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We Went to Chennai's First Ever eSports Expo

DotA 2. PUBG. Cosplay. FIFA 19.
A host, PUBG cosplay, and a selfie. Image: Parthshri Arora

At the end, there can be only one winner. But here, the winning group was running away from the stage and the pack of photographers. Team Signify, who won the DotA 2 tournament and a Rs 7,00,000 cheque, were rushing to another eSports expo in Singapore that night, seething a little over the one game they had lost in the tournament (they hadn’t lost a game in 2018 until then), and tried to exchange their newly won rupees for Singaporean dollars. With cosplaying hosts, about a 1,000 kids turning up to play PUBG, and a 16-year-old who tried to trash-talk me over a game of the newly-released FIFA 19, it was quite an ending to the weekend that we spent at Chennai’s first eSports expo.


Kids lining up for PUBG registration. Image: Parthshri Arora

eSports—or competitive video game tournaments usually played by professional gamers—are on the rise. Fortnite competitions are set to cross $100 million this year, while Valve’s DotA 2 competitions from 2017—possibly one of the biggest in eSports—forked out over $38 million in the US. India, despite its traditional lack of infrastructure owing mostly to poor internet, is up-and-coming (shout-out to Mukeshbhai), with total revenue from eSports hitting nearly $800 million. Gaming, now, is serious business.

Last weekend, Palladium and Phoenix MarketCity hosted the Phoenix Gaming Expo, with total prizes amounting to a whopping Rs 15,00,000 for DotA 2, FIFA 18, mobile game PUBG, and with events surrounding FIFA 19’s worldwide launch and cosplaying. We checked out the event for two reasons:
1) eSports are cool
2) Wtf happens to a mall when it’s invaded by nerds usually glued to a screen, and who in all probability, haven’t seen daylight in months.

The highlight of the expo was the DotA 2 event, which was being in held in a converted gymkhana club, where the main lounge was turned into a viewing area with a projector, and the inner room held stages for the two teams. Some of the buttresses in the event space were built of recycled wood, which shimmered under the crimson lighting of the newly minted arena, creating an intensity I wouldn’t have figured to exist in a place meant to celebrate humans calculating and clicking buttons on a mouse really fast.


Club-turned-DotA 2 battleground. Image: Parthshri Arora

The event was being live-streamed on India’s biggest eSports portal: AFK Gaming, with analysts doing a pre- and post-match analysis on video. One of the commentators, Shounak Sengupta aka Gambit, told VICE, “The sponsorship and money for the Indian eSports scene will only increase. 30% of the population is under the age of 30, and if players can focus on not only making it here but even outside India, the money and opportunities wait for them.”

DotA 2 finals. Image: Parthshri Arora

While DotA 2 had the money, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds aka PUBG had the numbers. The youngins' verve for PUBG, which has over 400 million users worldwide, has always surprised me. A couple of weeks ago, I’d seen 10-year-olds living in a friend’s building in Mumbai huddle together on a weekday evening, not to play cricket or kho-kho, but PUBG.

Nearly a 1,000 kids registered for the event, with some 18-year-olds travelling for nearly two hours in the Chennai heat to participate. They couldn’t log into a squad game due to bad internet, and were shot down by their opponents before they could even start. They were unscathed though, planning to then shift focus to the individual tournament.

PUBG squad play. Image: Parthshri Arora

Consuming all the religious fervour was 64-year-old Tarini Mohan, who saw an ad for the event and came to see how young people were "wasting their time nowadays". However, all of it worked for the event’s organisers, as neither Mohan nor teen gaming nerds would usually step into malls. And if they were in there for hours, people accompanying them would eat and shop around. “eSports is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. They’re in the Asian Games, they’re being broadcasted on Star Sports, they’re becoming a part of the mainstream culture," said Nishka Choraria, VP marketing and business development of Crest Ventures, one of the promoter groups of PMCC & Palladium, Chennai. "From the beginning (of the mall), our intention was to create a social destination for Chennai.”


PUBG cosplay. Image: Parthshri Arora

With commerce increasingly moving online, the very act of people walking about a confined space and buying things is a physical challenge. Malls, in a way, are at an existential crossroads, struggling to be something more than just food courts. I was thinking about this as we made our way to the Cosplay competition, where one of the participants turned out to be a dude named Gaurav Sawant.

It would've been fun if he came as the khaki-clad-jingoistic journalist, but we'll take this too. Image: Parthshri Arora

One of the cosplayers was 37-year-old Scythe's Skunkworks, who was earlier playing a PUBG character, full tactical gear in tow. Another was an architect from Mumbai, who moonlights as Chun-Li from Street Fighter. The highlight though, were four-year-old twins, Abhinav and Pranav Kumar, who participated in the amateur cosplay event. The kids didn’t win the 30k cash prize, but did win some Marvel vouchers, and our hearts.

The twins didn’t win the 30k cash prize, but did win some Marvel vouchers, and our hearts. Image: Parthshri Arora

Admiring their naive courage, and their mom’s make-up skills, my colleague and I ended up at the FIFA 19 launch event. “I will **** you,” 16-year-old Real Madrid fan Annaamalai told us, while losing 2-1. Wondering about trash talk’s ability to bring people together, we went on to play four more games with the kid from central Chennai.

Follow Parthshri Arora on Twitter.