Of gaming and opportunities, a look into the Indian esports ecosystem

Esports is a fairly new buzzword in the country. While esports tournaments have been a part of the India’s gaming ecosystem for quite some time, in the past couple of years, the popularity has surged high enough to attract international attention and now many are scrambling to get a slice of it.

Back in 2018, the ecosystem witnessed a number of significant tournaments like ESL One, DreamHack and COBX Masters and according to Esports Observer, the prize money given out across all tournaments was around Rs. 3.5 crore. However, 2019 brought in a major shift in paradigm; the prize money grew by 180 per cent to around Rs. 10.7 crore.

With the advent of more prospects in an industry which is just blooming in the country, more enthusiasts are being attracted. These young individuals from across India want to get into this industry, however, not just  as esports athletes which is the common perception, but in other disciplines too.

“I am from Kerala and shifted to Mumbai in 2012. Although I was a gamer, I found a completely different scenario, when it came to gaming, in Mumbai. Initially, I played Counter Strike, at small LAN events as bigger tournaments were not around that time,” says 24 year old Nishant Murlidharan.

Nishant Murlidharan

While Murlidharan was still pursuing his engineering back at that time, he enjoyed gaming and wanted to give a shot at content creation as well. He initially created a channel, uploaded some whimsical videos of himself playing and eventually stopped uploading after a while as the viewership did not measure up to much.

After a brief hiatus, he continued gaming and started streaming on YouTube and met with mediocre success even after graduating and securing a job as a data analyst. Eventually he got into playing PUBG, the PC version. Soon he received a lot of support from the Indian PUBG community on discord, however, that too was limited.

The break came in April 2019 when he published a montage video of some of his best plays and it caught the eyes of some of the major Indian PUBG pros including Scout, who reacted to the video on his channel. Post that, Murlidharan started amalgamating subscribers in bulk. Fast forward to now, he is a full time streamer and also plays with a team of PUBG PC players and has some impressive tournament achievements to his name. He also has a streaming partnership with Gaming Monk.

His YouTube channel called iFlicks has around 70,000 subscribers (iFlicks is also his gamer tag).

Although, Dota 2 and CS:GO have been the stars of the esports ecosystem, in India specifically, there’s an evident shift that is being seen. Tencent’s PUBGM or PUBG Mobile has dominated in 2019 in terms of prize pool in the country. A super Esports title like Dota 2 is experiencing a decline in viewership leading to teams dropping their rosters. However, it might not be very surprising. As the paradigm shifts largely from PC to mobile given the availability of smartphones and viewership accessibility, the majority share of tournaments, events and eventually prize pool is poised to shift into the mobile segment as well.

For  long-time Indian gamers, the shift came as a little challenging because mobile esports is very new but the good news is that it is gaining popularity by the day. However, not every player is already adept when he or she has to switch platforms. The dynamics of gameplay and controls change drastically which switching from console or PC to mobile entails, especially when you are not playing casual games. However, it has not deterred them from adapting and exploring opportunities.

“I am a PC gamer. I started with Call Of Duty 4 in 2011 and I played that game for about seven years consecutively,” says Pratik Mehra, the coach of Fnatic India PUBGM team.

Although he hails from a PC background, he is coaching the mobile team of one of the most premium esports organisations in the world.


Prateek Mehra

After winning multiple national and international events of PUBG PC, Mehra saw an opportunity in the mobile segment as it had more audience, prize-pool and overall opportunities.

Says Mehra: “I didn’t know how to play on mobile. However, because in PUBG 30 per cent is shooting and other 70 per cent is your strategy, your location, etc., I had an edge. I was the IGL (in game leader) of my team, who brings the team together and makes the shot calls. I am using my experience as a coach here. I will be guiding them about the strategies and more.”

For now, he says, he will continue streaming and creating content and also hone his skills on mobile and once he masters that he would stream PUBGM as well.

The appointment of a coach somewhat portrays the upward scale of the Indian industry. A handful of organisations or teams in India have had coaches for esports teams, let alone for a mobile title. A monthly earning of a coach can be somewhere between Rs 20,000 to Rs 60,000, depending upon the title and the organisation. PUBGM has around 20 to 25 tier 1 teams in India and is evidently leading the market in terms of player-base and viewership. However, other titles are also enthusiastic about getting a slice of the market.

In 2019, Garena conducted its first tournament in India for the title Free Fire titled Free Fire India Today League with a total prize pool or Rs 35 Lakh divided among top 10 teams. The event was inaugurated by the Union Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports Kiren Rijiju.

Other titles like Clash Royale and most recently Call Of Duty Mobile are around as well.

As more titles are entering the esports scene, so are the opportunities.

Kiran Noojibail

30 year old Kiran Noojibail is the director of esports and broadcasting at LXG and one of the more prominent Indian shoutcasters (the person who gives commentary about the gameplay). Says he “I played Dota semi-professionally from the year 2007 to 2010. Back then there was barely any scope in terms of tournaments and the ones that were there had a registration fee and you would get something very minimal if you win, mostly a refund of your registration money if you were the runners up. Hence there was no means of making this a proper full-time profession.”

Going under the tag of ‘Shadeslayer,’ Noojibail casts multiple number of games ranging from Overwatch, Dota 2, Counter Strike Global Offensive and even PUBG.

He further continues, “After I completed my engineering and finished my work in 2015, I wondered what I could do. I was a trained public speaker; I had very good knowledge of Dota from the time when I had played it. I decided to give a shot at casting and started doing so in April 2015. That’s when I started working on my first gig as a shout caster.” 

Since then he has cast some of the major tournaments across India  and overseas.

The payment for shoutcasters in India can vary on certain aspects like talent, event and model. While at some events, they are paid in terms of the entire event they are also paid in accordance to matches, or even rounds.

With the advent of mobile, Noojibail says that the competition has increased in the market. As the audience grows to a sizebale number, the more tournaments will be around and more talented people from across the country will join the scene.

However, it also brings in more opportunities in other spectrums of the industry as well. Just like any other industry, the general profiles of cinematographers, post production crew, event agencies, designers, community managers, public relation individuals, marketing individuals, business development executives, social media handlers and many more will continue to increase.

Devesh Kabdwal has been instrumental in the earlier-mentioned COBX Masters. He donned the hat of VP media and marketing for COBX Gaming and even managed the company’s flagship team, Signify. Managing two teams of CS:GO and Dota 2 respectively, he said that even though the market is shifting into mobile first, the ways of managing a team and tailoring an esports brand remain the same.

Devesh Kabdwal

Both of Signify’s teams had a fine run during their tenure and dominated the scene in India, however according to Kabdwal, they had always aimed at competing in the South east Asian scene which is much more matured in terms of the PC market.

Said he, “Managing a team aspiring to be a formidable presence in the South East Asian scene alongside trying to create a brand came with challenges, but it has always been exciting.”

However, according to him, since the viewership was not as colossal as it is now thanks to mobile, it was a challenge to convince brands to get in. As the PC market has limitations in its audience base, it has been traditionally hard to get the mainstream brands on board, however mobile poses a much more lucrative ecosystem.

Just like traditional sports, esports in itself brings opportunities for athletes, irrespective of their traditional educational degrees. Pressure from parents to lean into a rather mainstream profession after completing education is somewhat a norm of Indian households. And in that line of competition, esports or rather ‘gaming’ does not hold a candle.

For some though, it was pure passion that took them ahead in the scene.

Akshay Dhodi, now 26, began playing professionally when he was 18. He dropped out of school when he was in the ninth standard, owing to family issues. He spent his days playing Dota 2 in LAN cafes despite his parents nagging him about how he was wasting his time, his life away. He paid off his cafe bills by helping others reach higher points in games and from college and cafe tournaments. In 2011, he got an offer to join Team Buriza in Hyderabad and he has not looked back since.

He joined the Asus ROG  team and became one of the better known players of the Indian Dota scene. Recently after leaving ROG, he is playing for a team named Whoops!, and is looking for a sponsorship.

Akshay Dhodi

Says he, “[Even though mobile is dominating] I am trying to increase my MMR (Matchmaking Rating) in Dota 2 and my sole focus is on this game. If the future does not bring much to me from this title, I might consider moving to some other title.”

An esports athlete in India gets around Rs 20,000 to Rs 50,000 as salary, depending on the organisation. However that is just for PC games. If reports are to be believed, Indian mobile esports players are getting paid somewhere between Rs 60,000 to Rs 1 lakh, which is considerably higher than their PC counterparts.

However, it does not come as a surprise as more viewership generates higher ROI.

Esports and gaming in general is solidifying its place in the Indian market. Quite a few international biggies are already eyeing the market if reports are to be believed. 2020 will be an enormously critical year for the Indian scene. After dominating the US charts, COD Mobile will try to cement its position in the mobile-loving country. Albeit it will be hard to chip away PUBGM‘s already existing brand loyalty, it will not be impossible to make a dent to start with. This in turn will  force Tencent to up its game further in the nation.

While DreamHack open has already been confirmed for 2020, no other major tournaments have been announced.

As esports and content around it starts penetrating further into regional feeds, the viewership is likely to increase manifolds and hence the awareness. As a result, brands would be willing to invest more for visibility in a youth dominated country.

As far as Indian Esports go, you ain’t seen nothing yet! Watch out for the wave!