Ready player one

With eSports making its debut at the Asian Games, the Olympics could be next

SPORTS-CHN-ESPORTS-GAMING Game on: The 2017 League of Legends World Championship in Beijing | AFP

A CHINESE STADIUM full of eager fans, cheer sticks in hand and a roar on their lips. Special lights and pyrotechnics. A stage in the middle, a pop star and an augmented reality dragon. Also, reportedly, more than 60 million watching at home.

Forgive the casual fan for thinking this was a Guns N’ Roses concert. Or, a Floyd Mayweather bout. It wasn’t. It was a bunch of bespectacled boys playing a video game at a tournament. The 2017 League of Legends World Championship, to be specific.

According to ESPN, 427 million people will be watching eSports by 2019. Twitch, an Amazon-owned website that live-streams gaming tournaments, has 100 million monthly visitors.

To an eSports fan, this would seem normal. To the outsider, the fanfare would be bewildering. Almost as if there was an elaborate inside joke that they didn’t get. How else would you explain such a massive following for what seems essentially a pastime for bored children.

To be fair, eSports has been taking big strides in the past several years. It is estimated to be a $1 billion industry and is deeply entrenched in pop culture. Remember the France-Argentina match in the recent FIFA World Cup? After Antoine Griezmann converted a spot kick to give France the lead, he jogged towards the crowd, prepared himself, and broke into his signature “Take the L” dance. It was meant to taunt the opposition, and he got it from Fortnite, probably the most viral video game in the world right now.

Speaking of the World Cup, the FIFA eWorld Cup just wrapped up at the O2 Arena in London. As many as 32 players from around the world played FIFA 2018, the video game, and the Saudi Arabian player Mosaad Aldossary walked away with the championship and $250,000.

It is owing to this popularity that eSports finds a place at the upcoming Asian Games in Indonesia, albeit as a demonstration sport. It will be a medal event in the next edition, in China.

India is among the eight nations participating in Jakarta, subject to clearance from the Indian Olympic Association, and will send a team of 10 players for four of the six games: Pro Evolution Soccer, Hearthstone, Arena of Valor, Starcraft II, Clash Royale and League of Legends. The Indian team won the South Asian qualifiers to secure a berth at Jakarta.

But, what exactly is eSports? “Electronic sports are organised video game competitions,” says Lokesh Suji, director of the Esports Federation of India. “These are multiplayer games, where you form teams and compete online or offline. The most common genres are real-time strategy, fighting, first-person shooter and multiplayer online battle arena. The tournaments are broadcast online and have commentary, just like in cricket or football.”

Though eSports have been around for a while, they were mostly confined to the amateur space. The boom came in the late 2000s, when a lot of professional teams were formed, and participation and viewership surged. More and more teams came up, particularly in the US and East Asia, and pro tournaments began to be held. Slowly, the craze began to spread to other countries, including India.

Says 27-year-old Ankur Diwakar, who has qualified to represent India in Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) at the Asian Games: “History has been made. Winning the South Asian qualifiers was a great achievement for the country. The Maldives were the favourites to win the regional qualifier, but only India qualified for the main event in Jakarta. We were undefeated. Of course, we are eyeing the first place, but it is going to be tougher as we will be facing the world’s best PES players.”

Suji, himself a gamer, is chuffed. “Our athletes have the talent and skill,” he says. “Professionalism is missing somewhere, but it will develop in time.”

With the proliferation of smartphones in India, and with mobile gaming picking up worldwide—two of the games at Jakarta are mobile titles—the future could hold several golds for India.

However, the popularity notwithstanding, many would find it hard to group eSports with regular sports. While some complain about the lack of physicality in gaming, others, especially Indians, have been conditioned to see gaming as a distraction from studies. Overall, there seems to be an inherent unwillingness to place eSports players alongside other athletes.

Suji, however, disagrees. “It’s a wrong perception that eSports athletes are couch potatoes,” he says. “Their practice and physical fitness are not visible during competitions, so some people are sceptical of eSports being a sporting event. But, they achieve up to 400 movements on the keyboard and the mouse per minute, four times as much as the average person. You cannot achieve this if you are not fit. The athletes have proper physical fitness plans and maintain a healthy diet. Also, recently, Gold’s Gym India endorsed an Indian eSports team.”

Even then, giving a medal to a gamer? How would a regular athlete, someone like Michael Phelps, feel about that? “There’s absolutely no question to me, [about] the level of skill training and devotion it requires to become a professional gamer,” Phelps, arguably the greatest Olympian, and a gamer himself, said at a gaming awards show. “Tonight, I’m here to pay tribute to five fellow athletes who have demonstrated incredible performance in 2016.”

Several other athletes, too, have voiced their support for eSports, which is slowly becoming the most watched form of sport, among teens, worldwide. According to ESPN, 427 million people will be watching eSports by 2019, and the big boys of business have taken note. Twitch, a website that live-streams gaming tournaments, has 100 million monthly visitors. Amazon owns it. Google, too, has a rival platform, called YouTube Gaming, dedicated to gamers.

“Platforms like Twitch and YouTube Gaming are must-haves for the athletes and teams to engage with their fans,” says Suji. “There are so many streamers who have made careers just by live-streaming their games. They have a massive fan following, who also give them donations. Such platforms do a revenue share with the streamers, which is encouraging and helping the streamers earn a living.”

In fact, such is the spike in its popularity that Chinese e-commerce major Alibaba, through its sports arm Alisports, has been lobbying for eSports to be included in the Olympics. In 2016, Alisports organised the World Electronic Sports Games in Shanghai, featuring four popular games. “We are prepared to lose money. We can accept the losses now as we hope to promote this sport,” Alisports CEO Zhang Dazhong had then said. “In the future, you’ll definitely be rewarded. This is something we firmly believe in.”

And, if that reward is Olympic validation, it might soon come true. Not least because Alibaba Group is an Olympic partner.

“The International Olympic Committee has already started discussing the possibility of including eSports,” says Suji. “On July 21, it held an ‘eSports forum’ to understand the gaming ecosystem.”

Interestingly, traditional sports, too, have a finger in the eSports pie. “There are more than 20 FIFA and NBA clubs that have eSports teams,” says Suji. Among them are Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, Cleveland Cavaliers and the Philadelphia 76ers.

There is huge money for the players, too. “As per Statista, in 2017, the annual combined eSports prize pool worldwide was $121 million,” says Suji. “If you are a reasonable athlete, you could get $30,000 to $45,000 as salary. Live-streaming is another big source of income for athletes. In India, there are some players who get Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000 as salary.”

Though Suji is positive of the virality of eSports, there may still be some who are unconvinced. For them, there was a special piece of news from America last week. Remember Fortnite, the game that gave Griezmann his taunt? Apparently, parents in the US are hiring tutors to help their children be better at the game.