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Digital gaming: A virtual portal away from the covid-19 pandemic

Digital video gaming is trending more than ever before as people spend their time indoors. Will this surge last?

Video gaming is being promoted as a healthy social activity around the world during the lockdown.
Video gaming is being promoted as a healthy social activity around the world during the lockdown. (Photo: iStock)

Professional video gamer Ankit “V3nom" Panth has been busy practising with his team on the popular multiplayer first-person shooter video game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO). “The sessions go on for hours. We participate in international tournaments for CS:GO. These sessions are meant to try out our strategies so that we can implement them well in the tournaments," says the Mumbai-based 30-year-old who has been video-gaming for more than 15 years.

Since its release in 1999-2000, Counter-Strike has become one of the world’s most popular gaming titles, one in which users can play either as terrorists or counter-terrorists across different locations and landscapes—in gaming terminology, these are called “maps". Global Offensive, or CS:GO, is the fourth game in the series and was released in 2012. The title has achieved cult status and has seen the rise of individuals who are now known as expert CS:GO players. Panth is one of them.

One of India’s most renowned professional video gamers, he has been sponsored by brands like Red Bull, Alienware and Intel, among others, over the years. His YouTube channel has more than 47,000 subscribers, while Team Brutality, the Indian professional e-sports team he co-founded with current teammate Aakash “Rix" More in 2008, has thousands of followers across social media channels. On 17 April, CS:GO had an average player count of more than 1.3 million—which means that many people around the world were playing it at the same time.

This is just one example of how digital gaming is gaining traction as people are forced to spend time indoors during the covid-19 pandemic.

Last month, tech giant Facebook also launched a gaming app that allows users to follow some of the world’s most popular gamers. The app lets users stream their smartphone screen and interact with gamers away from the rest of Facebook.

If video gaming, as a subset of digital entertainment, has experienced a surge, there is also more live-streaming of video games. “It’s a great time to be a streamer right now," says Sudin “The Headmaster" Dinesh, a Chennai-based professional gamer who primarily plays the Fifa gaming series. “PUBG Mobile is easily the most popular game in India right now and I have seen so many streamers hitting the one-million viewers mark these days. They are generating a lot of money," adds Dinesh.

PUBG, or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, is another online multiplayer battle royale game that has changed the digital gaming landscape. Its mobile version, PUBG Mobile, crossed more than 600 million downloads globally last year.

The game’s following in India is off the charts as well. The official PUBG Mobile India YouTube page alone has 1.47 million subscribers. “Earlier, in one of our PUBG mobile streams, we used to go out and get 20 million viewers. Now we are getting 50 million viewers," says Akshat Rathee, founder and managing director of the Gurugram-based e-sports company NODWIN Gaming, referring to the digital gaming surge in recent weeks. Rathee says these figures are from NODWIN’s partnership with Tencent Games for the PUBG Mobile Pro League and the different tournaments they organize in South Asia.

India has never actually been big on console gaming—so gaming on the mobile slotted in nicely. According to a report released in March by Ernst & Young and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, titled The Era Of Consumer A.R.T.—Acquisition Retention And Transaction, the country had 365 million online gamers last year. This is a 31% increase from 2018. The number is expected to reach 440 million by 2022. A big catalyst has been the growing smartphone ecosystem, the report adds. India contributed 13% to global game app downloads in 2019, with 5.6 billion mobile game apps downloaded—the highest worldwide.

“Think of PC gaming as Test match cricket, it had a certain set of people who played it and watched it. Then came One Day cricket—console gaming. Mobile gaming is pretty much like Twenty20. It is very mass, everyone can go ahead and play it," explains Rathee. “Everyone has a small device on their hand. The cost of entry is $200 (around 15,000). It is not an incremental cost like a console. It is a natural cost. The massification of gaming is pre-dominated by the access of mobile devices at lower points," he adds.

Rajan Navani, founder and president of the Indian Digital Gaming Society, a not-for-profit comprising stakeholders from the digital gaming ecosystem, says a person in India spends an average of 3-4 hours on their mobile phone every day. That number has shot up significantly during the lockdown period. “If you look at work conversations, video-calling and so on, the engagement on mobile has increased and as a direct outcome of that, where people were spending 40 minutes on games on an average every day in India, that number has also shot up by 20-30% at least, if not more, across all gaming properties on mobile," he adds.

It is not just about gaming companies offering free content to users or the World Health Organization launching the Play Apart Together campaign to promote gaming as a healthy social activity during these times—everything has gone virtual. If some gamers can’t play, they can still watch.

The world of sport has also gone online, with athletes competing through video games. In football, Premier League stars battled it out in an inaugural ePremier League tournament recently, while tennis and motor sport competitions have also chalked out virtual tournaments to keep viewers engaged. Some of the world’s top tennis players squared off in a virtual Madrid Open from 27-30 April.

Most of these are charity events for the pandemic—but the platform being leveraged is digital gaming.

So, what makes gaming different from other forms of digital entertainment like, say, video on demand? Rathee says video gaming is interactive entertainment, unlike passive media consumption where you just press a TV button and settle down. “In gaming, you control your entertainment. You control whether you go left or right and the story changes accordingly," he adds.

Will this surge last? Both Navani and Rathee point to the example of demonetization in 2016. “When demonetization happened and everybody moved to digital payments, for that short period everyone thought that once currency notes come back, where would digital payments go? But even when normalcy returned, there was a 100% jump (in the use of digital payments), which became the new normal. I see the same thing happening with gaming. The new normal will change significantly," says Navani.

He adds, however, that India still has to overcome several hurdles before it can match Japan and China—these include affordability, availability of gaming peripherals and a robust internet infrastructure.

Panth, who spends hours in front of a screen daily, advises newcomers not to neglect physical fitness. He says he takes breaks to rest his eyes or just stretch and move around.

Video games transport you to a different world, he says. “For me, it was like my own small world. I didn’t know how to drive a car or ride a bike. I could do that through video games. You can be whatever you want and you don’t even have to step out for that," he adds. Given the situation right now, when staying at home is essential, that doesn’t sound too bad at all.

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