’t understand that I won a medal by playing on a computer. But when I explained them what e-sport is, they, too, realised we (gamers) also have the same amount of dedication and persistence.”
There are games that require 400 different actions per minute, which means the player must key in different sequences of high-speed commands without a break. “It requires great hand-eye coordination and mental fitness,” Tirth says.
The scale of e-sports is huge and the rewards for succeeding in it are jaw-droppingly rich in some places abroad. Dota 2 International, last year, had a prize pool of more than $24 million — a greater haul than the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup ($20 million) and the US Masters 2018 golf tournament ($11 million).
The IEM World Championship, held in Katowice (Poland) over two weeks, last year, garnered 173,000 fans to the stadium. Online, the event was the most watched eSports tournament in history, with 46 million unique viewers.
The numbers in India, in terms of prize money and audience of esports, aren’t hitting the crazy highs as it is abroad. But it’s slowly catching up.
Last year, entertainment media entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala launched UCypher, India’s first big multi-platform, multi-game eSports championship. The tournament, which was televised on MTV, had a prize pool of Rs 51 lakh with six 14-member teams competing. Counter-Strike: GO and DOTA 2 on PC, Tekken 7 on PS4 and Real Cricket 2017 on mobile were the games featured in the event.
“It’s undoubtedly the biggest gaming tournament in India,” says Ankur Diwakar, 28, who was part of the Yakshas team that won the inaugural U Cypher championship and a cash prize of over Rs 20 lakh.
Ankur, from Mumbai, has been gaming for over a decade now. He’s participated in hundreds of tournaments over the years. But the one, which he calls his “turning point”, was held in 2011. He doesn’t recall its name – “I think it was called God of Gaming or something like that” – but the tournament organisers had announced that the winner will receive a gaming headset and be featured in a national daily.
“We desperately wanted to get ourselves in the newspaper. Of course, by then, a lot of people knew about you from the gaming community. But the recognition that you get outside the community, from the larger society, that’s what matters. Because, back then, gaming was considered an underground activity like gambling.”
Ankur won that tournament and, like he expected, his family became more acceptive of his passion and more people recognised him.
Ankur, Animesh and Tirth concur that the esports scene in India is getting better, day-by-day.
“You don’t have to travel to different cities and participate in tournaments that have a prize money of Rs 500. Now, if you are good, they invite you all expenses paid,” says Ankur.
Tirth reckons India’s lagging by “two-three years” when compared to countries like USA and Canada when it comes to esports. “Over there, you have professional organisations hiring players for big amount of money.”
The global esport community was excited when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) hosted a forum at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, last July, to discuss, among other things, the possibility of including esports in the Olympics.
That might take a while, as the games featured competition will have to adhere to the “Olympic values”.
Just a few days after the horrific Florida shooting incident, involving a video gamer, IOC President Thomas Bach, said at the Asian Games “If you have egames where it’s about killing somebody, this cannot be brought into line with our Olympic values.”
But not all video games are violent. Hence, Bach’s statement doesn’t rule out the inclusion of esports into Olympics.
For now, however, even without it being part of the Olympics, esports are becoming big in India. Or, perhaps, they already are.