'Far more than just a quick dopamine hit': The rise of esports in India

Can you tell that this is virtual? Nerea Marti of Spain crashes out during the W Series Esports League Round 10 at Silverstone in Northampton, England. Clive Rose/Getty Images

When racers Armaan Ebrahim and Aditya Patel launched X1Racing League, a franchise-based motorsport league in 2019, they used an esports version to market their idea in Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Delhi, Pune and Ahmedabad. The response was unexpected -- offline simulators set up in colleges and malls saw enthusiasts lining up in big numbers, especially during the city finals over weekends.

When the Covid-19 pandemic began affecting Indian sport, X1Racing League was no exception. Patel, though, was equally concerned about the future of the esports league, with plans to get the second season going in the first quarter of 2021. With the simulator competition centred around people queuing up for a 10-minute ride -- hands on steering wheel, feet on pedal and brake, and backs along the seat -- would the fan engagement continue to be the same?

This is when Ebrahim and Patel launched Ultimate E, an esports platform for greater fan engagement. Racing would be just one of the sports on offer -- their most-viewed video on YouTube is a Malayalam commentary version of the 'Battle of Stars', involving PUBG (PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds), one of the most popular games in India.

Patel's experience of uncovering the popularity of esports and gaming is just part of the wider story of how the industry has boomed during the pandemic, with lockdowns and social isolation helping grow numbers, while allowing established players to spend more time fine-tuning their craft.

Poker face goes online

For Nikita Luther, switching from live poker to an online version in recent months has been challenging. "Body language and eye contact can be incredibly helpful tells when you're playing live. There are patterns to players' online play as well, which can be understood over time," says Luther, who gravitated towards the "complexity and mathematical nature" of the sport around the time that she topped New Delhi's Sanskriti School's 12th Board exams. "Online affords opportunities to people who are enthusiastic about the game but are unable to take time off of work to be able to play live. Plus, there's the added benefit of no overhead costs."

Luther, who picked up a Gold Bracelet (poker's equivalent of an Olympic medal) at the 2018 World Series of Poker event in Las Vegas, says the pandemic has brought new players into the sport. "A number of people who only played recreationally have been playing much more regularly due to the current environment, with reduced workloads from their day jobs. I, too, have put in a lot more volume than I usually would -- almost three to four times as much," she says. Luther is a pro with the Spartan Poker team, who recently hosted a 21-day online tournament that saw over 1,00,000 participants.

'Competitive gaming is no longer looked down upon'

In December 2019, the Indian Rivals picked up the national title at the third edition of the Acer Predator League in Bengaluru, winning a PUBG PC tournament that earned them the right to represent India at the Asia-Pacific (APAC) finals in Manila the following spring, where the prize money alone would be $400,000 (approx. INR 3 crore). Sudhir Goel, Acer India's Chief Business Officer, says the 2020 APAC finals have had to be rescheduled till 2021 due to the pandemic, but the subsequent lockdown has seen the demand for gaming PCs go up significantly.

"Esports always started online, and it is only recently we have made it a live physical spectator sport. I feel as more people start playing due to lockdown and consider esports as a profession, we will have world-class talent similar to cricket and other sports," says Goel, whose company also sponsored an APAC PUBG charity event in May, which helped raise $100,000 (about INR 75 lakh) in funds towards Covid relief.

With gamers able to play from the comfort of their homes and spending more time on playing games during the last few months, Goel believes 2020 can transform the future of esports in India. "The main change we see is that competitive gaming is no longer looked down upon by parents or society due to the lucrative career talented players can make with prize monies rivalling major sports," he says.

Gaming goes vernacular and strikes it rich

The other big influencer in the story of gaming and esports in India is what Paavan Nanda, co-founder of WinZO Games, calls the 'Jio Effect' -- the hugely affordable data plans that came when the mobile network operator took shape in 2016, bringing several Indians, especially those from non-metro and Tier-I cities, online for the first time. In 2019, Jio became the first network operator in India to cross the 30 crore (300 million) subscriber mark inside three years.

"Our target users are the 300 million mobile-first users who are spending 40-45 minutes playing games on smartphones in India. Hence, it was important for us to add regional languages on the platform to penetrate the deeper roots of the country," says Nanda, whose platform comes in 12 Indian languages and has seen non-metros contribute 90 percent of their traffic.

The datelines on spikes on their app show a correlation with the pandemic too -- Nanda spotted 30 percent higher traffic and three times greater game plays during the weekend of March 15, around the time that most Indian companies began encouraging employees to work from home. The traffic in Tier-I cities has been growing, too, with a 30 percent surge noticed almost daily, and overall registered users on the app crossing the two-crore mark by mid-July.

"Whatever is happening in this world at this time is really unfortunate; we are not taking this as a business opportunity. Currently, people are isolated, they need to connect -- what better than a social gaming platform?" says Nanda.

Changing demographics

Luther says poker is picking up as a sport among women, but the process has been a recent one. "The demographics are currently skewed to males in Tier-I cities, although there is a lot of participation from non-metros and Tier-II cities as well," says Luther, who aspires to be the top-ranked woman player in the world someday. "The majority of the players are in the 21-35 age group. Female participation of the game has seen a massive increase in the last two years or so as more women realise that poker is a gender-neutral and cerebral game."

With esports set to join the Olympic programme by 2024, the seriousness around it has lifted off. A pandemic has brought in an unexpected number of players, with aspirations of making the big stage, and allowing companies associated with the industry to innovate and do their bit for charity as well.

As Goel reflects on how esports can fill up the vacuum left behind by the Olympics postponement as well as the delays and postponements around several high-profile sports events, including in cricket, he sums it up best. "It offers far more than just a quick dopamine hit."