Like many other Indians his age, 18-year-old Karan Manganani plays a lot of video games. He spends, on average, five hours a day on his smartphone playing Clash Royale, a strategy game that he likens to chess. Unlike most others his age though, Manganani has an easier time justifying his gaming habit to his parents. His ability to win virtual wars could potentially earn India a gold at the Olympics some day.
Manganani is one of 10 Indian gamers who have qualified to participate in the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, where eSports is set to become part of a major sporting event for the first time. It will make its debut as a demonstration event — with medals not counting towards countries’ overall tallies — ahead of its potential inclusion as a full event at the 2022 Asiad in Hangzhou.
However, when the Games kicked off last week, Indian participation in the eSports event was less than certain. None of the gamers who had qualified were part of the official contingent named by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). And their claim to participation was further complicated by the fact that the Electronic Sports Federation of India (ESFI), the body that conducted the qualifiers, is not recognised by IOA or the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports.
This is the latest in a series of controversies that has dogged ESFI’s handling of the Asian Games. It began with the announcement of the qualifiers, which was done a mere day before they were actually held, via ESFI’s Facebook page, which has just over 2,000 followers, and a few other private channels. “The vast majority of the player base did not even know the qualifiers were happening,” said Nishant Patel, founder of AFK Gaming, a website that covers Indian eSports. “There was no formal announcement or PR or even a sign-up page. I don’t think there was any formal structure behind the qualifiers.” This caused an uproar within the small but highly vocal Indian eSports community.
The anger was further exacerbated a few days later when Sudhen Wahengbam, a popular eSports broadcaster, tweeted out the contract offered by the federation to the gamers who had qualified, describing it as “vile and atrocious”. The document imposed harsh conditions on the players, such as requiring them to sign over publicity and image rights to ESFI in perpetuity, while almost completely waiving the federation of any organisational responsibilities, including informing the players regarding any changes to the contract.
“Strictly speaking, it is legal, but it’s also unethical and unfair,” said Seshank Rayaprolu, a senior associate specialising in sports and gaming law at LawNK. “It didn’t seem like a lawyer drafted it, it looked like they just copy-pasted clauses from somewhere on the web. Nobody in their right mind would sign away a lot of those rights.”
The gamers who managed to brave these hurdles now feature in the draw for the eSports competition that will begin this Sunday. And while ESFI is yet to secure official recognition from Indian sports authorities, Lokesh Suji, Director of ESFI, said the players have been cleared by IOA to participate in the Games. This could not be independently verified with IOA officials, some of whom are still completely unaware of the sport’s existence.
Ankur Diwakar, who has qualified to represent India in the football simulation game, Pro Evolution Soccer, is all too familiar with this lack of recognition. The idea of video games as a sport is still an alien concept here, and is more commonly associated with laziness and truancy. “I’ve been playing professionally for over a decade. When I started, the scene was pretty underground and people used to say this is as good as gambling. I am the only one from my generation left today. Everyone else has quit because there was no recognition, no reward.”
Competitive video gaming is now estimated to be a $900 million industry worldwide. And although it is still in its infancy in India, it has come a long way from its origins in dingy gaming cafes and sluggish online servers. “It is growing at a phenomenal rate, though it isn’t at world standards just yet,” said Patel. “To put some numbers to it, about ₹60 lakh in prize money was paid out for the two most popular games, Counter Strike and Dota, in 2016. Last year, it went up to ₹1 crore, and this year we’re looking at prize pools of about ₹2 crore.”
Being a sport
Crucially though, eSports has thus far been structured along the lines of an entertainment industry, with private companies owning the games and the tournaments and even the teams. Its inclusion in the Asian Games line-up as a demo event has been widely seen as the first step towards its eventual recognition as a legitimate sport within the Olympic hierarchy. “It’s not necessarily that big to be honest, because it’s just a show match. But the Asian Games is something which can potentially bring eSports into the mainstream,” said Wahengbam.
“It can make people understand that hey, the Olympic body is recognising it, so maybe there is something to it.” However, in order for a game to become a sport, building a bureaucracy is a mandatory first step. And ESFI’s Asian Games misadventure reveals just how fraught this process can be.
According to Rayaprolu, there is no established procedure for setting up a national sports federation in India. “For emerging sports, it’s usually just a group of interested individuals setting it up and saying we want to build the sport in the country,” he said. “In India, there are usually two or three rival factions that want to set up a federation. Getting recognition from the international or Asian federation is critical. Once they have that, nobody else can compete with them.”
ESFI was incorporated as a not-for-profit company in June 2016, with Lokesh Suji and Yugal Sharma, both senior executives in the telecom industry, as directors. And though ESFI has successfully secured accreditation from the International e-Sports Federation (IeSF) and the Asian Electronic Sports Federation (AESF), it faces an uphill battle in surmounting the final hurdle: getting recognised by IOA and the sports ministry.
As things stand, ESFI does not comply with the stipulations laid down by the National Sports Development Code on several counts. Some of these shortcomings, such as the fact that ESFI has never conducted elections and Suji and fellow co-founder Sharma have appointed themselves permanent directors, could potentially be fixed — provided they are willing to cede control. But compliance with some of the more onerous requirements, such as the creation of affiliated units at district and State level, as well as tournaments at various age levels, appears to be a distant prospect.
“The sports code gives you a long list of parameters that you have to meet in order to get recognised. And that can come about at any point in the evolution of the federation,” said Rayaprolu. “ESFI may not have expected that they would be putting together a national team so soon when they made the federation.” Regardless of their intentions, it is hard to ignore that ESFI’s functioning thus far has been haphazard.
In Suji’s view though, the contract issue was blown out of proportion on social media. “It was an old document that we modified and used for this tournament. We were very receptive to feedback and said that we will redraft or revise it,” he said. A revised set of forms was posted to ESFI’s Facebook page on August 21, three days after the Asian Games began. As for the timing and the general lack of publicity, Suji chalked it up to the short time-frame given by AESF and said that other eSports federations across Asia faced similar issues. “We’re just like a start-up. We’re trying to bootstrap everything. It will take us some time to reach there. Other federations have existed for 60-70 years. We’re still in the infancy stage.”
It is unlikely that Suji and ESFI will be afforded the time they want though. Other stakeholders, including media mogul Ronnie Screwvala, have expressed interest in setting up a separate federation. Screwvala has made significant investments in eSports through his gaming broadcast company, U Sports.
Supratik Sen, co-founder and CEO of U Sports, said they are in touch with the sports ministry and IeSF, and are moving towards setting up a federation. Expressing dissatisfaction with the way the Asian Games has been handled by ESFI, he said, “I didn’t feel it was done fairly, which is why the reaction was how it was. It’s imperative that a federation take care of the interests of the game as well as the gamer, the casters and everyone else in the fraternity. And that’s the objective towards which we are working. There are a couple of players in India, we’ll all have to come together and work collaboratively to do the right thing.”
The battle for power is unlikely to disrupt the rapid gains in popularity that eSports is making. The Asian Games and the Olympics are important because of what they can do to legitimise the sport in the eyes of those outside the fraternity — parents, teachers, government authorities, passport officials, and the like. But for gamers, they are likely to be just a couple more competitions on a schedule of tournaments that is already highly lucrative and constantly expanding.
According to esportsearnings.com, the 10 highest earning gamers in the world have average career earnings in excess of $2.5 million, with the bulk of the money coming in the last three or four years.
“Many people in the industry who’ve been around for 10-20 years are of the belief that eSports doesn’t really need the Olympics,” said Wahengbam. “It’s more like the Olympics needs eSports. Because it is growing on its own. It’s kind of like in football where they have EPL and the other European leagues. They don’t really need the Olympics, but the Olympics has football because it adds value. That’s the perspective that most eSports people have.”
The freelance journalist is based in Mumbai.