How India’s E-sports Industry Rose From the Ashes of an Elaborate Scam

The piece below is an article I wrote for The Daily Telegraph India, and probably the one I’m most proud of from my time there. It’s a feature-length article about the history of India’s e-sports scene, and where it’s headed in the future. I hope everyone reads the whole thing as a lot of research, planning and interviews went into this piece! Thanks for reading as always and enjoy 🙂

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The e-sports industry has a turbulent history in India, but stands poised on the brink of change in 2018. Stuart Wood takes a look at the scene’s past, present and future, and speaks to the people at its forefront.

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E-sports – the competitive, high-level play of video games – is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. In 2017, it generated $1.5 billion in revenue, far exceeding all expectations. At The International 2017, a DOTA 2 tournament held in August, players competed for $24 million in prize money, while 92 million people watched online. From this perspective, it’s not hard to see why retail giant Amazon paid $1 billion in 2014 to acquire Twitch, the online streaming service which broadcasts e-sports events, and which all those millions of people were tuned in to.

E-sports’ rise has been meteoric in the last ten years.  What started as a collection of small, competitive scenes has since become a cultural phenomenon and billion dollar industry which offers lucrative full-time careers to players, broadcasters and event organizers. E-sports has celebrities, villains, scandals, stories of success and failure, plenty of high drama and, best of all, it can be viewed online free of charge. Just as importantly, it has helped legitimize gaming as a hobby, and tackle the cultural stigma which still surrounds it in some areas of the world.

What games are we talking about when we use the phrase ‘e-sports’? Primarily, games that feature in large scale tournaments are MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena), or RTS (Real Time Strategy). Both are, in effect, top down strategy games in which two highly-trained teams compete against each other to control territory and dominate their opponents. Other genres which feature heavily in big tournaments are first-person shooters such as Counter Strike: Global Offensive and Overwatch, as well as one-on-one fighting games like Street Fighter 5 and Super Smash Bros Melee.

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For as much variety, passion and market potential as there is under the e-sports banner, the industry is still in its early stages in India. The reasons for this are many: firstly, despite being home to a population of 1.3 billion, only 462 million people are connected to the internet. Of these, many are connected via phone as expensive computer equipment is considered a ‘luxury good’, and often has to be imported from outside the country. In addition, internet speeds are not as fast as those in the west, reaching only 60ms compared to 10ms in Europe and North America, which can present problems for games that require quick reflexes and reactions.

But things are changing. The e-sports scene in India is beginning to catch on, and several high profile events have emerged following the foundation of a group called Nodwin Gaming. Nodwin have partnered with ESL, the worlds largest e-sports league, to provide the ESL India Premiership, and its 2018 incarnation is offering a prize pool of 1 crore – the largest India has seen to date. It’s a far cry from previous attempts to kickstart e-sports in India, none of which reached the level of success and exposure needed to sustain the industry.

A brief history of e-sports in India

2000 – The first coming of e-sports in India is in the year 2000, when the country competes in the World Cyber Games. The event generates initial interest in the scene, but popularity wanes soon afterwards.
2005 – Online gaming begins to take off in India around the mid-2000s, when the spread of Facebook and social media brings gaming to a larger audience. Until this point, online gaming was a niche hobby and small market, owing to the cost of consoles and PCs.
2005/6 – Gaming website Zapak.com, a subsidiary of Reliance ADAG, launches a series of gaming cafes around India, where games such as FIFA, DOTA 1 and Counter Strike 1.6 can be played. The venture proves unsuccessful and fails to catch on.
2007 – The E-sports Federation of India is established, aiming to promote, represent and regulate the e-sports scene in India.
2008 – Indian Inferno, India’s first professional gaming team, launches in Mumbai.
2013 – Nodwin Gaming is established.
2018 – India’s first televised e-sports league, U Cypher, launches on MTV India.

The Scam That Started an Industry

The story of Nodwin Gaming’s foundation is one that begins with a carnival. The India Gaming Carnival, specifically – hosted in 2012 by a group called WTF Eventz, and billed as “India’s largest gaming & electronics expo”. WTF Eventz was a company set up just months before the event was due to take place, and they claimed to be offering India’s largest ever prize pool of 1.5 crore. They also claimed that they had received 4 crore in funding from two Indian companies named GenNext and NSR Construction.

Canny users of Indian tech site erodov.com, however, noticed that these so-called sponsors listed the very same address and phone number as WTF Eventz, and also that WTF listed a starting capital of just 1 lakh – not even close to enough to fund an event on this scale. The India Gaming Carnival went ahead, but it was a shambles: the entire first day was cancelled, the electricity was shut off before League of Legends finals were played, and winners were not awarded any prize money. Attendees went through an arduous process to try and get their expensive tickets refunded.

Nodwin founder Akshat Rathee calls it “a disaster”, and it was the impetus for him to set up his company: “I set up Nodwin Gaming after the India Gaming Carnival, to show there was more to e-sports in India. We had to rebuild the gaming scene.” In the half a decade since, Nodwin and the e-sports industry have gone from strength to strength, forging links with publishers and advertisers, and staging larger and larger events to bigger audiences. “We now have one million daily players of DOTA 2 and Counter Strike: Global Offensive in India”, he says.

That growth has attracted the interest of investors from within India’s game industry, as well as further afield. Nazara Technologies, one of India’s biggest mobile game publishers, acquired a majority stake in Nodwin in January of this year. It is part of their plan, announced February 2017, to invest $20 million into India’s e-sports scene over a period of five years. “We need to build the ecosystem for e-sports in India”, says Manish Agarwal, CEO of Nazara. “The foundation is there, and the infrastructure is improving. We just need imagination.”

Nazara have plans for the creation of an online content platform, a professional league, and a network of pro teams entirely supported by the company. Agarwal says they are also working on the infrastructure around the scene, setting up faster servers with better internet connection speeds, and investing in local game development talent: “We want more games that are made by Indians for Indian audiences – to build the scene from the bottom up, not the top down.”

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A Portable Future

The key to capturing that audience might lie in a corner of the e-sports industry which has been under-explored in the west – competitive mobile gaming. Both Rathee and Agarwal believe that India’s mobile market has enormous potential to grow, and that the scene is still waiting for one game to reach widespread success and unify the playerbase. Cricket games like Real Cricket 17 and World Cricket Championship 2 have been downloaded millions of times on Indian app stores, but none has proved a runaway winner just yet.

The success in China and Korea of Tencent’s Arena of Valor, ostensibly a League of Legends clone for mobile, proves that the potential is there. And Rathee envisions that India could host a different type of competition for games like these: “Perhaps we will see big events that are less like Counter Strike or DOTA and more like the Tour De France, with players competing side by side in heats until only the best remain.” Competitive mobile games have already had some exposure in India: ESL India Premiership hosts Supercell’s Clash Royale, a spinoff of the enormously popular Clash of Clans. And Real Cricket 17, developed by Nautilus Mobile, featured in a significant Indian tournament which recently concluded.

U Cypher is India’s first televised e-sports league, and has been broadcasting on MTV India through January and February of 2018. It features six teams of fourteen players, all competing in four games: Real Cricket 17, DOTA 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Tekken 7. Teams are awarded points for each game, and place on a league table after each matchup. E-sports’ arrival on mainstream television – especially with the lavish production values boasted by U Cypher – is a sign of the times in India, and sure to spread the scene even further across the country.

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Rathee and Agarwal both agree that the future of competitive gaming is incredibly bright in India. They describe the industry in its current form as a ‘blank slate’ on which early adopters are staking their claim. As exposure to e-sports grows, so too does the infrastructure surrounding it, and the culture of fans and players that allow it to thrive. Rathee says that this, in the end, is the most important thing: “E-sports is about the community. To survive it needs heroes, and it needs stories.” We can only hope these stories are as compelling as that of the Indian e-sports industry itself – one with a turbulent history, but an incredibly promising future.

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