The past few weeks have been hectic for Mayank Prajapati. Most of the 32-year-old’s time is spent with his eight-month-old son. Once the baby is asleep, he attends to his freelance work as an interior designer. Then, for about seven hours, Prajapati is glued to the screen, playing Street Fighter V, a single-player online game, practicing against some of the top players in Asia.
It was all very different a little over a month ago; his approach towards gaming was casual at best. But all that changed when he received a call from Lokesh Suji, director of the Esports Federation of India (ESFI). Suji reminded Prajapati that Street Fighter V had been included as part of the 2022 Asian Games. So he put in the hours, eventually winning the National Esports Championship in April, and was included in the squad for the Asian Games in September, where esports makes its debut. “As soon as I qualified, my wife, mother and mother-in-law gave me complete freedom to practice. Initially, it was very difficult to dedicate time, but these days, I follow a schedule to manage everything,” he says.
The 18-member Indian contingent comprises a student, a software engineer and a full-time professional gamer, among others, all of whose lives changed overnight after they were picked to represent the country. What was once considered entertainment or simply a pastime, now promises to bring them fame. The eight medal games at the tournament are EA Sports’s FIFA, League of Legends, HearthStone, Dota 2, Dream Three Kingdoms 2, Street Fighter V and tournament versions of PUBG Mobile and Arena of Valor.
Karman Singh Tikka, 19, who will team up with Charanjot Singh for FIFA, remembers playing local tournaments at malls in New Delhi alongside his elder brother a few years ago. When life came to a standstill during the pandemic, he started spending many more hours gaming. The erratic schedule drew scorn from his mother. But she’s now at ease, in the knowledge that it was time well spent. “I never imagined playing competitively, so I was always more focussed on studies. Now, I’m constantly working on my game play to do well at the Asian Games. And mom is fine with whatever time I sleep,” says Tikka, laughing.
Esports made its debut as a demonstration sport at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta. That year, India returned with a bronze medal for Tirth Mehta in HearthStone, a card-based game. In September last year, esports was ratified as a medal event at the 2022 edition in Hangzhou, with 24 medals at stake across eight games. While Mehta failed to make the cut this time around, he is an integral part of the support system for Shikhar Choudhary and Karthik Varma Vegesna, who will be playing HearthStone.
“HearthStone is a mental game like chess, so there’s constant discussion about strategies. The best players in India have a group and that’s where I first met Tirth. We analysed a lot of games before the qualifiers, and we’ll continue to do so in the months ahead. All of this is critical while preparing for a tournament,” says Vegesna, 27, an IT professional.
Back in 2018, ESFI didn’t have enough time to work with the players. However, over the past year, they’ve hosted many tournaments—including daily tournaments—to give players the opportunity to hone their skills. “Unlike traditional sports, the shelf life of an esport athlete is very short. A lot of changes also happen in the games, so it is important to keep up with them. Our championships are open to everybody, so we’ve seen a lot of new talent,” says Suji. “All the top players are part of our Discord server, so it was easy to reach out to them. We created a big hype about the qualifiers and had four times the participation as compared to the last edition,” he adds.
Players can connect and discuss every aspect of the games on online forums. The relative ease of logging in from the comfort of their homes has made it possible to play regularly and this, in turn, has helped the community grow. This is how Moin Ejaz, 29, a full-time gamer, met his DOTA2 Asian Games teammates. “I would face them in every tournament and we would usually be among the top-3 finishers. Once we formed a team, there was a lot of discussion, since every member has a different role to play in DOTA2. It took many hours of practice, planning our strategy and then analysis to fine tune our game play and get results,” Ejaz says.
While esports lack the physicality of other sports, Varma says that yoga and meditation have been key for him to tackle stressful situations, especially given the timed format of HearthStone. Prajapati follows a basic run-jog fitness routine that helps him stay calm and focussed during tournaments. In the months ahead, ESFI plans on hiring coaches and a sports psychologist to work with the players. “I have no doubt about the capabilities of our athletes. But during international competitions, they often think that other teams are really good based on their reputation. There needs to be a mindset shift, they need to go in with a winning mentality,” says Suji.
In June and July, the Indian team will play regional qualifiers, which will determine their seeding at the Asian Games. What ESFI is still missing is a lack of recognition from the Union Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. This is important, Suji says, as it affects ESFI’s attempts to raise the necessary funds to aid with the preparation. “We will provide support when it comes to hardware and given the nature of our sport, it is possible for players to train from their homes. But if we are allocated a budget by the ministry, it would be possible to bring them together under one roof for a few weeks. And that will certainly be good for them before the event.”
The Asian Games esports team: FIFA22 - Charanjot Singh and Karman Singh Tikka
Street Fighter V - Mayank Prajapati and Ayan Biswas
Hearthstone - Shikhar Choudhary and Karthik Varma Vegesna
League of Legends - Team Temple of Kings (captain Akshaj Shenoy, Samarth Arvind Trivedi, Mihir Ranjan, Aditya Selvaraj, Aakash Shandilya and Sanindhya Malik)
DOTA 2 – Team Whoops (captain Moin Ejaz, Krish, Abhishek Yadav, Ketan Goyal, Darshan Chandan Beta and Shubham Shirdhar Goli)
Shail Desai is a freelance writer based in Mumbai.