When Charanjot Singh found out that he would be part of the Indian Esports contingent for the Asian Games, his initial reaction was one of relief. Having played a taxing week-long qualifying tournament (National Esports Championships—NESC ‘22—in April last year) that had over 200 participants, the 20-year-old was relieved to be among the two players selected. “The happiness and excitement came later,” he says now.
Singh and Karman Singh Tikka will represent India in the FIFA22 category as Esports makes its Asian Games debut in Hangzhou, China (the Games begin on 23 September). They will be part of an 18-athlete contingent that will participate in five categories: FIFA22, Street Fighter, Hearthstone, and the team events of League of Legends and DOTA 2.
“We did not expect Esports to be added (to the Asian Games),” says Shubham Goli aka Madness, who is part of the DOTA 2 team. “Though we are used to going to different cities, here you are competing under the country’s name. You can’t ignore that we are representing the nation and have to respect that opportunity.”
Esports was a demonstration event in the Asian Games in 2018 but was included as a pilot event at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games (CWG) last year. The selection for the Asian Games was conducted last year because the Asian Games was slated to be held then, before it got postponed to 2023.
“Before the CWG, people would judge us when we said we are professional gamers,” says 24-year-old Goli, who won a bronze medal in Birmingham. “After the CWG, they understand this is a sport and we are representing the country.”
By most accounts, Indian players trail several of their Asian counterparts, with countries like Japan, China and Chinese Taipei enjoying a head start into the gaming world. Infrastructure, data services and the formation of a gaming community took time, but the acceleration in growth has been sizeable in recent years.
According to the FICCI-EY Media and Entertainment Report 2022, “Tuning into Consumer”, the number of Esports players doubled from 300,000 in 2020 to 600,000 in 2021 (partly driven by the lockdown) and Esports teams grew by over 50 per cent from 60,000 in 2020 to 100,000 in 2021.
Charanjot Singh, for example, is ranked fourth in Asia South of the global series ranking of FIFAe (Tikka is 25th). Tirth Mehta won a bronze medal in Hearthstone in the 2018 Asian Games where it was a demonstration sport. “I am hoping for a medal but anything can happen. I heard good things about players from Thailand, Korea and Saudi Arabia. Everyone who qualifies will be good, but I am enjoying the moment and not getting into pressure,” says Chandigarh’s Singh when asked if he is a contender.
“We have had a good run (in Esports),” says Animesh Agarwal, founder of Esports consulting and talent agency 8bit Creatives that connects brands with gamers. “I was checking results—we have made it often to rounds four, five… Gaming took off about four years ago in India while countries like Indonesia, Malaysia have been gaming for over 15 years. Another five years and we will start getting medals regularly.”
A medal or two here, according to Agarwal, could pull Esports into the mainstream as opposed to being the preserve of a young and digitally savvy audience. “Whenever any sport is introduced, it gets better recognition, validation for parents. It will break stereotypes in society that gaming is a waste of time and unhealthy.”
The Indian Esports players headed to China currently face a few challenges. Akshaj “Kai” Shenoy, who will captain the League of Legends team, mentions how the game currently does not have an India server and players are functioning on different servers. He plays on the Singapore server, which comes with a lag.
When Mayank Prajapati qualified for the Games last year, he was playing Street Fighter V. In June this year, Street Fighter 6 got launched, which means all players have switched to the new version and there are not many tournaments anymore for V. The Asian Games will, however, still be played with the older version.
“Me and (fellow qualifier) Ayan (Biswas) are only ones playing SF V. I am playing both the old and new versions, in which some mechanisms have changed,” says Prajapati, 32, who believes he will be among the oldest members of the contingent, including officials. “No other game changed. The last time we met players from other countries, they were all complaining that they can only practice against the CPU, which is limited. So they have to play with friends.”
He says with a favourable draw at the Asian Games, the Street Fighters have a chance of getting a medal. “There has to be some luck too,” says the part-time gamer, full-time architect and father to a two-year-old son.
Most of the players are putting in a few hours of practice late in the night, when everyone’s done with work or college. Shenoy, as captain of the League of Legends team, is the shot caller who has to make the important decisions, delegate duties, schedule and set up scrims. The 21-year-old, one of the leading individual players in south Asia, can multitask and is objective oriented, which are required skills for the job.
“It’s a team game, so the individual rank does not matter. Coordination matters more,” he says from his home-town of Kochi. “We have to sit for long durations and need mental prowess over other player, besides hand and eye coordination.”
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.