As Esports continues to be recognised as a proper sporting career path in many regions of the world, most of India still lacks the mentality to promote competitive gaming as a sport on its own. Esports Federation of India (ESFI) director Lokesh Suji, who believes Esports is the only sport that can outrun cricket, India’s most popular sport right now, shares his mind with The Indian Express on hurdles that are stopping India from making the most of the vast gaming potential of the country.
Esports is different from casual gaming
One of the primary barriers in India is the confusion over what can and cannot be classified as Esports. Competitive Esport games like Dota, FIFA, Counter-Strike or Fortnite are often put in the same boat as games like Teen Patti, Rummy, Poker and Fantasy Sports, which are more casual, chance-based titles, sometimes allowing players to make real-life money.
Suji refers to these titles as igaming and not Esports and suggests they cannot be compared. “Esports is a sport recognised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Olympic Council of Asia (OCA),” he shares, adding that Esports will be a medal sport in Asian Games’22. “Esports is solely dependent on your own skill. You cannot win in a video game competition of FIFA (a video game series based on football) by chance. You need to have the skill to win,” explains Suji.
“There are 100+ countries that have Esports federations working under their sports framework,” says Suji speaking on the growth of Esports in many other countries. Malaysia, he says, has allocated a budget equivalent of Rs 50 Crore for Esports development. “Governments of countries like Korea, Denmark, Finland, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Macedonia, Ukraine, Brazil, Russia, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Georgia, South Africa, Serbia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, etc, have already recognised Esports as a sport and have put it under the sports framework and policies.”
However, the sport still awaits government backing in India. Suji explains that when Esports was a part of the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta as a demonstrative event, India won the Bronze Medal. ”India will be the next powerhouse for Esports. We have approximately 300 million Esports enthusiasts,” Suji says, mentioning that the growth of Esports in India was clearly visible throughout the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, in events, streaming and viewership.
Esports growth hurdles in India
India has the potential to excel at Esports. But a big hurdle comes in the form of stigma around what we simply call ‘gaming’. Old norms and mentalities allow older games to get recognition. This includes outdoor sports like Cricket, Tennis, Badminton and Football, and indoor games like Chess. However, video games, which are comparatively recent additions, fail to garner the same attention.
Suji blames the confusion between Esports and igaming for this. He explains that gaming needs to be recognised beyond the all-inclusive term that it is today. “Comparing our Esports athletes with people playing fantasy sports or rummy is where the problem germinates,” explains Suji.
Suji further explains that Esports is considered entertainment in India and not a sport. Since the government hasn’t yet officially recognised it as a sport, Esports athletes, organisers and other involved parties end up paying a 35% entertainment tax, instead of the 20% sports tax. “This itself hampers the growth of Esports in our country in a significant manner, as players don’t get the benefits of sports quota like other sports,” Suji explains.
“Recognition by our Sports Ministry is the need of the hour to clear this confusion prevailing at large in India,” states Suji, who adds that building an Esports policy under the Sports Policy of India is the top priority. “Lot of talent dies early due to lack of parental support; recognition will help in overcoming this major bottleneck,” he adds.
“This recognition will lead to a spree of initiatives both from ESFI and private players, be it via coaching, infrastructure support, sponsorships, or events with massive prize pools,” Suji explains.
Do you need to be the best of the best to have a career in Esports?
A huge concern that likely goes through parent’s minds before they can support their kids’ career in Esports, or any sport for that matter, is job security and financial stability. As a Cricket or Football player, even if you aren’t the best the country has to offer, you can still have a career as a lower division player and maybe eventually as a coach. Can Esports offer the same flexibility?
Suji explains that Esports too has alternate Esports-related career paths. He adds that these often also allow the individuals in question to make more money than traditional sports. “Opportunities also exist as tournament admins, casters, analysts, coaches, team managers, as well as in fields like marketing and Esports journalism,” shares Suji, adding that Esports enthusiasts are even making money by simply streaming their gameplay on platforms like YouTube, Twitch and Facebook, where they can garner a massive fan following and even muster up generous donations from fans.
“For this ecosystem to develop, it has to be financially viable, which is currently happening at a rapid pace as more and more brands and media houses alike, are showing a great interest in Esports.”
Initiatives by Esports Federation of India (ESFI)
A non-profit organisation established to further the growth of Esports in the country across multiple titles, ESFI is currently working on a number of initiatives. These include preparing for upcoming tournaments including the Asian Games 2022. ESFI is a full member of International Esports Federation (IESF), Global Esports Federation (GEF) and Asian Esports Federation (AESF). ESFI is working closely with other National Esports Federations of South Asia, and plans to jointly launch the South Asia Championship, which will give athletes more international exposure.
“Esports have now been included in Asian Games 2022 and once the game titles are announced, we will start getting our teams ready,” shares Suji. “Other than this, our primary focus is to expand in coaching and training for which we are already in discussions with some leading agencies. You will also find certified ‘referees’ this year which will be India’s first,” adds Suji, mentioning that Esports coaching academies should be present in every nook and corner of India, just like Cricket.
“We have already rolled out our National Rankings Scrims for games like Call of Duty-Mobile, Valorant, and Free Fire. We will be adding more games this year,” shares Suji.
One of ESFI’s key initiatives has been the introduction of the National Ranking system. “As Esports moves towards getting included in Olympics and recognised in India, it’s important for all to be aware and aligned to various aspects of the ecosystem (the federation, rankings etc),” explains Suji.
In the future, ESFI’s plans include encouraging more women participation in Esports, introducing more Esports titles, a collegiate programme and various education programmes, which should be announced later this year.