Investors bet big on India's e-sports scene as gamers seek fame and fortune

Still in its infancy compared with the US, China and Japan, the industry is being powered by one of the world’s youngest populations and cheap mobile data

The industry faces difficulties, not least that e-sports are not officially recognised as a sport — making it more difficult for players to gain visas to take part in international tournaments. AFP
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Next to a primary school and a shabby playground in India’s financial capital Mumbai stands a plush four-storey building that is home to the world’s newest breed of gamer.

More than 20 young “streamers” in residence spend their day playing video games, practising for televised e-sports tournaments that draw in millions of viewers.

Equipped with bunk beds, cubicles and a kitchen with a full-time chef, the gaming house is one of many popping up around the country — a testament to the explosive growth of an industry that is attracting investment from around the world.

“We eat, sleep and play under the same roof,” said Animesh Agarwal, founder of Mumbai content creator and gaming talent management company S8UL.

“When we play big-ticket tournaments, it’s all about the mental play. We need to bring teams together to build trust.”

While still in its infancy compared with the US, China and Japan, investors are betting on huge growth in Indian e-sports — powered by one of the world’s youngest populations and cheap mobile data.

Tournaments are attracting huge prime-time television audiences, while thousands pack into arenas to watch teams play shooter games on their mobile phones, with the action beamed on to giant screens.

Dubai e-sports company Galaxy Racer joined up with one of Asia’s largest music festivals Sunburn to host a three-day tournament, which started on Friday, in the city of Hyderabad, where players of the first-person hero shooter game Valorant will compete for a prize pool of $100,000.

“India’s growing middle class will have more disposable income, which they will spend on entertainment of their choice,” said Akshat Rathee, managing director of Nodwin Gaming, which organised the three-week Battlegrounds Mobile India Masters Series tournament earlier this year.

“These eyeballs are going to be worth a lot of money.”

The industry was jolted in July when India’s government demanded the Battlegrounds game be removed from app stores. But investors and gamers seem unfazed by the disruption and the potential for more regulatory action, figuring the order was aimed at a Chinese-backed firm and there are plenty of other blockbuster titles to fill the void.

“Our revenue has only gone up after the game was taken away,” said Rohit Jagasia, the founder of Revenant e-sports, whose teams play a range of titles and announced a sponsorship deal from sportswear brand Puma in October.

The industry, excluding real money gaming, is expected to grow to $4 billion by the fiscal year ending March 2027, from $1.1bn in 2022, according to gaming-focused venture capital fund Lumikai. India was the largest consumer of mobile games in the world this fiscal year, topping China and the US with 15 billion downloads, it said.

Investor interest remains strong, even after the government action against Battlegrounds, said Lumikai’s founding general partner Salone Sehgal. “Investors care about the long-term picture, and that is still intact,” she said.

India is among the highest mobile data users in the world, thanks to cheap data from wireless carriers. AP

Mobile Global e-sports, a US company that runs India’s biggest university e-sports competition with more than 400 teams, raised $6.75 million in an initial public offering on the Nasdaq exchange in July.

“It’s very clear that all components for a successful capitalistic venture with extreme upside exists here,” said Richard Whelan, founder of Mogo.

Unlike other gaming markets where play is console- or PC-based, Indian users access live-streams mainly through their mobile devices. Thanks to cheap data from wireless carriers such as Reliance Jio Infocomm, India is among the highest mobile data users in the world. The nation will have 1 billion smartphone users by 2026, from 750 million last year, according to Deloitte.

The roll-out of 5G in India will give gaming a boost, according to Sean Hyunil Sohn, the chief executive of Krafton India, whose South Korean parent-created hit video game PUBG: Battlegrounds, and the Indian version Battlegrounds Mobile.

“When 5G is established, we will have much more resources to deploy more games into the Indian market,” said Mr Sohn.

Back in the gaming house, the financial rewards are clear.

Salman Ahmad, 29, quit his job as a tech assistant at Google in New Delhi to be a full-time gamer. He now earns more than 1 million rupees ($12,000) a month, several times more than his Google salary, playing for S8UL.

Clad in stylish shades and designer clothing, he has cultivated a personal brand to generate revenue streams that include brand endorsements from Chinese mobile giant Redmi to Indian skincare company Mamaearth.

“Gaming has given everything to me,” said Mr Ahmad, whose player name is Mamba. “I used to play games till 4am during my engineering days — now I am supporting my family with it.”

Saloni Pawar, 23, is one of a growing number of women gamers, though, does not play for S8UL or reside in its training house. She was the first woman to represent India internationally and helped her team to second in a tournament in Thailand in 2019.

“My parents have told me to do more ‘girlie’ things and not sit at home playing games,” said Ms Pawar, who has almost 61,000 YouTube subscribers and has collaborated with brands such as LG and Asus. “But once money started flowing in, they turned supportive.”

Quote
Gaming has given everything to me. I used to play games till 4am during my engineering days — now I am supporting my family with it
Salman Ahmad, player for S8UL

The industry does face some difficulties, not least the fact that e-sports are not officially recognised as a sport — making it more difficult for players to gain visas to take part in international tournaments.

There needs to be a clear distinction between e-sports that require skill, and other online “games of chance” such as rummy or poker, according to Lokesh Suji, director of the e-sports Federation of India.

The government action against Battlegrounds Mobile has also fuelled uncertainty for developers, according to Rishi Alwani, communications manager and writer at SuperGaming. “The concern is not whether this a permanent ban or not, it’s about the lack of clarity,” he said.

There has been no official government comment on the decision to remove the battle royale shooter game from app stores, although industry participants suspect concerns over data privacy. India’s technology ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, Mr Rathee of Nodwin Gaming has big ambitions, and draws parallels to the Indian Premier League. Media rights for the IPL, one of the world’s most-watched sporting events, sold for more than $6bn in June — making the competition more expensive to broadcast than English top-flight football.

“We want to do to gaming what IPL did to Indian cricket,” he said.

Updated: November 20, 2022, 4:30 AM
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