The KD Jadhav indoor hall at Delhi's Indira Gandhi stadium is never short on quality sporting action. Last November, Mary Kom won a record sixth world title here. PV Sindhu competed two months later and Sushil Kumar is a regular at the venue, named after an Indian wrestling great. Three weeks ago, the aforementioned Olympic medallists were outdrawn by a bunch of youngsters playing PUBG on their phones.
Esports is knocking on the Olympic door. And while the battle royale game itself wouldn't make the cut due to its 'violent' nature, a footfall of 25,000+ over five days (including fans willing to shell out Rs 3,000 for VIP passes) signifies there's both a market and a talent pool of gamers. But what about those at the forefront of this revolution?
Professional players such as Naman Mathur, Abhijeet Andhare and Tanmay Singh double up as cult of personalities, with millions of followers hanging on their every word. Streaming for hours, battling trolls, talking trash, competing with the world’s finest; all the while setting an example for their impressionable young audience. It all comes with the territory, and this bunch of twenty-somethings is learning on the job. All they want is to be able to walk down the street unrecognized, and for people to call them sportspersons.
Abhijeet ‘Ghatak’ Andhare
A comically large prize cheque worth Rs40 lakh lies in the foyer of a Gurgaon flat, leading to a bunch of gamers lazing around in the living room. This is Team Entity, which managed to pip the Team Soul juggernaut to win the regional Southeast Asia finals of PUBG PMCO. The cash bounty is exciting, but team captain Abhijeet Andhare points to the beautiful trophy made of solid steel.
“18kg," Andhare informs. “Isko jeetna bhi mushkil tha aur uthaana bhi."
Andhare is not your run-of-the-mill PUBG player. He’s 28 and knows that a professional gamer’s career dips post 30. He’s also married, runs a photo lab in Pune and still has trouble convincing his wife to “let me go compete”.
A competitive gamer a decade before PUBG even existed, Andhare won the ‘Age of Conquerors’ national tournament at the Symbiosis University in 2008. “I also played and won in DOTA. There was not this kind of exposure for gamers back then. You couldn’t get anywhere playing games," says Andhare, who signed earlier this year with Entity Gaming, one of the more professionally-run outfits in India. Entity’s roster spans several games and the pro-players share a 6BHK ‘bootcamp’ in Mumbai, earn a competitive salary and share of prize money, along with new iPhones to play on.
“I had that elite PC gamer mentality, so when I first saw friends play PUBG on their mobile phones, I went ‘how can you play on a small screen? Why are you sitting around yelling into earphones?' They got me hooked and for a while, my photo lab suffered badly," laughs Andhare. “I sat around playing PUBG for 8-9 hours, and my wife would scold me. But I am earning through this game, I’ve been to Milan and I’ll be going to Kuala Lumpur next. Even now, she gets a little annoyed but at least she knows I am doing something useful."
Asked if he would be comfortable letting future children take up PUBG as a career option, Andhare says: “Academics take priority. But parents should also avoid believing rumours about the game, how it makes people kill their parents or run away. Everybody is different."
Then there’s the age-old question of esports being a sport. Andhare — who played under-17 cricket for the Deccan Gymkhana club in Pune — realises the significance of competing at the Capital’s Indira Gandhi stadium but is also “tired of people telling me I’m not a sportsman."
“That swagger of being a batsman is something else. Everybody in your town knows your name. But this is better. I have friends from other countries, where esports is a degree in college and government supports athletes."
On that fateful night in Delhi, adrenaline and euphoria helped Andhare and Co hoist the trophy, but they couldn’t lift the disappointment upon seeing the stream’s chat section filled with congratulatory messages... for runner-up Naman ‘Mortal’ Mathur’s Team Soul, punctuated by merciless trolling of Entity.
“The mentality of the Indian audience needs to change a little," laments team manager Kamaljeet Singh. “They just follow blindly. Naman has been very transparent too, he has such a nice heart. But he needs to tell his audience, ‘cheer for Team Soul, not for one person.' Forget us, who actually won. But there are three other players in his team."
Andhare chooses not to talk about Mathur — “he is very respectful and friendly, and has helped bring so much exposure to this game” — but feels for parents not in the know.
“Parents, relatives would watch these events but wouldn’t understand why their child is being abused so badly by so many people," says Andhare. “Imagine, in future, my son is competing at a global level. After several setbacks, wins but gets trolled. It will break my heart. It will take some time for the Indian audience to mature."
Naman ‘Mortal’ Mathur
If you or someone you know has even a fleeting interest in the mad worlds of YouTubers, PUBG or esports, you probably know Naman Mathur. Or his in-game name ‘Mortal', a moniker rendered absurdly ironic by Mathur’s skills in the game. Racking up kills in competitive events or spouting Gully Boyish phrases such as ‘Kya bolti public', ‘Bohot hard’ and ‘bantai’ while interacting with his fans, the 23-year-old phenom from Navi Mumbai has transcended into the mainstream. Most recently, he is being celebrated for donating his prize money to the Indian Army. To his 3.5million YouTube subscribers and a million Instagram followers, Mathur is Ranveer Singh and MS Dhoni rolled in one.
A self-proclaimed ‘influencer’, Mathur is called upon when Manoj Bajpayee wants to promote his web series, or when phone manufacturers want to sell their latest handsets.
In India, PUBG has been installed on more that 100million phones. Close to 250,000 players compete in nationwide events. But what differentiates Mathur from the dreamers is the ease with which his fingers dance on the 6-inch screen. In the 'life or death' firefights, Mathur's in-game spatial awareness is down to picking on smallest of cues like muffled footsteps or the sound of a can opening. He knows when to peek, when to engage and when to pick off unsuspecting players. No wonder his tutorial videos are what got him the traction initially.
Last month, Mathur led his equally-popular ‘Soul’ clan to a second finish, to qualify for the ongoing finals in Kuala Lumpur. While those present at the Indira Gandhi stadium screamed 'Mortal' and 'Soul' hoarse, a sizeable number followed the action online. Never mind the many bootleggers duplicating the stream, on PUBG's official YouTube channel, 120,000 viewers simultaneously caught the Hindi stream; 150,000 if you add those watching the English broadcast. While it was a fraction of viewers watching Virat Kohli bat against Bangladesh in the third T20 taking place simultaneously, it remains a sizable chunk of the important youth demographic which chose to get its sports/entertainment fill from their PUBG heroes.
"This time around, the crowd reception was even better," Mathur told The Indian Express, and threw his weight behind the notion of PUBG as a sport. "It’s all about communication. Holding up your end with skills. You're also representing your country overseas."
Behind the scenes, the commerce graduate is evasive but polite. His father passed away when he was four, and him and his seven-year-elder brother were raised by mother Kavita.
"Financially, we were troubled. My mother used to cook food for bachelors and office-goers and that used to be the major source of our income. She paid bills, put us through college and I cannot express in words how much I adore her," Mathur said. "She used to yell at me initially. Now she says, 'why are you wasting your time sleeping, you should be streaming'."
His previous world finals appearance in Berlin ended in a 12th-place finish, following which Mathur took a break from competitive gaming. "Mentally, it had become taxing. I had decided that I will just stream games full-time now," says Mathur, whose sabbatical lasted a few weeks before sheer boredom and his team's requirements pulled him back. "The decision to quit was made pretty early, but then Soul needed a player. We played a few practice matches and the touch was still there."
Mathur says that the majority of the community welcomed him back, but acknowledges the sliver, which turned on the team and wanted them to fail. "I learnt very early to not focus on negative comments, because as the number of fans went up, that percentage also kept growing," says Mathur, who's also aware of the rabid fans waiting to go after a fellow player/streamer at the first perceived insult. "Being an influencer, you have to be entertaining, and you have to play it up. But when we are competing, we meet each other respectfully."
Those who bear the brunt of such attacks however feel Mathur should rein his audience in a bit...
Tanmay ‘Scout’ Singh
Tanmay Singh recalls how India captain Sunil Chhetri’s visit to the Minerva academy refuelled the football trainee’s dream to play in Germany. Better yet, make it to the Bundesliga somehow. While a brutal hamstring injury during a tryout for Mohun Bagan put an end to that fantasy, Tanmay did book a ticket to Berlin through PUBG, but couldn’t get a visa.
Tanmay’s team made the cut for the qualifiers in Berlin, but their visa application was rejected twice (that the ‘teams’ were a ragtag bunch of teens not associated with a professional outfit didn’t help matters). So while the world’s finest assembled in Berlin on LAN (local area network), the Indian teams marked their attendance from an office in Gurgaon, in a game dictated by split-second actions.
“Indians go out everywhere as tourists, that is okay. But when players from a country are going out to compete, this happens,” says the 21-year-old from Daman and Diu. “Gamers in China, other countries don’t step on the ground without a red carpet. Even Sri Lanka now considers esports an official sport. But people here still think we are wasting our time."
He nods patiently when the plight of many other, er, traditional sports is detailed, but gets in the final word: “But how many of those athletes get this sort of attention?"
For Tanmay’s parents, who wanted their only child to join the family business, even football wasn’t viable. In a recent documentary, mother Sasmita shares how her friends told her to convince Tanmay to take up cricket instead since it has more scope. Imagine their dismay when he chose to play games for a living.
“When people say esports is not a sport... Dude, don’t tell me what a sport is. I was a right-back, running up and down the field for 90 minutes. Woke up early, fitness, speed and ball drills. Practice, analysis. Fear of breaking your bones and being left out," says Tanmay. “I feel the same thing in PUBG. Being physically fit helps, and the hours spent improving are the same. The mental and motor skills required is too high."
Tanmay currently plays for Fnatic. The high-profile London-based organisation, which has been ruling the esports circuit since 2004, made its foray into PUBG this year and signed Tanmay and three others. The team finished ninth in Delhi and Tanmay admits feeling the pressure of representing a brand worth $120 million.
“If we fail, the world will say Fnatic is not performing. Our real assessment starts from 2020 when they assign a reporting manager. Bad performances will cost us our contracts."
Tanmay is the closest PUBG has to a Nick Kyrgios, and it’s not just the fashion sense. (Hair dyed white, piercings and a full-sleeve tattoo soon coming.) Despite his 408k subscribers on YouTube, Tanmay often is public enemy no 1 due to his run-ins with the community and gamers. Some would say he shoots his mouth as well as he does the in-game M416 and AKMs.
“Most of our viewers are children, teens. They believe in love one, disrespect all. They don’t have that sort of maturity. Every time somebody trashed me, I shot back. Then I realised you have to ignore toxicity." In an interview, Tanmay shares the story of a failed relationship after a section of viewers targeted his girlfriend. “Daily, 1000-2000 messages. Very disgusting things. So we had to end."
Fans pose their own set of problems. “I am nothing without my fans. But I can’t go to a crowded place, anywhere with a crowd of 12-25-year-olds," says Tanmay. “I get mobbed. It’s good, but I don’t want that. Kids surrounding you and screaming at you. I want to go out, relax. But when it’s kids, you can’t shout or tell them no. Strike a balance."
“What we do in competition, during streaming, is different from our personal lives. It’s what we want to show you. Who we are personally is not for you," he signs off. “Idolise us, sure. But don’t make us gods."