Lokesh  Suji

For years, cricket has been the heart and soul of India's sporting landscape, commanding the hearts of millions. Beyond the cricketing arena, other sports such as football, hockey, boxing, and athletics, have also claimed their places in the spotlight.

But now, a new-age sporting phenomenon is steadily making its presence felt in the nation’s sporting ecosystem.

Esports, the country's latest sporting discipline is firmly etching its position among mainstream sports. With a widespread player base, revenue generation, and an ever-expanding audience, Esports, which was once considered a niche pastime promises to reshape the nation's sports industry.

According to the Windows of Opportunity report on India's Media and Entertainment industry by FICCI-EY, one of India’s most definitive platforms for media and entertainment Industry for more than 20 years, the number of esports players across all competitive level games in India increased from 600,000 in 2021 to one million in 2022.

It is expected to reach 2.5 million by the end of this year. Moreover, esports teams in India are estimated to grow from 110,000 in 2022 to 125,000 in 2023.

After being recognised as an official "multi-sport" event by the Indian government in December 2022, the evolution of esports in the nation reached a pivotal milestone when it debuted as an official medal sport at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou last month.

What had begun as a demonstration event in the 2018 edition of the Games, now blossomed into a full-fledged competitive endeavour where 476 athletes from 30 different countries competed for gold medals in seven distinct titles.

India with its 15-member contingent, was all geared up to make history on the grand stage. The supremely talented Indian athletes found themselves competing in four of the seven featured titles - DOTA 2, League of Legends, EA Sports FC Online, and Street Fighter V: Champion Edition against the continent’s elite athletes and their performances were nothing short of inspiring.

While the League of Legends team secured a remarkable fifth place, EA Sports FC Online athlete Charanjot Singh left his mark with a commendable ninth-place finish, and Street Fighter V: Champion Edition athlete Ayan Biswas found himself among the top 16 contenders.

A squad of 15 athletes represented India as esports made its Asian Games debut as a medal event at Hangzhou 2022 ©Esports Federation of India
A squad of 15 athletes represented India as esports made its Asian Games debut as a medal event at Hangzhou 2022 ©Esports Federation of India

This historic participation has served as a catalyst to inspire a new generation of enthusiasts and propel the growth of India’s esports ecosystem.

The impact of the country’s esports athletes participating at Hangzhou 2022 has marked a significant turning point in the country's sports landscape, paving the way for the development of esports in the country in numerous ways.

In the wake of India's remarkable performance at Hangzhou 2022, five students from Delhi University's Hansraj College, along with two students from a Ghaziabad-based engineering college, came together to form Delhi University's first-of-its-kind Esports society called "ARCADE."

This is a testament to how the success of Indian esports athletes is inspiring the next generation of players and enthusiasts.

Through the orchestration of various events and educational initiatives, esports societies have the power to diminish existing stereotypes and educate the public about the boundless opportunities within the Esports industry. Eventually, the birth of “ARCADE” will surely lead to more such societies getting established, which is crucial for nurturing the burgeoning talent that will one day represent India on the global stage.

One of the natural progressions in light of India's success at the Asian Games will be the integration of esports as a subject or degree course in educational institutes. This would not only legitimise esports as a career choice but also create a talent pool for the industry right from the grassroots level.

Educational institutes around the country have already recognised the growing potential of esports as an official sport and have adopted it in their curriculum to contribute to its growth. Institutes such as the Dalimss Sunbeam School Varanasi, Indian School of Gaming, Whistling Woods International School, and many more offer courses and programs dedicated to gaming and Esports to ensure that the sport starts thriving at the school or collegiate level.

With esports also due to be a part of the 2026 Asian Games in Aichi Prefecture, where India will participate once again, the country will have to improve its esports infrastructure and coaching programmes.

This includes the development of world-class training facilities and the nurturing of coaches who can guide Indian athletes to a podium finish.

Historically, India has always been a mobile-first market and Niko Partners’ India Games Market Report 2023 proves it by stating that 96.8 per cent of total gamers in the country play on a smartphone or tablet.

However, as a majority of the titles at Hangzhou 2022 were PC and console-based, there will be a pressing need for more tournaments in these categories. By organising and supporting more esports events across PC and console gaming titles, the country can increase its chances of securing medals in the next edition of the Asian Games.

The positioning of esports as a mainstream sport after Asian Games is undoubtedly expected to attract an influx of sponsorships and investments. This includes non-endemic brands across all industries who are looking to associate themselves with this prospering sport and connect with its digital, young audience.

As per the FICCI-EY report, the number of brands investing in esports in India grew from 72 in 2021 to 80 in 2022, and it is estimated to reach 100 in 2023. As brands continue to recognise the potential and value of Esports, the sector will stand shoulder to shoulder with traditional sports like cricket, football, and athletics.

Mainstream celebrities like Bollywood star Ranveer Singh, and sports icons like cricketer MS Dhoni and footballer Sunil Chhetri are joining the industry as brand ambassadors, exposing their vast fan bases to the world of gaming.

Additionally, traditional sporting networks such as Star Sports and established streaming platform JioCinema have also entered the esports landscape, broadcasting Battlegrounds Mobile India tournaments to the entire country.

In this way, the presence of esports at the 19tt Asian Games has legitimised video gaming across Indian households. Well-renowned personalities and broadcasting networks associating themselves with esports are blurring the lines between traditional sports and esports, opening up new avenues for growth.

 In conclusion, the debut of esports as a medal sport at the Asian Games in Hangzhou has set India on a promising path toward the development of this dynamic and rapidly growing industry.