When they print the 2048 edition of the Complete book of the Olympics, which records worthy stories from each edition of the Games, there will be legends about Uzi alongside legends about Usain. Jian Zi Hao, or Uzi as he is known in the gaming community, helped China win the first ever League of Legends (LoL) gold at the Asian Games in Jakarta, where it has been introduced as a demonstration sport. I see you cringing, but like it or not, the future is here.
There are those who feel the competitive video gaming cannot be truly counted as a sport. Repeatedly bashing buttons on a keyboard, or using what some call 'karate thumbs' on a console, does not count as physical activity, they argue. But sometimes, sport it about moving while not moving. Ask Abhinav Bindra. Bindra chased mindfulness, but gamers are accused of being mindless. Except that before their League of Legends final, China and South Korea played a game of chess. Turn by turn, the ten players banned avatars that they thought would give an advantage to the other side. It was one of the many tactical decisions made in the best of five series, which China won, upsetting the favourites 3-1. You could argue that it was more tactical than the 100m sprint.
The argument that e-sports have no place in an Asian Games " that also include bridge " rests on a very shaky ground. If bridge is a sport for the ultra rich, e-sports are for anybody with a phone and an internet connection. You don't need to be 6'4 to score goals in Pro Evolution Soccer, and you don't need to have the flexibility of a gymnast to dodge plasma blasts. Quick reflexes, decent hand-eye coordination, and lots of practice could land you a salary for playing video games all day. Even in India.
Ask Ankur Diwakar, one of the most well known names in the Indian gaming scene. "There are tournaments happening in all major cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and smaller tournaments and enquiries are also coming in from the North East and places like Indore and Lucknow," he said, on the sidelines of the Asian Games. "These are amateur tournaments, and the winners can earn a spot in pro tournaments which have prize money."
Now a full time gamer, Diwakar used to be a 3D model-builder in an IT consultancy. He plays under the name JauntyTank, has won a gaming competition that was on TV, and now no longer needs to defend the time and money he spent in gaming. Diwakar specilises in FIFA, but like a cricketer switching formats, is participating in the Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) event here. He tells the story of his teammate Navneetha Krishnan, who played PES for years just for kicks, but was only discovered recently when he outclassed a professional PES player at a tournament, and is now representing the country. How many more Navneethas are out there?
The Asiad features games in three genres, mobile, PC and console. Care is taken that games which may run foul of the Olympic Charter are not included, which throws up some strange contradictions: The wildly popular Counter Strike, which involves killing fake humans, won't ever make an entry. League of Legends, which involves killing fake fantasy avatars, is fine though. Diwakar doesn't think that games that involve violence are a concern. "You can find bad things in any sport," he argues. And while that may not sound very convincing, a part of Diwakar's job now involves speaking at events and educating young gamers and their parents about how to balance gaming with studies and other activities. "My day starts pretty early, and for at least 45 minutes, I spend time alone, not looking at my phone. I like to connect with nature in that time. Then things begin with checking emails."
Unlike the portraits of some of the top international gamers, Diwakar games for only a couple of hours every day while not in competition. "When I was in my prime I used to train only two hours. Now since there was a competition I was doing more."
The International Olympic Committee recognised e-sports as a sport last year, and Asia is the biggest market. An insider claimed the LoL final had more than 10 million viewers in China alone. Football clubs like Manchester City and Shalke have their own FIFA teams. Diwakar claims that there are tournaments in India in which the prize money pool runs into crores. This popularity is part of a worldwide economy worth almost $500 million as of last year.
So are e-sports chasing the Olympics, or the other way around? Perhaps they need each other. If e-sports come under the Olympic movement, their tournaments will have to comply with WADA policies and anti-corruption practices, which could help tackle match-fixing and doping, two emerging issues. Gender equality will become an objective, shifting gaming away from being a sport played primarily by young men. And for the Olympics, an event whose existence many question, e-sports offer an avenue to connect with a vast and untapped demographic, making the Games more relevant.
There are challenges at the global level, with some contention about who runs the sport. But a start has been made at the Asian Games under the Asian Electronic Sports Association, and they hope to push for full medal status in 2022. As Uzi led his team past South Korea's minions, he also pushed closer to an unrecognisable future for the Olympics.