End game: What does India's PUBG ban mean for esports?

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On Wednesday, Player Unknown Battle Grounds, better known as PUBG Mobile, amongst the most popular mobile based games in India, was banned in the country after being classified as "prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India" by India's Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.

Apart from the Battle Royale style game, another 117 mobile apps were banned by the government. The move comes amid the standoff with China at the LAC. The Union government notes that they were engaged in "activities that are prejudicial to sovereignty, integrity, and security of the state."

While PUBG was developed by a Korean gaming company Bluehole, the mobile version of the game which enjoyed popularity in India was developed by Chinese company Tencent.

What is a Battle Royale game?

A game in the Battle Royale genre is an online multiplayer game in which players look to eliminate all opponents in order to remain the last one standing. In PUBG mobile, up to 100 players compete simultaneously, either individually or in teams of up to four. They parachute onto an island, scavenge for weapons and look to eliminate other players while avoiding to get eliminated themselves. The safe area of the map shrinks over time, forcing players into encounters. Eventually, the last player or team standing wins the game.

How popular is PUBG mobile in India?

When PUBG was released in 2017, it became a cultural phenomenon not because it was the first game in the Battle Royale genre, but for the fact that it was the first to gain worldwide popularity.

While PUBG mobile has faded in from popularity elsewhere as Battle Royale players have moved on to games like Fortnite and Warzone, the game continues to be immensely popular in India. According to Sensor Tower data, a platform that provides market intelligence and analytics for mobile apps, PUBG has received 24% or 175 million out of the total 734 million downloads as of July 6 from India.

The popularity of the game was reflected even in the fact that Naman "Soul Mortal" Mathur, who streamed PUBG games on his Youtube channel, became the first Indian to be nominated at the esport awards in the Best Streamer category.

"The success of PUBG was largely due to the fact that it was the first high quality Battle Royale style game meant to be played on a smartphone," says Lokesh Suji, vice president of the Asian Esports Federation.

What does this mean for Indian gamers?

The Indian esports industry and especially professional gamers will undoubtedly take a blow owing to the fact that the bulk of the tournaments were of PUBG.

"The overwhelming majority of mobile game tournaments organised in India were of PUBG," an industry insider told ESPN. The strongest teams in India made hundred's of thousands of dollars in prize money even as international esport teams had also set up partnerships with Indian outfits. TSM Entity, a partnership between esport giants TSM and Indian team Entity Gaming, earned $182,067 in prize money while Orange Rock, which was acquired by multinational video game service company Pole, earned over $120,000.

What's next?

For Indian professional esport players, the PUBG mobile ban would mean the immediate end of any competition. In July this year, Pakistani team Freestyle missed out on competing in the PUBG Mobile World League (PMWL) 2020 East Season zero, after the game was banned in the country. While Freestyle attempted to play over VPN, PUBG officials notified that VPN or any third-party apps were not allowed.

The first impact of the ban would be felt by Indian teams including TSM Entity and Orange Rock who will have to withdraw from the PUBG Mobile Bangladesh Challenge scrims that were already underway. In the long term though, it is expected that most Indian gamers will move to other titles.

"There is no need to panic, the Indian gaming industry has enough wherewithal and can't be termed dependent on one game. This is a great opportunity for Indian Video Game developers to build innovative online multiplayer games," Suji said.

"Games like HitWicket, WCC or mythology-based games like Raji which are all homegrown products and now have the great opportunity to encash their presence. I believe this is a great opportunity for the government and the Ministry of Sports to also recognise esports as a medal-prospect sporting opportunity. The gaming community which is fragmented currently can also benefit if government recognition is given to the sport.

"PUBG isn't the only Battle Royale style game. When it came to India, it was the most popular but there are many such options now."