With the popularity of esports exploding in India and improving tech infrastructure, a new generation of players hope that gaming will change their lives.
When Meet Maheshkumar Brahmbhatt started gaming at the age of 15, the odds were against him becoming one of India’s top esports players. He had enthusiasm and raw talent in spades, but he could only afford a cheap, low-end phone, which struggled to run the latest games. Added to this were the cripplingly slow internet speeds and frequent power cuts in his small town of Himatnagar in the state of Gujarat.
His parents also disapproved of their only child’s hobby. “Whenever I played, they told me to stop and to go study instead,” says Brahmbhatt, who is now 23 and goes by the alias Prince. “It wasn’t until I won some prize money in a competition and started to help my father out financially that they said, ‘OK – you can do this’.”
In 2019, Prince and his three teammates won $20,000 (£14,800) when they came third in the multiplayer battle royale game known as PUBG (PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds) Mobile Club Open (PMCO) 2019 Spring India Finals. Prince gave his share of the winnings to his father, who runs a small ghee store and was heavily indebted on a loan. The loan was paid off and there was money left over to buy more stock.
While obtaining a degree in computer science, Prince continued to compete in PUBG esports tournaments whenever he could. He formed a team comprising fellow players Spraygod, Aladin and Sarang, each of whom he met online, and in early 2020 the team was acquired by a local company called Grapple Creation X (GcX). Its owner, Santosh Pechetti, named the team “7Sea” after the seven major rivers that flow into India, and because seven is considered a lucky number.
When an esports team or player is acquired by an investor, they can be provided with practical and financial support, such as gaming devices, computers and coaches. In exchange, they take a small share of winnings.
But in September 2020, the Indian government banned PUBG Mobile, along with 117 Chinese-owned apps during a military standoff with China at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Following a massive outcry, in December 2020 Chinese publisher Krafton announced the release of an Indian version called Battlegrounds Mobile India.
Prince’s big break came this year when GcX was acquired for an undisclosed sum by Ampverse, an esports holding company based in Singapore that could provide the team with a further step-up in assistance. As part of the deal, the four players of 7Sea moved into a gaming house in August 2021, which is for their exclusive use. The six-bedroom villa in Pune has the latest gaming technology, high-speed internet, and meals prepared by a chef and domestic staff. The players have a coach, performance analysts, a personal trainer and “social ambassadors” who create online content and hype around the 7Sea brand.
Prince’s confidence and ambition resonates with a new generation of Indian gamers, for whom esports represents a life-changing opportunity
“Their potential is massive,” says Ampverse chief strategy officer Charlie Baillie. “We believe that with the right backing and resources, we can turn 7Sea into not just a hugely successful gaming team, but something much bigger: a lifestyle brand that resonates with young Indians.”
In the past couple of months, 7Sea has won first place in the India Today Dangal Championship and second place in the Skyesports Championship 3.0.
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“My only aim is to be number one – not number two, or number three,” Prince says. “I want to win. That’s what I live for.”
Prince’s confidence and ambition resonate with a new generation of Indian gamers, for whom esports represents a life-changing opportunity. But how do investors like Ampverse spot the next big talents, and how do they turn talent into success?
Creating esports icons
Ampverse is itself building on already a significant success. It was founded in 2019 and owns 11 professional esports teams across Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and India. In 2020, it purchased an esports team in the Thai second division called Bacon Time who, after one year with Ampverse, won the Pro League, rose from one million to 10 million followers and earned $1.5m (£1.1m) in revenue. Ampverse is aiming to make 7Sea one of India’s leading teams within 18 months.
“It’s a bit like the music industry,” says Baillie, who was previously head of digital at Universal Music Group and has worked with the likes of Justin Bieber and Rihanna. “You have your people out there listening to new bands and artists and trying to find the next Justin Bieber or Rihanna. To do that, you’ve got to know all the talent. Our people are deeply entrenched within the creative community. They have a lot of personal relationships and they are trusted members of that community.”
Ampverse’s team of talent scouts spend a great deal of time scouring professional and amateur esports leagues. The scouts use internal tools to compare performance metrics such as the “kill ratio” (the proportion of casualties on each side in a battle). But beyond gaming ability, Ampverse is interested in the “hyper-growth trajectory and an accelerating fanbase” of new recruits. By gleaning data from YouTube, Facebook and TikTok, Ampverse can compare subscriber growth, engagement rates and “dwell time” (which is how long fans spend watching content). It also looks at the number of concurrent views on live streaming platforms like Twitch, where Ampverse’s chief executive Ferdinand Gutierrez previously worked.
Different games require different skill sets, says Baillie, but on a holistic level, it isn’t too dissimilar from finding talent in traditional sports.
“Any successful esports team is all about teamwork,” he says. “We’ve all seen football players who might be absolute geniuses on their own, but if they don’t play well with a team, it affects the dynamic.”
Strategy skills and lightning-quick reaction times are important, as is mental fortitude. 7Sea uses the “scrum” method, a team-building framework typically used in IT environments, which can also strengthen confidence, trust and mindset. Their coach acts as the “scrum master” and leads 7Sea through a rigorous daily schedule that often begins with a personal trainer guiding the players through exercise and meditation sessions.
“We look for an ability to stay focused,” says Baillie. “These games are so intense. An esports tournament isn’t like a traditional sports tournament, where you just play one match per day. Esports players might be playing for up to nine hours, and they also need to absorb a review of their performance.”
A fast-growing nation of esports athletes
Baillie describes India as “the most exciting, high-growth market in the world” for esports. It is currently one of the top five mobile gaming markets globally, with a 13% share of global game sessions. There are an estimated 430 million recreational gamers in India, with the average spending 3.6 hours per week watching tournaments. Revenue is expected to rise at a compound annual growth rate of 36% over the next three years.
A report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) published in October found that digital games as mobile app downloads grew by 50% and user engagement went up by 20% during the pandemic, in part because many alternative forms of entertainment stopped during lockdowns.
“India’s market is in an early stage, relative to other more mature markets in Southeast Asia – and it’s going through rocketing growth,” says Baillie. “The scale of viewership is huge. Training matches – that is, not even professional matches – are attracting 100,000 concurrent viewers. In the next six to 12 months, it’s going to completely explode.”
With competitive success and mass-market appeal comes commercial attention. Louis Vuitton has produced exclusive merchandise for global fans of the team game League of Legends. Similarly, Gucci and Nike have created virtual worlds and limited-edition products within games like Roblox. The Thai team, Bacon Time recently signed a partnership with Doritos, in addition to many other partnerships.
“Esports is a new sport, it’s a new entertainment form and a new media form,” says Baillie. “And it will be the future of entertainment.”
A smoother path to success
India already has approximately 150,000 professional and semi-professional esports players, although the majority will also be working a second job. With the proliferation in the number of esports tournaments, the number of professional players is predicted to reach 1.5 million by 2025 and become a viable career option for future generations of Indians.
“Before the Indian Premier League was launched in 2007, our national cricket team represented the dreams of billions of players,” says Prashanth Rao, a partner at Deloitte India. “Now that esports has transformed into a league format, there are so many more chances. But esports is still in its infancy,” he adds. “There are very few organisations who are paying professional players a stable salary.”
Nonetheless, becoming a successful player is much more accessible to India’s youth. Many of the problems that Prince faced no longer exist.
“Nowadays, you can play a very complex game with a mobile phone,” says Rao. “Cloud computing means that you don’t need the most up-to-date hardware and some games have been optimised for latency.”
A number of startups are tapping into the demand for affordable second-hand mobile phones. Electricity shortages are no longer problematic, as many people rely on battery banks. Internet speeds are much improved. Women are starting to take up gaming in greater numbers and compete internationally, and esports has just been recognised by the Indian Olympic Association.
“We see 7Sea as an example of the new India: digital savvy and smart,” says Gutierrez. “You can see that these guys came from nothing and became iconic, and a symbol of the new India.”