2020 THE LOST YEAR: In the post-PUBG shuffle, it’s adapt or perish for esports aspirants

With loss of on-site events and ban on the popular game, esports lost momentum this year

Away from the bio-bubbles put in place by those with deep pockets, sport had its lockdown tales of angst, uncertainty and apprehension. THE INDIAN EXPRESS talks to those who missed out on their break-out year or had to delay their retirement.

With the world stuck at home, looking for distraction and momentary respite, gaming’s never had it better.

The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the upward trajectory of the medium in terms of playing hours and sales.

According to International Data Corporation, global video game revenue is expected to surge 20 per cent to $179.7 billion this year, making gaming bigger than film and North American sports industries combined. But in India, where it’s not just fun and games but also an active career choice and a way out of obscurity, 2020 was the year of lost momentum.

The burgeoning esports industry was expected to continue riding the PUBG phenomenon, and Indian professional gamers were set to jostle with the traditional heavyweights from East and Southeast Asia. But a quick one-two to the gut — in the form of the Coronavirus and PUBG ban — left many reeling.

“For Indian esports, the first stage of development was going on. But everything has been washed out by this year,” says Lokesh ‘Goldy’ Jain, owner of Team 8Bit gaming organisation. “Firstly, the pandemic wiped out the LAN (on-site) events. These offline events are a huge boost in terms of sponsors, commercial viability, and media coverage. It’s a lot of exposure for everybody involved at LAN events. There were 30-35 such events planned but everything had to be cancelled.”

Then in September, the Information and Technology Ministry banned PUBG on grounds of national security. In turn, Chinese makers Tencent Games cancelled its plans of making India the Asia hub, picking Singapore instead. Indian PUBG players missed the South Asia league, foregoing all hopes of making it to next month’s finale in Dubai with a prize pool of $2mn.

“Soon after the news broke on September 2nd, several jobs were lost,” says Kamaljeet Singh, former PUBG Mobile team manager at Entity Esports. “There were many new esports organisations which focussed on PUBG as their primary game. When it was banned, the question was where to pay the salaries from? How to pay for the boot camps?”

In the rapidly growing esports ecosystem, professional players are paid entry-level corporate salaries by team owners, provided top-tier devices to play on and are housed in bungalows called boot camps for training and team-building. Outfits which had teamed up with international bigwigs such as TSM and Fnatic could afford to keep players on the payroll.

“The big teams could keep paying salaries, but not everybody could do it,” says Kamaljeet. “Some paid half, one-third of the salaries, others didn’t pay at all. The whole industry was affected.”

Within a week, a top organisation called Team Megastars disbanded, and their prolific player Rishabh Katoch let it out on Instagram.

“I was the sole earner for my family. Ghar se bohot lad ke aaya that. I went through the grind, represented the country,” a tearful Katoch said in the live video. “Now I have no clue what I’ll do with my life.”

While Katoch has since stayed on the grind, earning a decent following on YouTube, Kamaljeet says not everyone was as fortunate.

“There were so many youngsters who wanted to make their career in esports. Sab ke sapno pe paani fir gaya.”
Jain’s Team 8Bit also shut down its esports operations, focussing instead on streaming.

“It wasn’t commercially possible for me to give full salaries because even now, we don’t know when the game will return. Say if we keep on giving salaries for 6 months, 8 months, 12 months, and the game isn’t back, it’s a dead investment from a business point of view,” says Jain. “From a family point of view, the decision was very hard and sad. We never took back the devices. We advised our players to start YouTube channels and we supported howsoever we could.”

Team 8Bit’s pivot to content creation has been led by the poster boy of PUBG Naman Mathur, whose moniker of ‘Mortal’ has rung out at the KD Jadhav Indoor Hall in New Delhi to arenas in Kuala Lumpur and Berlin.

Mathur had been expecting the ban, but the announcement still left him stunned for a good couple of days.

“This was our daily bread and butter,” recalls Mathur. “We could have had our reasons to be sad and sit down and stop everything but we didn’t want to do that because this is our career. Our lives depend on this somewhat. To sit and crib wasn’t an option. We couldn’t fight anybody over this either. We had no other option than to move on and explore other things.”

The 24-year-old first pacified his 6million YouTube subscribers, then tried to migrate the audience to other games — from breakout hits ‘Fall Guys’ and ‘Among Us’, to other battle royale titles such as ‘Free Fire’ and ‘Call of Duty’ — to mixed success. Last month, he finished third in the ‘Mobile Player of the Year 2020’ category at the E-sports Awards 2020. Earlier this month, YouTube ranked him among the most successful live streamers of the year.

But with hardcore PUBG lovers deserting, sustaining numbers has been a challenge. Mathur’s channel gained 70million views and 430,000 subscribers in August. The numbers were down to 21million and 40,000 in November.

“Back then there were numbers. Now, comparatively, there are no numbers and that is the only challenge I feel,” Mathur says. “Many have adapted though, and if 10,000 people are watching my livestreams, I am happy.”

But the most successful PUBG player of the country — he has amassed $40,000 from competitive events alone — makes do with several partnerships and sponsorships as a streamer. He has rubbed shoulders with professional racers Narain Karthikeyan and Arjun Maini to cricketers L Balaji and M Ashwin. He was called upon by actors Vicky Kaushal and Manoj Bajpayee when their movies or TV shows needed promotion.

The PUBG ban thus has only been the end of Stage 1 for Mathur. For many others, it spelt Game Over.

Udit Kumar — a 23-year-old media professional from Ashok Nagar, New Delhi — was one of the 50million approx PUBG mobile users in the country, and moonlighted as a competitive player at local tournaments. The pandemic first put an end to those tourneys and soon he was laid off from his primary job.

“Two months after my sister’s wedding, I was out of a job and the family needed support. Looking at all these players and their videos, I decided to make my mark as a professional PUBG player,” he says.

Udit then became a virtual gun for hire, participating in multiple tournaments which paid Rs15-50 for every in-game kill.

“I played many such games daily, and started to get 5-6 kills per game. I formed a group with three others and we ran roughshod. We were good and I sent many applications with our videos to big teams in case they wanted us,” says Udit, rattling off tournament wins like a retired batsman recounting centuries. “I also started a YouTube channel and had a decent following.”

Then dropped the banhammer. Too chap-fallen to switch to a new mobile game, too broke to afford a gaming PC to play fancier titles, Udit swore off video games and has been helping his milk-seller father.
Mathur points out the risks of putting all eggs in one basket.

“You’re always new to everything. If people really want to win and go to tournaments, they can go for alternatives that are there and keep trying. We all had to grind as well,” he says. “But yeah, that bond everybody had with PUBG mobile, the emotional connect, that will never be there.”

Maybe it will be there when PUBG returns. Or if it returns. The seemingly inevitable comeback was supposed to be in November. Then December. Now January…

“Wapas toh aayega,” Udit is sure. “I will download it again. Par faaltu sapne nahi dekhunga ab.”

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