How eSports got screen time in India

Indian eSports gets a professional and entertaining avatar on MTV’s new show, U Cypher

January 12, 2018 05:39 pm | Updated 05:39 pm IST

The advent of eSports in India offers a bittersweet rendezvous with the past for the gaming enthusiasts of my generation. Parental rebukes still echo clearly, and the guilt of “wasting” hours in front of a computer trying to master a “useless video game” can still appear surprisingly fresh — especially if one is tempted by the easy access to countless smartphone games. It appears, however, that this obsession wasn’t ill-founded — professional gaming is yet another idea whose time has come.

Time to catch up

Of course, the idea itself isn’t new. eSports have been around for years in the West, where serious gamers compete in professional tournaments for significant pots of prize money. For instance, the international prize pool for Dota 2, an online multiplayer battle arena game, was more than $24 million. Moreover, the international gaming market is estimated to be over $500 million.

Even though India has been a laggard for years, the eSports scene is fast picking up steam. Last year, Nvidia, an American gaming technology company, organised five GamerConnect symposiums across India. According to reports, it is also partnering with gaming cafés and offering them certification programmes in addition to creating clubs to organise tournaments. The company estimates that active eSports users in India have grown five-fold, from 3,00,000 per month in 2014 to 1.5 million in 2017.

Unlocking new chapters

This year, Indian eSports is set to receive a major fillip thanks to two astute businessmen who understand how sports and entertainment are inextricably interlinked: Ronnie Screwvala and Supratik Sen. They are the brains behind U Cypher, promoted as the first multi-gaming platform on TV for eSports competitions. The show already has a few things going for it.

First, a focus on offering gaming as entertainment by creating a serialised show around the competition. Second, a deal with MTV to broadcast 37 episodes in season one. Last but not least, the involvement of Screwvala and Sen, whose company U Sports has created U Cypher . In its first season, the show will see six teams comprising top gamers in the country competing against each other. Four games across three platforms have been chosen: CS: GO and Dota (PC), Tekken 7 (console), and Real Cricket ‘17 (mobile).

Both businessmen are ready to capture the arena. To them, the evolution of eSports is a natural phenomenon, an idea whose appeal is so powerful that it cannot be stopped. Screwvala is quick to emphasise that most sporting events are designed these days to enthral audiences. “Let’s face it. Most sports wouldn’t be as popular today without television and media. The exposure received, the creation of sporting rockstars, not much of it would exist without the elaborate media apparatus surrounding it,” he says. But he admits that eSports does lean the other way — by starting first as entertainment (he prefers to say “enthral” instead of “entertain”) — and then developing into professional tournaments with serious players and prize money.

Strategy and stamina

Sen, meanwhile, is ready with a question of his own when asked about the serious health risks of sitting in front of a computer or a console for hours on end. “Would you say chess is a sport?” His point, lucidly made, is that strategy forms a significant part of serious sport. eSports are no different. Admittedly, they do not offer the health benefits of, say, football but that’s beside the point; they aren’t supposed to be a replacement for physical activity.

Gaming at this level is highly competitive. It requires intense focus, concentration and stamina, and depends as much on strategy as any other sport. “We’re creating a viable career option for thousands of serious gamers who had no outlet for their talent earlier,” Sen says.

Screwvala explains that the tournament format is not that of a telethon where gamers play for hours on end. Instead, it is phased and filmed in a way that uncovers not just gameplay and strategy, but also the personal lives of the gamers themselves.

He’s also cognizant of the three most common criticisms of eSports (addiction, sedentary lifestyle, violent content), and believes that creation of more sci-fi based content will help tackle at least the latter aspect in the coming years. Sen says the most exciting aspect is that they are a glimpse of the future. “In the West, stadiums that would barely be occupied for traditional sports are being filled with gaming enthusiasts,” he says.

“Interactive is the future,” Screwvala chips in, concluding, “People won’t want to watch a Star Wars in the future. They’ll want to be in a Star Wars .”

U Cypher premieres on MTV from January 19, at 10 pm.

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