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INTERVIEW WITH MR. LOKESH SUJI

September 27, 2021

It isn’t cricket or football that is the sport on the rise in India, there is a new kind of sport – esports. Just like any other sport, esports also requires skill and has multiple tournaments taking place worldwide that feature some of the world’s best players.

According to a report by EY India, the esports market size in India has reached to INR 3 billion in 2021 and is only expected to grow. With more and younger audiences taking up this indoor sport, especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, esports is only going to rise exponentially from here onwards.

To find out more about the esports industry in the country and the future of the sport, as to how it will affect the gaming industry and the opportunities that lie in India, we spoke to Mr. Lokesh Suji, Director, Esports Federation of India, and Vice President of the Asian Esports Federation – Asia’s two most premier organisations that plan and run esports in the country.

 

Q1. Greetings, Mr Suji. Could you please tell us about your journey with esports and what got you hooked?

It goes back to my school days; my reward for scoring good marks was game sessions at the video game parlors. I used to play games like Contra and Mario since I liked shooting games; Contra was my favorite one.

Eventually we got an Xbox and journey continued. I have also played at MLG (Major League Gaming) World Championship for Call of Duty (New Orleans) in 2015. We were the only Asian team and India’s first-ever team to participate at an MLG LAN event.

 

Q2. Esports is undoubtedly becoming a booming industry, so much so that even the Olympics launched the Olympic Virtual Series this year. Given the pandemic era, what can you tell us about the development of the games in India, especially as physical sports have had to take a back seat over the last year and a half?

Esports has seen a decent growth over a few years, and we have also seen Indian esports athletes set their footprints on the global scene. The current pandemic has helped in shifting the focus of esports to online. The overall growth of the esports industry has been phenomenal in 2020. During the Pandemic, esports got much-needed exposure and it seems that it is slowly heading towards the mainstream. We have witnessed the numbers increase dramatically and video gaming and esports is now being considered as a viable career option by video gaming enthusiasts.

The esports industry, from a technology standpoint, largely depends on ISP infrastructure, Gaming Technologies and Gaming Hardware. Any incremental or even radical change will either enhance the gaming experience or create new opportunities for the industry. For instance, better smartphones and internet penetration has led to the massive growth in the number of mobile gamers in India.

With easy access to smartphones and internet, esports has grown leaps and bounds. Earlier we hardy used to have viewership numbers crossing couple of thousands, whereas today we are talking in millions. Smartphone’s mobile video game titles (esports ones) have made esports accessible to the mass youth population of India.

India will be the next powerhouse for esports given we have approx. 300 million esports enthusiasts, and its growth is clearly visible during the COVID times be it in terms of online events or streaming, player participations and viewership.

 

Q3. Given that India has always been a marketing gold mine and a market that many sports try to break into, what has held back esports from booming in India? Also, what kind of opportunities do you see for the industry in India?

Post-COVID, we’ve seen a tectonic shift in the way technology is being used to revolutionise esports in India both for the players as well as the audience. Some of the key trends and technologies that are driving the Indian esports industry and will continue to enhance the ecosystem are: 

Data Analytics – The increasing use of AI-backed data analytics to support developers/players/organizers alike to research reported game patterns and to provide new insights into gaming strategies for professional gamers to better their gaming experience and to enhance their viewing experience for the audience.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) – In the coming years, Artificial Intelligence is the backbone of the esports industry, providing players with technologically advanced training tools focused on machine learning that will further improve their skills and gaming strategies. In the near future, natural language processing (NLP) instruments will gain momentum. The player-audience social experience will also be increasingly personalised by AI.

Virtual Reality (VR) – A fresh demand for VR esports is emerging with the introduction of untethered VR headsets and new games. It should feel really immersive, so players feel more linked to the game. 

Mobile Gaming – According to a joint report published by the Indian Cellular and Electronics Association and the consulting firm KPMG, by 2022, India’s smartphone base will reach 820 million active users. This clearly highlights the ability of mobile gaming to gain a wider audience from India’s still untapped markets towards esports.
Esports could be the next big thing, especially in rural India, where most youngsters have a smartphone. India has emerged as the hotspot for mobile esports in the past couple of years. India’s rising penetration of smartphones will take esports to another level altogether. The next wave of esports penetration in India will also fly with high bandwidth capabilities of 5G-enabled wireless networking coupled with cloud gaming.

Streaming / Content Creation – Streaming is where anyone can record or show their game by broadcasting it live over the internet through streaming platforms. Streamers can add custom graphics to their stream and communicate through a chat room with viewers, informing and entertaining them. It enables fans to get closer to the action and to make some extra money for pro gamers and entertainers. Facebook and YouTube will lead the show in India. Streamers have been able to monetise their content and rake up good monies. Streaming today is a viable career option.

Streaming tools – In order to minimise problems and enhance the quality of online gaming, game streaming software solutions are essential. Game streaming software are well equipped with features and elements that help beautify streams and improve the overall streaming experience. The most commonly used streaming tools are Open Broadcaster Software (OBS Studio), Xsplit, Wirecast, Stream Pro etc.

Esports Platforms – Esports events are not necessarily held in a physical environment. Esports athletes can compete in various tournaments hosted online by Esports platforms. During COVID, we saw surge in participations/engagement like Gamerji, Ultimate Battle, and self-service platforms like Ustreak that allow gamers to host their own tournaments and leagues directly on the website or in Discord using their bots. Ustreak happens to be one of the world’s first few to build this functionality and India’s first one to do so.

 

Q4. What are the challenges you think the esports industry faces today?

The major hurdles faced by Indian esports industry are:

  • The recognition of esports as a sport by the Sports Ministry and the Indian Olympic Association. This will also help in building the confidence of the parents (as our esports athletes are largely from 14-20 years and their parents are not very supportive).
  • Uneven distribution of high-speed internet connections compared to Tier 1 cities.
  • Lack of budget-friendly gaming PCs.

Esports is growing, and we need to establish a wider wireframe to support the ecosystem so that new skilled esports athletes can grow from all over India.

 

Q5. Another important factor that holds back the current esports industry is sponsorship. How is ESFI trying to promote and develop the industry to newer customers?

India suffers from the misunderstanding regarding the term “esports” as there have been lot of attempts to confuse public at large by calling teen patti, rummy, poker, online gaming, gambling, real money gaming, betting as “esports” (these kinds of apps are igaming apps) and for that matter playing casual video games like ludo/candy crush is also not esports. It’s atrocious to even compare them with esports; no brand wants to be associated with gambling or betting.

Things are changing, however, and brands are also getting aligned to esports just like any other sport. Largely the big task at hand on our end is to change this perception. After all, what parent would want their children to be associated with igaming.

 

Q6. Another central talking point has been 5G. With 5G lurking around the corner and soon to be launched, what kind of effect do you think it will have on the Indian gaming industry?

Among many driving factors that have been accelerating esports’ growth is access to high-speed internet. Access to high-speed Internet connections over 3G/4G spectrum and broadband has impacted the overall gaming experience. In the past, a normal internet connection was not adequate and gamers witnessed lags during gameplay, but now fast-paced internet connections are ensuring seamless gaming sessions.

Easy access to blazing-fast internet helps to develop a larger gaming community of highly targeted esports audience. India has got its smartphone population covered with a high-speed 4G network, and the launching of 5G is underway which will further strengthen the building blocks of online esports.

 

Q7. There aren’t many esports leagues in India. The 2019 ESL One Mumbai saw only one Indian team participation. What steps are being taken to host more national competitions to unearth Indian talents and give them proper training and development? What kind of impact do you think more esports leagues will have?

India is not yet ready for any sort of an esports league: we need to create some esports heroes (just like Neeraj Chopra). At our end, we conduct daily and weekly events for multiple esports titles which give opportunities to underrated teams to perform. We have started with National Ranking and Female Scrims. We also have a collegiate program wherein we partner with various colleges and provide a platform for the budding talents to perform.

We recently concluded our National Esports Championship (NESC2021), the winners of which will represent India at the 13th Esports World Championship to be held at Eilat, Israel in November 2021. One of our athletes, Hemanth, has qualified for the global finals post the South Asian Qualifiers, and he is an IITian.

 

Q8. Finally, when do you think India will recognise esports as a sport, and what is the importance of making sure this happens soon enough?

While the community does what needs to be done, government recognition of esports as a sport is a must, but we are very optimistic it will happen soon.

The government is opening up: it was in 2019 that SEPC (a unit of Ministry of Industry & Commerce) along with ESFI organised “Nations Cup”, an  international esports championship which was India’s first esports event backed fully by the government.

Recently, esports was also part of the starred questions in parliament on Feb 4, 2021, and the Ministry of Sports tabled its reply in which it said, “esports is an emerging platform for the youth population in the country. There are large numbers of esports enthusiasts in our country. It is included in Asian Games 2022 as a medal sport discipline but not yet included in the Olympics.

“Esports is different from gaming or igaming and gambling, etc. as the former is a sport while the latter two are chance-based.” These are good signs for our esports ecosystem.

The esports community wants and requires esports to be recognised by the government as a sport in India in order to gain the benefits and support any sports community and athletes would receive; the misconceptions are hurdles towards that goal. Players don’t get benefits like any other sports – be it training, well-being or job security (sports quota).

Esports is growing, and we need to establish a wider wireframe to support the ecosystem so that new skilled esports athletes can grow all over India and we can win many Gold Medals for our country.

Aditya Chaudhuri

Hailing from the City of Joy, the things that bring me joy are cricket, a good non-tilt CS:GO session, F1 and movies.

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