I still fondly recall how my father used to give me money every day so I could go play video games, such as Pacman and Space Invaders, at the video game parlour on Park Street, Kolkata. It wasn’t just for fun and entertainment. My father understood that playing video games would help improve my hand-eye coordination, which would help with my tennis training.
Video games have been around for years, and today, they have evolved into e-sport. The big difference between the 1980s, when I played Pacman to help with my training, and the current times, is that e-sport has its dedicated tournaments and an entire ecosystem. E-sport is no longer just a supplement to training or a recreational activity. It can be taken up professionally, just like any other sport.
Apart from the fact that the e-sport industry is growing by leaps and bounds globally and in India, it is also finding recognition internationally, at the biggest sporting events. Earlier this year, the Olympics, for the first time, had the Olympic Virtual Series (OVS), where people from across the world could compete in virtual sport such as cycling, sailing, motorsports, etc. Even the Asian Games is set to introduce e-sports as a full-fledged medal event in next year’s edition.
It is time for India to embrace e-sport and grab these opportunities, especially as e-sport is being driven by the growth of mobile e-sport. Smartphones have become the norm now, and the younger generation is intuitively used to them. The pandemic has accelerated the online ecosystem, and everything from classes to meetings now take place virtually. The number of mobile e-sport tournaments has also increased, giving people from all over the country the chance to compete with the best, irrespective of their location.
In fact, one of the biggest advantages of e-sport is that it is location-agnostic. With affordable data, youngsters can train from the comfort of their homes, learn from the best coaches, and compete against other e-sport athletes. Training is a crucial part of development in any sport, and with e-sport, children do not need to travel away from their homes in order to hone their skills. With e-sport moving to mobile for the masses, even legacy barriers such as the high cost of gaming PCs and consoles have been removed. All one needs is a smartphone and a good internet connection to participate in competitions.
Being location-agnostic, e-sport is, by default, more inclusive. We are aware of the untapped talent that rural India has. So many champions who have won laurels for India in various sports have come from our Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities and towns and villages. With internet penetration increasing, rural India is poised to produce many potential champions in e-sport as well as the availability of smartphones increases and data packages become more affordable, bridging the digital divide. More opportunities are the need of the hour. We need to educate people on e-sport, and hold competitions and tournaments at large scales on the national level to unearth talent and provide them with the right support systems to develop.
With the pandemic forcing children indoors, e-sport can be a good medium to help them inculcate the values of sport. Camaraderie, team work, spirit of the game, passion — if promoted correctly these remain the same irrespective of the sport being physical, digital, or a combination of the two. Children can connect with their peers virtually and compete in e-sport to build the sporting spirit. These values are also great takeaways for them in the real world. In a survey conducted this year, 76% of gamers said that by regularly assessing how to win a game, they could develop their analytical skills.
The adoption of any new technology needs to be preceded by a change in mindset, and we are slowly seeing our fellow Indians recognise the opportunity that e-sport presents. Young Tirth Mehta from Gujarat was one of the bronze medal winners in the e-sport demo event at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, at a time when e-sport wasn’t as widely recognised. However, a lot has changed in the past three years and the significant investments that are pouring into e-sports in India reflect the all-round optimism about its growth and recognition.
With India producing several new sporting heroes, the latest example being Neeraj Chopra, who got our country enthused by a sport like javelin, parents are also encouraging their children to pursue sport professionally.
For e-sport, like for all sport, this trend needs to be sustained and further encouraged. We can do so with the right decisions taken by the stakeholders such as the government, e-sport companies, and e-sport athletes themselves. It may not be long before e-sport emerges as a medal event in some form on a popular large stage such as the Olympics, and with the right preparation, India could become one of the front-runners.
Leander Paes is a former Indian tennis player
The views expressed are personal