In September 2020, the Indian government banned PUBG Mobile, owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent, citing a threat to national sovereignty and integrity, along with 117 other Chinese apps. The move disappointed many fans, who in the lockdown had spent hours glued to their phones, playing the game.
But for 19-year-old Zeyan Shafiq, founder of Indian eSports organisation Stalwart Esports, it came as a major setback. His team had just managed to secure India a slot in the PUBG Mobile Pro League (PMPL) South Asia qualifiers, and the ban rendered the roster incapable of representing India at the competition.
“We didn’t want to let our slot go to waste. We were given the option to replace our players with other players from the South Asia region. That was the only way for us to participate in the Pro League, so while other organisations were in turmoil because of the ban, we began our search,” Shafiq tells VICE.
For the teenager, who’s from Anantnag in the politically unstable Kashmir Valley, representing India was a big deal. “I have been an avid gamer since my childhood. Even when the Internet was restricted in Kashmir (in August 2019), I somehow managed to access PUBG on the restricted mobile Internet. But I noticed that the game didn’t have a competitive scenario here. In the other parts of India, the competitive events had a viewership of about 4-5 lakhs (0.4-0.5 million). So in January 2020, I started Stalwart Esports as a pan-India organisation to be able to advance India’s position in the competitive world of eSports”, he says.
To collaborate for the Pro League slot, Stalwart reached out across the border to Freestyle Esports. They said on Instagram that Freestyle’s roster was “the most dominant lineup in the South Asia region,” states Shafiq. “These boys are extremely talented and skilled. Having already qualified and played the world league makes them the best contender for the championship.”
In July 2020, close to Freestyle’s appearance in the PUBG Mobile World League, Pakistan had also banned the game, calling it “addictive, a waste of time and posing a negative impact on the psychological and physical wellbeing of the youngsters”. Freestyle had spearheaded the campaign to get the ban revoked.
“We’d filed a petition in the High Court and I had to make several appearances, but at the end, we were able to get the ban lifted in just a month”, Abdul Haseeb, 21, leader of Freestyle Esports tells VICE.
The team happily accepted Stalwart’s proposal to collaborate, even though both were aware of the risks of receiving backlash, owing to the tumultuous relationship between the two countries.
“In 2020, owing to the ban and other reasons, we failed to make it to the PMPL. So when Stalwart approached us with the opportunity to play in their slot, we happily took it up. When we first announced the collaboration, we received hate from both sides. Fans wanted to know why we were representing India, and also asked them (the Indian team) why they were giving the platform to a team from Pakistan”, Haseeb says.
“We had to dispel some of the misunderstandings they had. We told them we were still representing Pakistan, and that the Pakistani flag would be used everywhere. It was only the slot that belonged to India.”
When the tournament started, the teams received immense support from viewers across both countries. Even though the India-Pakistan collaboration failed to advance through the regional event in November, the constant outpouring of consolation and support was overwhelming.
Not only did Team Freestyle receive best wishes from India, but Stalwart was also flooded with so much support from the Pakistani gaming community that they decided to take this collaboration beyond the recent tournament. Under a new entity called Stalwart Freestyle, the teams will now be exploring gaming content in the region.
“We will scout talented content creators in Pakistan and offer them streaming deals”, says Shafiq.
At the same time, Stalwart has no plans of dropping their Indian line-up. “They are still our players. When PUBG relaunches in India, they will be back on board, playing for us. We are also constantly looking for other competitive platforms to venture into,” Shafiq says.
Historically, sports have served as a tool for bilateral diplomacy between India and Pakistan, but in the absence of any sporting ties whatsoever, this eSports collaboration is a bold move.
Both the teams feel this collaboration has set a much needed precedent for future partnerships between the two countries, and agree that despite rising political tensions, the people have always supported each other when needed.
“I remember when Pakistan banned the game, it was very difficult for us to play in the World League,” recalls Haseeb “We had to use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to show up somehow, but due to the constant lag and low Internet speed, we weren’t able to perform. We had no connection with India then, but big Indian gamers like TSM-Entity Ghatak had reached out to us and motivated us not to lose our morale. That’s when I realised how gaming helps create a bond across nations.”
Shafiq agrees, “At the end of the day, it was about making the best out of a difficult situation. We didn’t want to let go of the chance to represent our country at an international stage. Setting politics aside, if we could showcase skilled players from the neighbouring country in the process, why wouldn’t we?”
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