The pandemic and its forced indoor time has brought India to the cusp of a great gaming boom. Gamers today are making a career out of streaming, and competing in eSports
Lokesh Karakoti was introduced to Garena Free Fire, a mobile battle-royale game, four years ago by a friend. He had just completed Class XII. Instead of figuring out which college he wanted to join, like his parents wanted him to, he spent most of his day spraying bullets and throwing bombs at his opponents in the game. He soon dropped out of his BCA course, concerned more with the matters of life and death within Free Fire.
Four years later, Lokesh, from Delhi, earns about ₹50,000 to ₹90,000 a month. About ₹40,000 of this comes through his YouTube channel, Pahadi Gaming (with over 9,27,000 subscribers), and the rest through sponsors and prize money earnings from Free Fire tournaments. He is a member of Team Elite, a well-known eSports team in the Indian Free Fire community.
Gaming, like Lokesh discovered, can be a career in itself. The Indian gaming industry is valued at US$930 million, and the estimated number of gamers, 628 million. Of these, a majority would be recreational gamers. But an increasing number of youngsters like Lokesh make a living from gaming. They either get into eSports, which involves competing, or gaming for audiences on streaming platforms like YouTube and Twitch. Both avenues appear lucrative.
And, there are over 400 gaming companies here, as reported by Maple Capital Advisors. India is also one of the top five mobile gaming markets in the world, with a 13% share of global game sessions, according to a report by Deloitte India.
An underground community
Competitive eSporting can be broadly classified into four main genres: fighting games (like Mortal Kombat), first-person shooters (Counter Strike and Battlefield), real-time strategy (Hearthstone) and multiplayer online battle (Battle Arena).
Each game has a set of rules laid down either by the International Esports Federation (IESF) or Asian Electronic Sports Federation (AESF), based on which tournaments — both national and international — are organised.
One of the major contributors to the growing eSports community, which is device-agnostic, has been gaming cafés in metropolitan cities. “Ten years ago, online socialising was not a thing. Even now, with Discord, WhatsApp and everything, I think socialising is better if you are with the person. And, these places also conduct tournaments,” says Kiran Noojibail, former director, Esports and Broadcasting at LXG, a gaming café in Bengaluru. He adds, “Last year, however, the role of cafés diminished because of COVID-19; only 10-20% activities happened in gaming cafés, the rest were online.”
- Indian gamers spend an average of 8.6 hours playing every week. [Source: Limelight Networks]
- The Indian gaming industry is valued at $930 million. [Source: Invest India]
- There are over 628 million gamers in India. [Source: Invest India]
Yet, the pandemic also brought about a significant increase in gamers, observes Akshat Rathee, co-founder and managing director of Nodwin Gaming, Gurugram, Haryana. His company has organised over 120 tournaments and events since its inception in 2015. In the last year, they hosted over 40 (virtual) events, which had a much better response from gamers than in previous years.
“Although it is difficult to quantify that data, I can say that our watchtime became extremely high; about 200-300% growth in these events. We measure participation based on our watchtime,” says Rathee, adding, “Gamers no longer have to hide from their parents since there are lots of monetary benefits.”
Chennai’s Pranay M Bathija concurs. His parents have been largely supportive of his interest in gaming, as long as he “studies”. Pranay has been into competitive eSports since Class IX, spending six to eight hours daily on games, and has secured a place among the top gamers in India during the Fortnite Champion Series (FNCS) held in 2019, winning a prize money of $1,500.
“I was one among the four Indian players who qualified,” says the Class XII student. “The FNCS is really hard for Indian players; we have to play on the West Asia server, with countries such as Singapore, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates since we don’t have our own server.”
There is a popular misconception that gamers are usually loners sitting in the comfort of their homes, living in a virtual world. Pranay dispels this notion saying that he is a lot more connected to the people he has befriended online. “I talk to them [most of whom are from the city] way more frequently than my immediate circle. Sometimes, we are on call till midnight,” he adds.
The Indian eSports industry is still at a nascent stage — largely unstructured without a uniform body or market research. And still, there are many who have made money off it.
Where the money is
Kiran, from LXG, says that one can earn by even talking about games. He used to be a shoutcaster, which is the equivalent of a commentator in sports. “I know people who charge up to ₹30,000 a day for shoutcasting,” he says. Observers (who control the in-game camera during broadcast), designers, animators, and video editors are among the other popular jobs in eSports.
And then of course, are the gamers. One of India’s most popular YouTube channel Total Gaming, has 21 million subscribers; videos on it have been viewed over three billion times. It is run by Ajay (known as Ajjubhai in the gaming circle, who is from Ahmedabad). Ajay (who does not disclose his full name and age) started gaming three years ago. “I used to watch videos of popular Indian gamers while at work, thanks to the high-speed internet. I had seen many gamers playing PUBG on mobile. But on my phone with limited space, I couldn’t. That’s when I discovered Free Fire.” It was the first-ever game he playedNone of his friends was into gaming. So, to be a part of a gaming circle, he started Total Gaming. “I used to be happy getting 2-3 views per session,” he says. Now, for each stream, the number of views he gets is more than the population of a small country. “I never thought that I would reach 21M subscribers and three billion views.”
“Income generation is quite the same for both the gaming content creators and professional eSports players,” explains Ajay, “What the content creators earn in three months through YouTube or any other platform, the professional gamer can earn by winning one big tournament. However, the amount of time that goes behind preparing for the tournament is almost two to three months. And, gaming content creators need to invest a lot of time and effort in making videos engaging as YouTube and other platforms pay for views.”
Putting together a tournament is just one part of the larger responsibility that involves “evangelising eSports” and nurturing the sporting culture in India, explains Lokesh Suji, director of Esports Federation of India (ESFI), a non-Government organisation.
While acknowledging India as the next big market, he says the roadblocks are parental approval and the lack of support from the Government. “eSports is not recognised as an official sport in India which means that funds come from our pockets or from sponsorship,” says Suji.
Girls in gaming
- Gaming is often considered an all-boys club. But recent surveys disprove this popular notion. According to a 2020 study commissioned by Google, the number of females playing video games in Asia is growing at a faster rate than their male rivals. But India’s story is different: it had the lowest overall percentage of female gamers (18%) in Asia.
- “I think female gamers get demotivated by sexist and hate comments they get. A lot are discouraged by their families as well,” reckons Mansi Gupta, whose YouTube channel, MagsPlay, has over 1,75,000 subscribers. She started it during the lockdown last year. “I told myself I will post 100 videos no matter what. If the channel doesn’t take off after that, then, I will stop doing this.” However, it took just 15 videos to reach 1,50,000 subscribers.
He is also the vice-president of AESF (Asian Electronic Sports Federation), which has been recognised as the Technical Delegate for eSports events in the upcoming Asian Games 2022. “The biggest achievement for us was when India won its first-ever eSports medal at the 2018 Asian Games. Five years from the day the Government recognises eSports, I can promise you that we can become like the West.”
India is expected to add nearly 40 million online gamers during 2020−22, according to Deloitte. Maple Capital Advisors’ report estimates that the Indian gaming industry will grow 41% annually due to the growth of digital infrastructure. By 2024, it claims, the gaming industry will be worth $3,750 million. Going by these numbers, we are on the cusp of a great Indian gaming boom.