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A tube of pain-relief ointment, a bottle of Vicks Vaporub and two chilled cola cans rest on a table in a bungalow in Mumbai’s upscale Andheri.
Soon, five young men – who wake up at noon and eat noodles for breakfast – enter the room. A monosyllabic commerce dropout from Kolkata, a chatty commerce graduate from Mumbai, a cheerful mechanical engineer from Pune, a sleepy management undergrad from the Philippines, and a cold-battling Australian management undergraduate of Filipino descent.
An assortment of sideburns, bleached hair, spectacles, hoodies and hipster beards, they collapse into tall, $400-worth swivel chairs, put on headphones and prepare to spend the next ten hours indulging the purest form of male bonding – the kind that does not require eye contact.
“Does the monkey have PMS?” asks Pune’s Balaji Ramnarayan, 23, looking at the pixelated forest on the large computer screen. “No,” answers his bespectacled Kolkata-based friend Moin Ejaz, clicking away on his light-up mouse. And just like that, begins a regular workday for SIGNIFY, India’s only IPL-style professional international team for the multiplayer LAN game called Dota 2 (Defense Of The Ancient 2), which is less a game and more an obsessive male subculture in which PMS only refers to a curious weapon called Poor Man’s Shield.
For three months now, SIGNIFY – a motley group of top cyber athletes whose autographs identify them by their famous online aliases Crowley, NoChanc3, OWA, Xrag and BlizzarD – have been living together in a bungalow along with their “team mom” Marcela Lala from New Zealand, a manager who sets their daily match schedule and resolves technical issues. This communal setup is part of their “bootcamp” sponsored by COBX Gaming Ventures, an e-sports company.They must not only commit ten hours each day on “scrimming” (practice) matches and tournaments but also work out together at an all-night gym for an hour to cement their bond – an offline ritual they’ve reluctantly warmed up to. At the end of the month, these full-time gamers end up making more than their techie friends in software MNCs.
Internationally, such bootcamps are a rite of passage for players that compete in the high-octane, corporate-backed world of competitive gaming which not only boasts its own stadiums and commentators but also a crowdfunded prize pool that could run up to millions of dollars. At the annual Dota 2 tournament, The International, hosted by Valve Entertainment, for instance, the prize pool could cross US$ 50 million (Rs 5 crore) which is “bigger than that of Wimbledon,” points out Mojo aka Mujahid Rupani of COBX Gaming. Set in a mythical world of ogres, magicians and “creeps”, it requires two teams of five Heroes to battle to take over the opposing team’s Ancient-a fountain with rejuvenating power. The most popular players can make around $1,000 (Rs 65,000) just by streaming a game directly to their fans. Pakistani teen Sumail Hassan made nearly $200,000 after spending just one month as a professional player in the US.
While earlier attempts at forming corporate-backed competitive gaming teams had fizzled out chiefly for want of quick wins, India has around 500 amateur and four to five pro teams for the LAN game Counter Strike Global Offensive at the moment and around 400 amateur teams and six to seven pro teams for Dota 2. The country has come a long way from the tentative times when gam ing infrastructure was sparse and players used to compete in tournaments held on plastic chairs in cyber cafes watched by 20 people, ten of whom were friends.
The Indian players’ real-world rise in the world of e-sports has involved navigating a series of battles, from fighting choppy internet connections to hiding laptops under blankets from disapproving parents. “Many in India think e-sports means gambling,” says Raunak Sen.
Sometimes when they return from tournaments toting carboard cheques of Rs 5 lakh, airport security guards ask if they are cricketers or hockey players and the watchman asks how he can earn quick money from gaming. In such situations, Raunak – whose fame came after nine years of intensive gaming – simply changes the subject.
Even so, it is a good time to be a competitive gamer in India with more cor porates such as Nazara Games and USports look ing to invest. Live-streaming resources like Twitch ensure that the gamer’s fan base is expanding.
There has been criticism about esports, ranging from health concerns to questions about free speech and sexism. Why aren’t there enough women in the field? The players say they’re not sure.”Women are probably just not taking it seriously,” shrugs Joshua Serna, SIGNIFY’s captain. Although Balaji’s mother would like him to get out of the house more, his father, a visiting consultant at Vellore Institute of Technology advises students to play Dota 2.