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How Indian gamers are making big strides in international esports

More and more Indians are leveraging their gaming skills to win international competitions and hoping for lucrative careers

A FIFAe Nations Cup match in progress in 2019.
A FIFAe Nations Cup match in progress in 2019. (Getty Images)

It may take a few years for the Indian national team to beat Saudi Arabia on the football turf, but in the virtual world, they've already done it.

The eTigers representing India capped off an impressive debut at the FIFAe Nations Cup in early May. They finished third in the tournament, narrowly missing out on a spot in the final round that went to the top-2 finishers. And along the way, the team pulled off an improbable win over a Saudi Arabia team that featured professional FIFA player, Musaed Al Dossary.

The online gaming championship was started by Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), world football’s governing body, in 2019. After India’s inclusion this year, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) conducted national qualifiers in March to identify promising esports gamers to represent the country. For Charanjot Singh, 18, and Siddh Chandrana, 20, who made the cut, online gaming has been an extension of the football they’ve played outdoors.

“On certain days I don’t get much sleep before a match. There’s a lot of planning and strategy involved, a lot of pressure as well. And after it’s over, we go back to the recording of the game to review our mistakes,” says Chandrana.

Siddh Chandrana playing FIFA.
Siddh Chandrana playing FIFA.

According to Statista, the global e-sports market is valued at around $1.08 billion as of 2021. Though late to join the party, India has taken rapid strides over the last few years. As Mint has reported earlier this month, venture capital funds worth $438 million have been invested in Indian gaming startups since April 2020. While there have been plenty of tournaments around the world to choose from, domestic events too have grown over the last few years. The Indian viewership has doubled to 17 million in 2020 while the prize money has grown by 25-30%. The 2018 Asian Games was a sign of things to come, where e-sports was introduced as a demonstration sport. At the 2022 edition, it will be included as a medal event.

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Though FIFA, the game created by Electronic Arts (EA), has been around for a few decades and enjoys a massive fan base, other e-sports such as Counter Strike: Go, Dota, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) and League of Legends have been more popular at the tournaments. In India, it’s only over the last few years that competitive FIFA has gathered steam. This has a lot to do with the game being console-based, which makes it exclusive to a select few as compared to the rest which are usually played on a mobile phone or personal computer. Then, there are the regulations that have been put in place by EA that make it difficult for tournament organisers.

“If you look at console gaming, FIFA is really popular. Unfortunately, because of the commercial arrangement between EA and FIFA, a lot of things are restricted and it remains an underdog. For any video game to become popular, there has to be a lot of flexibility to play around with it for the ecosystem partners, whether they are streamers, marketing guys or brands,” says Lokesh Suji, director, Esports Federation of India (ESFI).

“Sports simulation games like FIFA have the potential to target a younger audience. For instance, schools and parents will be more receptive to these kinds of games as compared to first person shooter games. But growth is hampered because of the restrictions in place,” he adds.

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Until a few years ago, most FIFA tournaments were organised by local cybercafes with almost no cash prizes. Lokmanyu Chaturvedi, 24, who finished among the top-4 in the qualifiers, remembers the first few national level tournaments being put together by organisations such as GamingMonk. It represented an opportunity for gamers like him to showcase their skills and also make some handy money after brands started associating with these events.

“There were about 4-5 big tournaments a year that attracted top players from around India. The total prize money was anywhere between 2-5 lakh. But after the pandemic, these LAN events have made way for an increase in the number of online tournaments. There are more opportunities now, which in turn means a bigger player base,” Chaturvedi says.

Charanjot Singh practicing his FIFA skills.
Charanjot Singh practicing his FIFA skills.

A few years ago, Singh experienced a lot of resistance from his parents, who just couldn’t wrap their heads around what their son was up to. Once he started winning, they were more receptive to him spending many hours chasing e-sports. His results even earned him a stint with Mumbai-based team, ConnectIN Esports.

His teammate Chandrana is represented by a German player management agency, eSportsReputation, since 2018. Through them, he earned a two-year contract with M10 eSports, a team owned by German footballer Mesut Özil. These days, he’s plying his trade for Futbolist, the e-sports team where Turkish footballer Nuri Sahin, is an investor. Around the world, a number of football clubs such as Schalke, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain have invested in e-sports, with a complete team in place that looks at signing and grooming players.

“Working with a professional team gives me the opportunity to work on every aspect of the game with team coaches and managers. I train about 2-3 hours on weekdays and am usually playing tournaments 8-9 hours on the weekend,” Chandrana says.

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To cope with the demands of e-sports, Chandrana has included morning jogs and yoga to his training routine. Another gamer, Aditya Dubey, 23, mentions how he started meditating to gear up for the mental demands of playing live events, where a minor glitch can often cost you the game. Then, there is the challenge of preparing for the many stationary hours spent glued to a screen. That, though, is all part of the job for aspiring e-sports professionals, given all that’s at stake.

“In Europe, professional gamers earn around 5,000 Euros each month through their contract. Apart from that, they have brand deals and streaming revenue that makes them money. And then of course there’s big prize money,” Chandrana says.

It’s not just professional gamers who land lucrative opportunities in the world of e-sports. Live events are hosted by casters whose job is a combination of what a pre-show studio anchor and a commentator do during a football match. Chaturvedi took up his first assignment as a caster quite by chance a couple of years ago and today is a regular on the circuit. Besides, he has been working with United Kingdom-based Revolution eSports to build his brand, while also signing with eSportsReputation to find opportunities as a gamer.

“I have considered moving to Europe, which will give me access to more tournaments and e-sports academies. India currently lacks the infrastructure. The coaching aspect in FIFA doesn’t exist. For instance, a mental health coach can be the difference between the world’s best player and other guys,” Chaturvedi says.

Caster Varun John.
Caster Varun John.

Another caster, Varun John, 24, joined Nodwin Gaming in 2019 when there were four casters onboard. After an audition, he was trained in-house and gradually learnt the tricks of the trade. Today, he is part of an expanded team of over 10 specialised casters, where he not only hosts games but also works as an analyst and produces video content.

It was only last year that John started focussing on FIFA after it was introduced at the ESL India Premiership, one of the biggest gaming championships in India. Over the course of three editions of the tournament that was phased out over 2020, he realised an increase in the number of entries that were received for FIFA.

“Casual gamers had the opportunity to showcase their skills and make some money. By the third event, we had new players making the playoffs. The tournament was also aired on Hotstar, so we had an audience just sitting and enjoying the matches,” he says.

“The entire e-sports scene revolves around how many viewers you can get, so the community itself needs to cultivate the environment. It’s what happened with PUBG. Since the game was accessible, a lot of players started playing and putting up their own content. The bigger player base in turn drew a lot of sponsors,” he adds.

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Though John has never gamed in a highly competitive environment, he still needs to be aware of every aspect of the game, more so with a new version FIFA launched each year.

“A lot of things change with each update and you need to invest a lot of time in rebuilding your team. This becomes an issue for a lot of players. Personally, I need to keep track of all these changes, play the game regularly and watch a lot of matches,” John says.

A career in e-sports in India is still nascent as compared to the rest of the world, but it’s one that holds great promise.

“India’s recent performance has helped put it on the map. But there need to be multiple players doing well for the game to get more popular. Most choose the competitive playing path to a career in FIFA, but I think one can also be a top caster if you’re good at the art of storytelling,” John says.

“For now, you need to play other games as well since it’s hard to survive only on FIFA. But I see more players and teams from India in the future,” Singh says.

ESFI plans on launching its own weekend championship this year, which will present more opportunities for players. In the future, Suji hopes that they can work with the AIFF to help e-sports grow, similar to collaborations between national federations and their e-sports counterparts in countries like Russia, Finland and Iran.

“While this is a technology product, a lot of people don’t realise that it is also a sport. We want to help AIFF with structure so that it can be an additional source of revenue in the time ahead,” Suji says.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.

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