When Mumbai-based Ankur Diwakar started playing games professionally in 2007, the country had little scope for such careers. Today, Diwakar has represented India in professional gaming tournaments (commonly called esports) and has even begun giving lectures in universities on how to take up esports as a viable career. According to Diwakar, while esports in India is not on a par with Asian standards yet, the gap is closing.
Part of the reason why gaming is picking up in the country is the rise of mobile gamers. While these gamers aren't professionals like Diwakar, they help the overall community.
Games like PUBG (PlayerUnknown's Battleground) Mobile have driven this. “If you look at the demographics of people playing on mobiles, they are 15-18 year olds. It's helping the cause because these gamers will grow older and might go into competitive gaming,” says Vamsi Krishna, consumer marketing head, South Asia, Nvidia.
“Mobile and 4G connectivity have certainly democratized gaming but do not provide an immersive experience. We believe that while consumers will start off on mobile, more of them will eventually step up to gaming PCs,” says Amit Doshi, chief marketing officer, India and South Asia, Lenovo.
To be sure, investments in the industry have also increased. Former owner of UTV, Ronnie Screwvala, has invested crores into the industry, even starting his own esports league.
GamingMonk, an Indian esports company, raised ₹4 crore from Japan's Incubate Fund, Rajan Anandan and other investors. A campus tournament for PUBG was recently held in the country, which had a prize pool of ₹50 lakh. It's also easier to arrange gaming events now, Diwakar points out, since companies like Samsung, Nvidia, Sony and more are happy to supply the equipment required, often at no cost.
But for any sport to really bring in the money, it requires viewers who can be monetised via advertisements and subscriptions. India has seen a growth in this area too. According to Abhay Sharma, founder of GamingMonk, the company gets more views on its videos (on YouTube and Twitch) now, to the tune of 150,000. He says he also finds 80,000-90,000 unique views on his videos. Two years ago, Sharma's audience was lower and more distributed.
But gamers have existed in India for years. Schools and colleges have organised gaming tournaments since the early 2000s, then why is the industry ready only now?
Most stakeholders agree that the smartphone and 4G revolution in the country is the primary reason. “When Jio came in and cut data tariffs, more people started consuming online media, and eventually stumbled onto gaming,” says Sharma. Growing Internet connectivity as a reason has also been suggested by Carl Pei, co-founder of OnePlus. Answering Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma's question about when esports becomes “a thing” in India, Pei tweeted on 5 November, “With the way Internet connectivity is improving in the country, it won't be much longer.”
Other than cheap internet and smartphones, actual gaming equipment (graphics cards, monitors, etc.) are also easier to obtain. According to Diwakar, gamers can easily get in touch with companies and show their gaming stats to get sponsorships. Companies like Dell, Nvidia and Asus support full-fledged esports teams like Team Brutality (supported by Dell).
The next step in esports will come once players become more serious and start hitting global standards. Doshi mentioned the company has brought its top esports tournament, Legion of Champions, to India year. Similarly, Nodwin Gaming, one of the top esports firms in India, now holds the license for the Indian edition of the Electronic Sports League, the world's largest esports firm.
Diwakar believes that Indian gamers will start achieving global standards in a couple of years, implying that 2019 will perhaps be the year when gaming goes mainstream.