Call of the game

Are gaming centres the new nightclubs? RANJANI RAJENDRA checks out the buzz

September 09, 2016 04:22 pm | Updated September 22, 2016 06:13 pm IST - Chennai

LXG Chennai. Photo Courtesy: Kumtha's Photography

LXG Chennai. Photo Courtesy: Kumtha's Photography

I tread with caution; everyone seems busy at work in front of their monitors and I don’t want to disturb them. The friendly floor manager ushers me in. As I watch, not one head turns; you could hear a pin drop. Just as I begin find myself a seat, there’s a piercing war cry from one corner of the room, while another player towards the front dejectedly says, “Ahhhh! I’m so sorry guys.” His team has just lost a match due to him. I am on the fourth floor of Blur, the gaming centre at Sathyam Cinemas. Here, clans (yes, that’s what gamer groups call themselves) battle it out in games such as CS:GO, CoD and DoTA2 for hours together. War cries are common, so is intense concentration. So are gamer names like Genzo, Killer, Harley Quinn and Jon Snow.

With gaming catching on, gaming centres or eSports arenas are fast becoming alternatives to nightclubs for several youngsters in the city. It isn’t uncommon to find these clans glued to their systems for hours on end; often eight-10 hours at a stretch. “We’re sometimes here even before they open and end up playing till late in the night. Often, we forget to take a break to eat as well. I just don’t know how time flies,” says Cindy Doggett, a postgraduate student who loves playing CS:GO. According to her friend Rydge Deloratta, Cindy is better than most of the men they game with. “That I am,” she grins.

The duo got into gaming quite by accident, says Rydge. “We’d watch all these gamers and think they were either addicted or just crazy to be playing a game for hours together,” he laughs, adding, “We’d come to Sathyam to watch a movie one day and didn’t get tickets. Since we had time to kill, we decided to try out the Wii. We played for a while and got bored. The next time, we joined a couple of friends playing CS:GO just for fun. We played a couple of games and are now hooked. I started off buying the three-hour package at Blur, gradually moved up to a five-hour package, and now I’ve played my way through four 50-hour packages.”

This is how most people get initiated into gaming, according to Siddharth Yadav, an experience team executive at SPI. “We see people of all ages come to play here and the demographics vary. There are college students and working professionals and even some school students. Weekends are when we see the maximum crowds,” he says.

According to him, Blur was launched in 2008 to enhance the cinema-going experience for people in Chennai. While it was started keeping the theatre crowd in mind, it soon became a hub for serious gamers. “We’ve transformed the place over the years. When we saw the extensive time gamers spent playing here, we began investing hugely in equipment. Unlike other places, we have team accounts for the games that gamers can use when they play here — they don’t need to pay for the games. And, as a policy, we only have original copies of games.” On an average, Blur sees at least 10 of its 25 PCs occupied for LAN and online gaming on weekdays. On the weekends, though, every system is occupied for the whole day. Plans are afoot to introduce night gaming as well, says Siddharth, adding, “And, if all goes well, then maybe, cinema gaming too, where gamers can play while watching a film.” Currently, Blur has five gaming zones — arcade, LAN and online, Wii zone, bowling and console gaming.

While most of the action picks up after 3 p.m., when college students begin trickling into these gaming cafes, it isn’t uncommon to see a youngster spend close to Rs. 1,500 a week on gaming.

With regular gaming tournaments being held, the interest generated is rather high. The DoTA2 tournament conducted at Playerz Cafe in Nungambakkam two weeks ago saw a large number of Chennai gamers participate for a chance to qualify for the finals. In fact, even the prize pool for these games is quite high. As of 2015, the international prize pool for DoTA2 was a whopping 18 million dollars, while for the Cricket World Cup it was 10 million dollars. As of August 2016, the prize pool for DoTA2 had already soared to 20 million dollars.

In India too, the prize pool for ESL India stands at Rs. 42 lakh, with approximately Rs. 5 lakh being awarded to the winning team. According to Anish Babu, owner of LXG Chennai, the newest gaming cafe in the city, “The online viewership alone for the popular game League of Legends stood at 32 million as of 2013.”

With big bucks riding on most of these games, it isn’t surprising that most of these centres invest heavily in equipment and top-of-the-line systems and games. A good PC cabinet for gaming could be priced upwards of Rs. 1 lakh.

LXG itself, which first launched in Bangalore, is part of the international gaming circuit, says Anish. “We have a great support community, good online presence and reach, dedicated casters {commentators for online gaming tournaments} and gamers.”

In fact, as part of its launch last week, LXG had four days of gaming tournaments dedicated to different games such as DoTA2, CS:GO, CoD4 and FIFA 16.

So, what is it that draws gamers to eSports? According to Anish, who himself has been gaming since school, “More than a specific game, it is about the group you game with. Most people who come here and hang out know each other due to the games they play. They might meet over a game, but they end up forging deeper bonds.”

Genzo, 29, and Killer, 26, are perfect examples; they met over their love for CS:GO. Soon, they got together with other like-minded gamers to form their clan Hit & Run. Now, they make it a point to game together every other day and also hang out socially. “It’s a great stress-buster and an excellent way to make new friends. I don’t think I would have met Killer outside of the gaming eco-system,” says Genzo, who insists on going by his game name. “My father reads the paper every morning. I can’t risk him knowing that this is where I spend most of my time,” he laughs.

At the other end of the spectrum is 10-year-old Akash Sanjay, an avid gamer. Initiated into the world of gaming and encouraged by his father, the school student spends at least five hours a day during vacations gaming. “During exams, though, the time is drastically cut down,” he sighs. The youngster loves to play games such as Counter Strike, GTA 5, Sleeping Dogs and Prototype. “Some of these games I was initiated into by other older gamers at the gaming centre,” he grins.

Most of these gaming centres go a step ahead and offer clients a shot at immersive gaming through VR sets. Both LXG and Blur, for instance, have one VR set each and plan to introduce more such sets. “We’re working on turning our entire Wii zone into a VR gaming zone soon,” says Siddharth. Playerz Cafe in Nungambakkam, too, lets its gamers live the game through VR headsets.

While these are premium gaming hubs in the city, smaller cyber cafes such as Yuri’s Yard, Rumble and Balaji Internet Centre continue to be alternative destinations for gamers. Says Venkat N., a student, “I usually game for about 10 hours a day, but prefer to do so at a gaming centre. After all, it’s much nicer to game with people around you. I have so far participated in several tournaments.” He adds that while gaming is his passion, he is also into it professionally in terms of game designing and development.

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