The aftermath of the ban isn’t all bad news. Streaming is picking up, game developers are pushing #MakeInIndia and Indian storylines, and we can expect esports training academies soon
“I remember going completely blank. I had no other source of income and my future looked very bleak.” Rishab ‘Encore’ Katoch, a 23-year-old Delhi-based gamer, was one of thousands who, 17 days ago, woke up to the news that the Indian government had banned PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG to the rest of us), along with 117 other Chinese apps, over privacy and security concerns. The multiplayer battle royale mobile game — a genre that blends elements of survival and last-man-standing gameplay — was not only an arena for intense virtual matches, but also a revenue generator (players live stream their game via YouTube channels and Facebook watch parties). A professional gamer can earn anywhere between ₹50,000 and ₹2 lakh a month.
Once Katoch calmed down, however, and spoke to fellow gamers, he realised he could diversify his sources of income. As it turns out, those with well-established YouTube channels, where they played a larger selection of games such as action-adventure Grand Theft Auto V (GTA 5) and survival shooter Garena Free Fire are better off after the PUBG ban. “I can’t concentrate on only one source of income; something like this can happen again in the future,” says the engineering graduate.
(clockwise from left) Rishab ‘Encore’ Katoch, Manasvi ‘Vivi’ Dalvi, Anuj Amaterasu Sharma and Ishan Kedkar
Developers to the fore
- To fill the PUBG-sized hole, Indian gaming companies are keen on churning out #MakeInIndia content. EWar Games is welcoming game entries. So far, they’ve received around 200 submissions, of which seven have been published and 10 are in the pipeline. The most recent was Air Strike, which saw 32,000 gameplays within three weeks of launch. “As a community, we understand esports in India isn’t synonymous with PUBG,” says Manoj ‘Sentinel’ Kasyap, of Velocity Gaming, who has plans for a bootcamp in Hyderabad, where players from across the country can meet at one place and train.
- Meanwhile, three weeks back, education start-up, Avalon Meta, launched a year-long online course for game developers. The curriculum combines aspects of coding, designing and storytelling, and has 300 students already. Working as teams of six, they will have to come up with two mobile games and one VFX film. For co-founder Varun Mayya, the ultimate goal is to create a Silicon Valley equivalent for gaming in India. “I hope game development does not go the app development way, where the ecosystem became fragmented and everyone started working in silos,” he says.
The impact of the ban on the gaming community has been swift and devastating (prior to the ban, PUBG had around 40 million monthly active users in India). Here’s one example: MegaStars, among the top seven professional teams in India that competes globally, has disbanded. Just a month ago, they were in talks to begin streaming on Nimo TV, a platform with a presence in South and Southeast Asia, and South America. But many are holding on to hope of a return. There’s news that Bluehole, a South Korean video game company, is taking control of publishing in India (which was earlier handled by Tencent Holdings, a Chinese tech conglomerate). There are also reports of PUBG Corporation signing agreements with an Indian gaming firm.
Before the ban
Gaming in India has moved from being a pastime to establishing itself as a robust industry. “Esports has been around for more than a decade. It is just of late that it has got mainstream attention,” says Lokesh Suji, Director, Esports Federation of India. In the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, Tirth Mehta won a bronze in the Hearthstone event, while Karan Manganani placed fourth in another event. But it was PUBG that brought esports to the masses. (While the mobile version of the game stands banned, the game is still available on PC and gaming consoles. Online digital distribution service, Steam, reportedly offers PUBG at ₹999.)
Mobile gaming is easily accessible and, thanks to operators cutting their costs, it has caught on in tier-2 and tier-3 cities too. Tournaments such as Mobile Lite Championship and Mobile Professional League see prize pools running into lakhs of rupees. Post lockdown has also witnessed an increase in participation — Gurugram-based NODWIN Gaming’s ESL India Premiership saw a 300% increase in registrations this year, as compared to 2019. Hyderabad-based Velocity Gaming is busy with several ongoing tournaments, including the Esports Club Challenger Series 2, the India Today League, and Sky eSports’ Valorant Sky Showdown.
Playing the wrong hand
- Blurred lines when it comes to defining esports is a problem in India. “People call games like Teen Patti, Poker and Rummy as esports. Just competing with each other is not esports [which requires skill and training],” says Suji, of Esports Federation of India.
- Games that fall under the categories of first-person shooter (Call of Duty), multiplayer online battle arena (League of Legends) and sports (Asphalt), to name a few, qualify as esports.
- Moreover, the regulation of esports is linked with its recognition as a legitimate sport category. “It is important to have domestic tournaments and nationals, so that they not only compete in a more meaningful manner but there’s also a systematic structure of ranking and recognition,” he adds.
“Investors like us, who started giving salaries and sponsoring devices for players, have seen a lot of ROI [return on investment],” says Lokesh Jain, co-founder of 8bit, an esports company and talent management agency for upcoming gamers. His first reaction to the ban was to encourage his gamers to find alternatives. While 8Bit rosters for games like Clash Royale (a real-time strategy game) and Free Fire remain unaffected, gamers have started trying other battle royale games such as Call of Duty Mobile (its download surged to 1.15 million after the ban, according to the Sportskeeda website). For players like Harnit ‘Gunshot’ Khatri, the focus has already shifted to alternatives like Dota 2, a battle arena game, and Valorant, a first person shooter game and a favourite post the ban.
The Indian narrative
Indian gaming companies such as Nazara Technologies, Octro, Dream 11, Hitwicket Games and Gamezop are upping the ante with new offerings. A new entrant is Ahmedabad-based NxGn Sports Interactive’s flagship fantasy football gaming app, Twelfth Man. With footballer Sunil Chhetri as its brand ambassador, the six-month-old app allows users to play for free or pay a fee to compete for prize pools.
The most recent to join the block is Bengaluru-based nCore Games’ Fearless and United: Guards, or FAU-G. Announced a couple of weeks ago by Bollywood star Akshay Kumar, it will follow a storytelling mode, where gamers will learn about Indian soldiers and battles as they clear levels. “Call of Duty is based on the two World Wars. We wanted to build a game that Indians could have a strong emotional connect with,” says co-founder Vishal Gondal. The first edition, set to release sometime next month, will feature the Galwan Valley and multiplayer mode. Later stages will include a battle royale mode and an entry into the esport tournament space next year. They are also planning a cricket game.
Storytelling that draws on Indian mythology — such as 2018’s Asura, from Hyderabad-based Ogre Head Studio (the first Nintendo Switch game made in India, which fuses Hindu myth with combat play) — or even the recent border skirmishes (as inspiration for combat games), could be the future. But first, we need to encourage more game development. “The fact is that monetisation of games has remained poor until recently,” explains Gaurav Agarwal, co-founder of Gurugram-based Gamezop, a multigame platform that offers a variety of games developed by indie developers the world over. “Ad revenues from Indian users is low and users do not spend to buy in-game goods.” But the scenario is changing, with real money gaming and mobile esports (a recent article on Quint, the news website, put game developers in India at 250, up from just 25 in 2010). Perhaps Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent statement that “India should tap [digital gaming’s] huge potential by developing games inspired by its culture and folk tales” could prove a positive nudge.
Looking at streaming
Streaming platforms and apps are also set to get bigger. “Casual games [like poker and chess] can easily turn into esports when played competitively,” says Parth Chadha, founder of nine-month-old EWar Games, another Bengaluru-based start-up. Currently, the EWar app — with games like Call of Duty and Clash Royale — is available in eight regional languages, including Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and Tamil. Gamers can also stream on it. Similarly, year-old Bengaluru-based Rheo offers a dedicated channel (Rheo Studio) for streaming. Co-founder Saksham Keshri says, “This is specifically for users to watch streamers and chat with them. If you want to stream, just log in, select your game and sync your mobile to our server.”
India’s go-to platform? It is YouTube, though Amazon-owned Twitch calls the shots globally. “Twitch is primarily made for a market that is ready to spend a lot on streamers, both as viewers and gamers,” says Ishan Khedkar, who launched his YouTube channel, Onespot Gaming, in 2016. While YouTube primarily earns from advertisements, Twitch requires one to buy subscription plans and be exclusive to the platform. According to Khedkar, this doesn’t gel with Indian gaming enthusiasts who, largely, aren’t earning a sizeable income yet.
A screenshot of the Rheo app
Train to be a pro
The Indian ecosystem, be it gaming, streaming, casting or content creation, has come a long way. It is also no longer a man’s den — what with names like Nutan Lele, Manasvi ‘Vivi’ Dalvi and Paridhi ‘Raven’ Khullar making news. “Back then I was treated like an alien. I remember once, around 2014, I was playing a game on an Indian server when I switched my microphone on to compliment a fellow gamer’s move. Everyone started passing really weird comments after that,” says Dalvi, adding how the scenario has changed for the better now.
Join the cast
- Another aspect of online gaming that’s picking up is commentary, or casting. Debojyoti Choudhury, aka SparkiGaming, started off as a gaming and anime blogger in 2017. After being introduced to PUBG by a friend, he started casting on YouTube. “My father gave me an ultimatum last year that if my gaming career did not take off by September, I’d have to join the family business,” he says. As luck would have it, PUBG reached out to him to cast for the 2019 PUBG Mobile India Tour. This also got him gigs in a number of gaming tournaments, including those hosted by NODWIN Gaming, Tesseract Esports, Village Esports and regional events. “Post COVID, we had almost three tournaments every day and they were regular sources of income for a lot of us,” he says, adding that the ban has affected his work tremendously. But he is keen on getting busy with upcoming tournaments, like the ESL India Premiership (to be cast in Bengali as well).
But the times are tough. Gamers are caught in a Catch 22 situation, says 21-year-old Dalvi. “You can’t justify it [the PUBG ban], nor can you criticise it [because of the national security angle]. So you’re standing in this space of not knowing what’s happening, but also getting severely affected by it,” she laments. Despite plans to get the game back, players worry about modifications being made. “If PUBG comes back with a version only for India, it wouldn’t be a great idea,” says Anuj ‘Amaterasu’ Sharma, who started gaming in grade 10. In the 14-odd years he’s been playing, he has represented India in numerous global esports competitions, including the Esports World Convention held in Paris last year. “Every gamer’s dream is to represent their country. What’s the point in just playing among ourselves?”
The need of the hour is acceptance, especially as a career option. In the West, professional video game tournaments fill 50,000-seat arenas and sponsorships run into millions. “Even at 22, you’ve already lost your prime time [for gaming],” says Sharma. “Children in China, Europe and the US get into gaming at 13 and 14.” Access to esports training academies (which we have none at the moment) is imperative for this. Nodwin Gaming is making a start. “We’re looking to work with key stakeholders such as teams, schools, colleges and governments to build academies,” says Akshat Rathee, co-founder, who hopes to have three academies set up in the next couple of years.