Abhijeet Andhare, a 29-year-old sports aficionado from the city of Pune in the west Indian state of Maharashtra, spent his formative years training to be a professional cricket player. When he was 19, he had an accident that left him unable to pursue physical sports. He then dabbled into video games. Ten years later, Andhare emerged as Ghatak, one of the biggest professional PUBG (Player Unknown Battlegrounds) mobile gamers and coaches in the Indian eSports scene.
On September 2, India banned 118 Chinese mobile apps including PUBG Mobile, India’s most popular mobile gaming app. This was done for “security” reasons in the face of escalating border tensions with China. PUBG, an online multiplayer battle royale action game was originally developed by a Korean programmer. Its mobile version was launched by China’s Tencent Holdings conglomerate in 2017 .
“My team and I had been preparing for upcoming tournaments, including the PUBG World Championship which carries a prize of INR 400 million,” Andhare, a member of international eSports team, TSM, told VICE News.
For Andhare, the PUBG ban comes as a shock. It has changed everything for him overnight. And he isn’t alone.
Top tier PUBG Mobile players in India earn between INR 35,000 to INR 150,000 (USD $478 to $2,051) per month.
Before the ban, Indian PUBG live-streamers and content creators would routinely collaborate with International brands, and make millions of rupees through tournaments. For many, the ban is a threat to their livelihood amidst rising unemployment.
“I was earning a monthly salary because of the game, and got the opportunity to work with international organisations and play tournaments,” Yogesh Yadav, AKA Celtz Roxx, a 20-year-old professional PUBG mobile player from the North Indian city of Noida, told VICE News. Yadav recently won USD $40,000 at the PUBG Mobile Pro League’s South Asia tournament. Now, he is worried about finding a salaried job.
While this is the first pan-India PUBG ban, the game was banned in the west Indian state of Gujarat in 2019. This ban was lifted within weeks, though the police arrested 21 people for playing PUBG during this period.
The ban is especially tough on female gamers in India’s eSports scene, who regularly face sexism, abusive trolling and fetishisation.
“We [girls] have had to grind a lot for other players to take us seriously. The ban means we have to prove ourselves all over again,” Paridhi Khullar, 23, a professional female gamer from Indore, who goes by the name Rav3n, told VICE News.
India’s eSports industry grew in 2018, due to the launch of PUBG Mobile, improved internet connectivity and greater social acceptance for gaming as a career. In early 2020, the Indian eSports industry was estimated to grow by USD $1.1 billion.
“PUBG made people recognise the Indian eSports scene. The ban will definitely make content creators like me lose out on viewership for at least a month,” Sagar Thakur, a 22-year professional gamer and content creator with almost 1 million YouTube subscribers under the moniker ‘Maxtern’, told VICE News.
However, Maxtern is optimistic that it’s just a matter of time before players adapt to new options. “If you’re good at content creation and can give humorous commentary on a live-stream, it doesn’t matter what game you play,” he said, adding that he was now shifting his focus to the action simulation game Grand Theft Auto (GTA).
“It’s a tough phase, but I’m confident our players and content creators will be able to diversify, adapt and build a following for games like Free Fire and Call of Duty,” agreed Lokesh ‘Goldy’ Jain, 32, the co-founder of Team 8bit, one of India’s biggest and oldest eSports companies, whose creators have built a 17-million strong YouTube community.
“PUBG’s ease of use and simple game strategy made it a gateway game for Indians, who can now move on to more complex games with a higher skill level,” Dr Rushindra Sinha, the co-founder of Global eSports, who has been in the gaming scene for 20 years, told VICE News.
This is the second ban on Chinese apps announced by India, after a border conflict in June led to India banning 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok.
China warned India against banning PUBG and 117 other apps, with China’s commerce ministry spokesperson Gao Feng stating, “Indian actions violate the legal interests of Chinese investors and service providers, and China asks India to correct its mistakes,” at a press briefing on September 3.
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