"Do you really have to write about this?" an e-sports organiser asked us, when talking about the debacle that was the Video Game Fest (VGF), which took place about a month ago in Pune. He was fearful that it might put off gamers and fans from competitive gaming altogether, and with good reason.
The e-sports "scene" in India has been a troubled one, and VGF Pune was only the latest disaster. The worst incident was probably the Indian Gaming Carnival (IGC), which took place in 2012. Organised by a company called WTF Eventz, the IGC promised a massive Rs. 1.5 crore prize pool, but instead it saw events and entire games canceled at the last minute. One of the international teams to attend, Counter-Strike players Moscow Five, ended up in the semi-finals of the tournament before the entire event was canceled. Things ended on an even more sour note, as the team's hotel room was broken into, and they were robbed while in India for the tournament.
That was three years, though, unfortunately, problems with e-sports in India still remain. Several members of the e-sports community Gadgets 360 spoke to told us that all was not well with the last few VGF events either, and prizes have not been paid out. The Pune edition for example, was described by gamers as poorly managed, and there's been no progress on awarding prize money yet, and winners of its Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2 tournaments left empty-handed.
Update: After the publication of this article, we were contacted by the Video Games Fest, which was able to confirm that it has completed all payments to prize-winners from the Pune VGF event, on February 26. The winners had not received their prizes at the time of writing, but did get paid by the time the article was published.
Dumadu CEO Narasimha Reddy told Gadgets 360 that the company is in touch with the teams and that it takes time to settle prizes. However, this isn't the first time VGF has come under the scanner.
Last year in October, VGF held a Mortal Kombat X tournament in Bengaluru. The winner, Raghavendran R., told Gadgets 360 that he's not been given his prize yet, despite reaching out to the organisers. He told us that the company claimed there was a police complaint filed against him at the venue, because of which it does not want to entertain communications with him. However, he has not been approached by the police in connection with this event, and neither has Dumadu clarified the details of the complaint.
"First they said someone at the venue lodged a complaint against me but they didn't know who," said Raghavendran. "It's surprising because this was their event. I've been in touch with them since then and they said they'd send my prize but have refused to take my calls after that." Months later, the prize - a Motorola Moto E 4G - has not arrived, he says. Dumadu meanwhile told Gadgets 360 that all prizes for the Pune event would be dispatched by the end of February, and also that it has not lodged a complaint, but is aware of one, adding that Raghavendran should not involve Dumadu in his "personal issues". Dumadu also could not produce a copy of this alleged complaint, nor would it disclose more details about the cause of the complaint to Gadgets 360.
The company says that it has spoken to Raghavendran on the phone telling him that he can collect the phone from its office, but apparently never sent any written communication to him to this effect.
The world over, e-sports events are run as a celebration of gaming prowess and competitive spirit. Thousands of words have been written on how gamers in China, Europe, Korea, and US have made a real career out of playing videogames. In India though, you could face threats of being taken to the police station instead of getting your prizes.
Despite everything, e-sports is still growing
Over the years, the number of active gamers has grown from strength to strength. Industry veterans like Nvidia's Gaming Specialist Yogesh Nagdev and Community Manager Daniel Mohan told Gadgets 360 that number of Dota 2 players in India - both casual and regular - amounts to 2.1 million over the past year and a half. Counter-Strike - both Counter-Strike 1.6 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - has around 2.5 million players.
"While it's true that we've had events that have sunk as low as IGC, it's [not] always that way," said Aman Biswas, Founder of Asidcast, a pop culture and gaming website with an emphasis on local e-sports. "Events like IGC are the exception. Most events happening across India these days are actually pretty nice and we have tournaments for several varieties of games as well, which helps,"
"Right now, the scene is in, what I'd like to call, a flux, because we've had new companies crop up over the past few years, hold some major tournaments, claim they're the next big thing, but have pretty much disappeared after barely three months in the spotlight," said pro-gamer Aditya 'Ad1' Shah from Team Brutality - one of India's top e-sports teams. "That said, there are a few, like SoStronk and Tranzeneca, who have managed to stick around for a much longer time."
Shah has been playing Counter-Strike for over 12 years now and says that there has been a gradual improvement in the tournaments being organised, but added that there is still a big gap between audience expectations and what organisers eventually deliver.
"Most gamers don't understand the stresses involved in organising a tournament in India, but at the same time, many of the organisers aren't bothered with doing right by the community and this is mostly due to pressure from their sponsors," explains Shah. "The gap comes in, because gamers want a tournament with production levels of ESL [Electronic Sports League], but organisers have a minute budget to execute the same. The choice is then between increasing prize pools or having epic production value, and most of the time organisers get both wrong."
According to Biswas though, the problem goes beyond this. It's a question of bringing an existing yet disconnected community together.
"The main reason I think the gap exists is because most organisers aren't gamers themselves. Even if they are, they don't actually understand the video game or the e-sports culture," Biswas said. "Most of them just have a vague understanding of them since they don't actively participate in the e-sports culture to begin with."
"From what I have come to understand, most organisers in the gaming industry right now mostly get second hand information about the industry, from articles online or a handful of gamers they meet," he added. "There's very little effort to build up a large community of gamers and effectively communicate with them in order to grow the scene."
There are exceptions to the rule though, such as E-Xpress. The Mumbai company is known for distributing games for publishers such as Capcom, Warner Bros., and Ubisoft. However it has also approached competitive gaming with a string of events over the past year.
"We have employees who were professional gamers and their insight is always valuable," said Allwyn D'Souza, Senior Community Executive at E-Xpress. The firm's employee roster includes past national and international Counter-Strike players who know a thing or two about what's needed to make e-sports sustainable. "We ensure international standards are met. Right from latest patches to 144Hz monitors, everything is taken care to ensure players have a good experience," he said.
In spite of this, the prize pool hasn't been the biggest, something that makes competitive gamers wonder if it's worth their time. D'Souza however said that this isn't a concern because there's more to e-sports than just prize money.
More than money?
"We have support from publishers which helps us offer amazing opportunities," he said. "For example, the winner of PES 2016 Road To Milan tournament will get a chance to represent India in the World Finals."
That sounds good in theory, but doesn't change the fact that there is still a shortage of tournaments; and there aren't enough organisers who will reliably pay winners. There simply isn't enough happening for someone to turn it into the full-time career as it's portrayed to be in other countries. So much so that nearly all competitive gamers keep day jobs even as they pursue their passion.
"We only play tournaments - I'm talking about LAN tournaments here - where the prize money can cover up the expenses we have from making the trip," said Shah. "For example If there is a tournament in Bangalore, the prize money should be enough for us to at least recover every expenditure involved, starting with the flights, stay, food and other expenses."
"So for us, prize money is important, but not that much, because we are all working individuals with enough income to support our passion.But on the whole, a bigger prize pool is definitely the way to get more legitimacy in e-sports in India," he said.
Not everyone agrees though.
"Increasing the prize pool doesn't increase the amount of people interested in supporting the scene, instead it works the other way around," argued Biswas. "Bigger prize pools in any competitive sports are a direct result of more people taking an active interest in it. At the moment everyone needs to focus on building a community that they can actively interact with. Even professional teams, because at the end of the day, they can do their job better if they have more active support."
That day might be closer than we think. With Microsoft, Nvidia, and Sony making key investments in e-sports and Valve recently increasing its prize pool for global tournaments, we won't be surprised to see renewed interest. Throw in the fact that Bollywood has show interest via the recently launched Indian Gaming League and there seems to be a lot in play. However we've seen all of this in the past what with new companies coming up promising to change the face of the scene, but until something actually happens, the state of e-sports of India is one of untapped potential.