GAMES TO PAY
August this year was a moment of validation for gamers and eSports athletes. Tirth Mehta from Bhuj, Gujarat, took the bronze medal in the eSports demonstration tournament at the Asian Games 2018. Tirth goes by the gamer name ‘gcttirth’. He began competitive gaming with Dota, moved to StarCraft for lack of a good internet connection and a string team and, eventually, to Hearthstone which is more strategy and less button mashing. He has since been an active eSports gamer, playing through nights in international tournaments while simultaneously working on his skills as a gameplay programmer and pursuing a degree in science and information technology.
It may be inconceivable to some that an activity blamed for turning a generation of kids into nearsighted diabetics with muscular thumbs is now an international sport. But India’s bronze medal at the Asian Games is just the latest sign that so-called eSports are here to stay.
ESports athletes like Akhil Gupta of AFK Gaming say serious competition began to take off around 2014-15. Tournament gaming on a small nonprofessional scale has been popular since the days of FIFA, Counter Strike, Street Fighter and StarCraft. But big league gaming with commensurate prize money began in 2016, with the entrance of the eSports League and tournaments hosted by Flipkart and the Indian Gaming League.
Serious money is now at stake. The largest Indian tournament, the ESL Premiership, pays a total of Rs 1 crore in prizes. So there’s an argument to be made that fiddling with that controller isn’t a waste of time, says Sahil Viradia alias MiCrO, an eSports athlete from Team Jukes on You. “That was the time when all the couch gamers realised that they could make a career out of this,” says Viradia, who competes in Dota (once known as Defence of the Ancients) tournaments.
“ESL India Premiership tops the list with three seasonsa year and the biggest prize money.” India now boasts a fairly complex structure of organised teams. Shounak Sengupta (alias Gambit) of AFK Gaming explains that players participate in tournaments at the amateur, semi professional and professional levels. “Amateurs can afford to invest much less than others in terms or preparation, as most will have real-life commitments,” Sengupta says. “Semi-pro teams might have some minimal backing behind them to cover for costs like travelling and staying during tournaments. More often than not, these teams get together and practise at internet cafes. Professional teams will have a dedicated boot camp where they practise before major tournaments.” At these boot camps, professional eSports gamers get spending money and room and board while they practise together as a team for the final tournament. Just as football team has defenders, goalkeepers, midfielders and so on, a Dota team has “carries”, “supports”, “nukers” and other specialists. A Nuker, for instance, can use high damage spells to kill enemies super fast while Junglers can sustain high damage from an onslaught. In CS:GO (Counterstrike Global Offensive), specialists include Fraggers, AWPers, Lurkers and Riflers. The names might not suggest it, but it is serious work. “Often teams train and play for 12 hours a day before big tournaments,” Sengupta says.
Games like Dota 2 and CS:GO are very popular in India and offer some of the biggest money. Other familiar names that are popular in tournament gaming are FIFA, Hearthstone and Call of Duty. On the international circuit, League of Legends and StarCraft offer prizes upwards of seven figures, in US dollars.
India’s Entity Gaming and Signify sponsor Dota teams compete internationally. And smaller teams playing primarily on national or regional level. So how do these athletes feel about the prospect of eSports earning a spot at the Olympic Games, following its inclusion as a demonstration sport at the Asian Games? If chess can qualify, why not Dota?