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Meet the ‘Virat Kohli of Valorant’ — How Indian esports athletes are leading gaming mania

Esports is no longer a niche subculture. It’s going mainstream, and Indian gamers are keen to make their mark globally.

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New Delhi: A team of five sat in the conference room of a Marriott hotel, getting ready to face the South Koreans. Around 30,000 tuned in, expecting them to become the first Indians to clinch the regional championship. But after a nail-biting match, the team, ‘Global Esports’, lost their chance to represent the Asia Pacific at the official tournament for the esport Valorant.

Esports is no longer a niche subculture: it’s going mainstream, and Indian gamers are keen to make their mark globally.

They are fighting to be taken seriously, and want to avoid being stereotyped as geeks and gamblers whose parents think they waste time playing computer games. But an old-fashioned societal outlook and a regulatory black hole are holding them back.

Also Read: How India became number one in the global gaming industry

Indians esport athletes are going international

India already has an esports champion. Tirth Mehta won a bronze medal for playing the esport Hearthstone at the 2018 Asian Games, where future Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra won gold, and Hima Das set a national record. Esports organisations like Global Esports (GE) — whose player ‘SkRossi’ has been referred to as “the Virat Kohli of Valorant” — plan on building an ecosystem that produces more global winners.

Esports athletes are representing India abroad at big events like the Fortnite championship at the Australian Open, which took place while Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic played next door on the centre court. The Olympics also held the Olympics Virtual Series this year, signalling that esports could become an official event.

“When I saw the Indian flag being hoisted after I won bronze, I realised that this was an important moment for esports in India,” Mehta, 26, told ThePrint. “Since then, the whole perception of me being an esports athlete has changed.”

Although he did not win any prize money because Hearthstone was only a demonstration event at the Games, (the first prize at an international competition is around $70,000) he did change people’s minds about him skipping social events.

The Valorant Team. L-R: KappA, SkillZ, HellrangeR, SkRossi, Lightningfast. Credits: Global Esports

Also Read: Video gamers have the last laugh as e-sports industry booms during Covid-19 lockdown

Building India’s gaming ecosystem

It may look like they’re just playing games all day to earn a living, but the players say that gaming in India is like running a risky startup.

“As players, we’re hungry to prove ourselves and gain recognition internationally. We’re only going to get that if we work really hard — we work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week,” said 24-year-old Bhavin ‘HellrangeR’ Kotwani, captain of GE’s Valorant team.

Over a 100 million Indians took to gaming in 2020, while the growing esports ecosystem attracted $1 billion in investments in the last six months, and is expected to bring in $3.9 billion by 2025. In November, the World Esports Cup is set to take place with a prize pool of Rs 75 lakh.

Also Read: Asian tech giants are pouring money into India’s booming gaming-gambling apps

Sexist stereotypes and prejudiced parents

Indian players, however, feel there’s a long way to go. Players in other countries have training grounds, coaches, and therapists. They also find that the “gamer” stereotype needs to change.

“We’re not anti-social people who spend all our time staring at a screen,” said 32-year-old Akshay ‘KappA’ Sinkar, a member of GE’s team who’s been gaming for 15 years. “We have fun, we party, we have girlfriends. But we also train hard.”

The gaming world is also rife with sexism. Women are often relegated to being content creators and live streamers because they’re not taken seriously as gamers, which exposes them to trolling and abuse. Saloni ‘Meow16k’ Pawar says trolls on her live streams ask her to ‘go back to the kitchen and make sandwiches’. Female gamers also have to worry about their safety online. Meow16k, who started out gaming under her brother’s ID because she felt it was safer, was wary when a viewer reached out to give her a gaming PC. She received his gift after some vetting.

“Some people think that women will never be able to play as well as men. If a man compliments us, he is called a ‘simp’ and teased, which might make him think twice about coming back to watch our content,” she said. She and other female gamers in India discuss how to address sexism and bullying — recently, they decided to have strong moderators on live streams to call out sexism immediately.

Saloni “Meow16k” Pawar (Credits: Instagram/meow16k)

Apprehensive parents are also an issue. GE, which manages players, has regular conversations with their parents about finances and career options.

Abhirup ‘Lightningfast’ Choudhury, who, at 20, is the youngest member of the GE’s Valorant team, asked his parents to give him a year to prove himself. “I would say the last year has been a success for me,” he told ThePrint. “I joined one of the best teams in India.”

His teammate, 25-year-old Jayanth ‘SkillZ’ Ramesh, dropped out of his mechanical engineering course in his third year. “Engineering was something my parents wanted me to do,” he said. “I tried, but it wasn’t me.” When he represented India and won at a CS:GO tournament in China, he told his mother that he’d be an average engineer, but he was already a good gamer.

Besides getting to do what they love for a living, the gamers also want to create a sustainable industry. “My goals aren’t limited to being a player. I also want to educate people about esports and how to play professionally in India,” said Ganesh ‘SkRossi’ Gangadhar, who is 24.

Also Read: Move over Contagion. Board and video games on virus apocalypse are the new obsession

Confused regulations on esports

There is no legal definition for esports in India, which has also led to struggles with separating gaming from gambling. Bodies like the Esports Players Welfare Association (EPWA) and Esports Federation of India (ESFI) have, therefore, stepped in to support players and make them aware of their rights but need at least some reassurance from the government.

In February, then-Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports Kiren Rijiju acknowledged esports as an emerging platform but didn’t recognise any regulatory bodies or indicate plans for central legislation. A lack of national-level regulation means that each state has to define gambling for itself. Karnataka became the latest state to ban online games that “risk money,” even in games of skill.

“We’re on the side of sports, but not on the side of gambling,” said Dr K.C. Narayana Gowda, Karnataka’s Minister for Youth Empowerment and Sports. “Now the matter is in court. We’ll see how the courts define gambling, and then decide how to move forward.”

Tirth Mehta at the Asian Games 2018. Credits: ESFI (Esports Federation of India)

Lokesh Suji, director of the regulatory body ESFI, said the confusion between gaming and gambling is a major setback, creating a perceptual challenge for the industry.

“All of gaming exists as an exception to gambling right now, defined in different ways in different state legislations and hence leading to this confused state,” said Shivani Jha, lawyer and director of EPWA. “The way the act is drafted right now puts games like chess and FIFA under the ambit of gambling.”

Gaming fans seem to invariably find a way back to the industry. GE is founded by filmmaker Israney and Sinha, a medical doctor by profession. They wanted to create the world they wished they had when they were younger.

“The gamer inside us hasn’t died,” said Israney. “This space is growing every single day, which is what makes us excited to help shape it.”

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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