ESPORTS: THE DAY OF THE VIRTUAL GAMER

Published April 12, 2020
Pakistan’s team of Musawer Khan (Ghost Khan), Shiraz Akhter (Sh1zzy), Mohammad Ahsan Hameed (Arrow), Mohammad Ibrahim (KSG) and Mohammad Shehwar (T1tan) during the World Electronic Sports Games (WESG) Asian qualifiers in China in 2018
Pakistan’s team of Musawer Khan (Ghost Khan), Shiraz Akhter (Sh1zzy), Mohammad Ahsan Hameed (Arrow), Mohammad Ibrahim (KSG) and Mohammad Shehwar (T1tan) during the World Electronic Sports Games (WESG) Asian qualifiers in China in 2018

In a world where sporting activities have been shut down because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the headlines have been grabbed by a couple of Esports series.

English Football League (EFL) 2 outfit Leyton Orient organised an online FIFA 20 tournament called FIFA Ultimate QuaranTeam to raise funds for charity organisations batting against the pandemic. Some 128 football clubs participated in the tournament, including big names such as Manchester City, Roma, Ajax, Marseille and Newcastle.

Each club had the liberty to nominate one squad member, fan or professional FIFA player to represent them throughout the tournament. Notable footballers competing in the tournament included Norwich midfielder Todd Cantwell, Brighton striker Neal Maupay and Crystal Palace veteran Andros Townsend. To ensure fairness, games were played on the ‘85 All’ setting, which attributes all the players with an 85/100 rating. Premier League dark horses Wolves won the FIFA Ultimate QuaranTeam tournament with a hard-fought 2-1 victory over the Dutch side FC Groningen.

Similarly, YouTube channel ‘The Race’ has been pitting together profe­ssional racing drivers and simulation racers together in alternative Grands Prix on rFactor 2, a simulator featuring real-life conditions. Professional drivers taking part in these races include Formula 1 sensation Max Verstappen, former Formula 1 drivers Jenson Button, Emerson Fittipaldi, Rubens Barrichello, Juan Pablo Montoya and Nico Hulkenberg, Le Mans winners Neel Jani, David Brabham and Johnny Herbert, Indy 500 champions Simon Pagenaud and Dario Franchitti, and Formula E points leader Antonio Félix da Costa. The format varies race to race but features two or three qualification races followed by a final.

ESPORTS IN PAKISTAN

Despite having successfully established itself as a multibillion-dollar industry on the global stage, Esports is still finding its feet in Pakistan. The mercurial rise of Arslan Siddique over the past two years remains the only major story in this field.

While the world is barreling into Esports or electronic sports, Pakistan has been slow to pick up speed in this kind of gaming. Still, with the talent it possesses, the country can well prosper in this field with the right approach

Commonly known as Arslan Ash, the Lahore-based player won the Tekken 7 tournament in EVO Japan 2019, before strengthening his claim to be the best in the world by winning the Evolution Championship Series (EVO) 2019 finals as well. He is the first player in history to win both tournaments in the same year and the first Pakistani athlete to sign with Red Bull Esports.

Unfortunately, Esports is largely a neglected industry in our country. There are limited tournaments for players to showcase their skills, and other than Arslan, no one else here has experienced the spotlight. Portal Esports represented Pakistan in the IGE South Asia Cup 2018 in Sri Lanka, a League of Legends tournament featuring the best teams in the region. They annihilated the competition, beating archrivals India in the final and finishing unbeaten. Sadly, the public remains oblivious of their achievements.

Eos caught up with some of the biggest names in the local set-up and talked about the state of their sport in Pakistan and the challenges faced by them …

ZOHAIB KHALID — FIFA

Zohaib Khalid, a 22-year-old software engineering student from CECOS University Peshawar, has consistently been the best FIFA player in the country for the past eight years. He has won over a hundred local tournaments, including FIFA Masters. His achievements in the local arena, coupled with his performance in online tournaments, turned many heads and even brought about a trial from a gaming team based in Paris. In 2018, Zohaib was one of three people from all of Asia to be invited to the Asian Football Gaming Championship (AFGC); however due to visa issues, he was unable to travel to Singapore and partake in the tournament.

Talking about the FIFA infrastructure in Pakistan, Zohaib outlined the lack of proper organisations as the biggest hurdle in the development of the industry. “Other than Portal Esports, which mainly looks after CS: GO and Dota2, there are no Esports teams in Pakistan,” says Zohaib.

“In other countries, players are scouted and given annual contracts, we have nothing in Pakistan. We made an online FIFA community ourselves; I’ve been the captain of it for five years now. We organise friendlies with other countries such as India and France, but that is the extent of our international exposure.”

EA Sports organises an annual tournament called the FIFA eWorld Cup, which offers players all over the world a chance to qualify for the finals. When asked why he’s never participated in it, Zohaib explains how Pakistan is banned from FIFA tournaments. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be offered a contract covering the fee of my Ultimate Teams, but there are many talented players throughout the country who cannot spend four or five hundred thousand rupees on a team and then move abroad to qualify for the tournament finals, since playing in Pakistan doesn’t count towards qualification because of the ban,” he says.

However, Zohaib is optimistic about the future. “The government has attempted to set up a boot camp in Peshawar. With initiatives like these, things will get a lot better because there is a lot of potential in the players,” he elaborates. His next commitment is AFGC 2020, which has been shifted online due to the closure of borders. Two other players will accompany him in carrying the national flag, and trials will be conducted later this month.

MUSAWER KHAN — DOTA2

Known as Ghost Khan in the gaming community, Musawer is a 23-year-old software engineer from Peshawar and the captain of the Portal Esports Dota2 team. Having won everything there is to be won locally, including Mountain Dew Gamers Arena, he represented Pakistan in the World Electronic Sports Games (WESG) Asian qualifiers in China in 2018. Finishing in the top 10 meant his team qualified for the world final, an event they couldn’t attend due to problems in acquiring visas. Musawer is the first Pakistani to amass 8000 Match Making Rating (MMR) points, doing so in October.

Listing down the challenges faced by his team, Musawer was always going to mention visa issues. “My team members were very disheartened to miss WESG finals in 2018. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us,” he says.

He also laments other issues. “There are no Dota2 servers in the region, which causes an extremely high ping. Playing online with South East Asian players is a nightmare because we face lags in gameplay.

“One of the reasons we did so well in China was because the matches there were LAN-based. Moreover, there is a skill gap in the local community. While players are improving, the rate needs to increase. I’m the only 8000-MMR player in Pakistan, other countries have multiple players of this calibre. There are even 9000-MMR players in the world now. This gives them a competitive advantage. To combat this, we need to have players of the same skill.”

Looking forward, Musawer feels things will improve with time. He points to events such as Mountain Dew Gamers Arena and Telenor GameBird Fest as initiatives which could bring the sport forward. “A lot of people are unwilling to put in their all to achieve success in the gaming arena because of lack of rewards. Tournaments such as these and the formation of Esports teams offer incentives to up-and-coming players. I am determined to play my role in the development of the sport in Pakistan, for which I’ve submitted a proposal to the government,” he says.

When asked about any upcoming tournaments, he says that his team had qualified for an international tournament in Macau, but it’s been cancelled due to the pandemic.

Rahem Shurjeel — Rainbow Six Siege

Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege is a relatively newer addition to the Esports arena and hence has a very underdeveloped set-up in Pakistan. Rahem Shurjeel, an 18-year-old high school student from Lahore, is one of the highest-ranked players in the country, having reached the finals of multiple online tournaments on both PS4 and PC. A lack of proper organisation and winning prizes means his team, which comprises of people from Karachi and Islamabad, cannot participate in local tournaments. Rahem aims to one day compete in the Six Invitational, the premium Siege competition in the world.

Acknowledging the growing number of local tournaments in Pakistan, Rahem says: “There are improvements, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”

He adds: “Unless Rainbow Six Siege is included in gaming fests, it will remain a neglected sport. Portal Esports has expanded into PUBG and Fortnite but has overlooked Siege.”

He also shares the concerns of Musawer: “Internet options in Pakistan aren’t good enough for online gaming, and the positioning of servers in South East Asia means our latency is very high. Furthermore, the equipment required for professional play is very expensive, such as monitors with sufficient refresh rates.”

THE WAY FORWARD

The Pakistani Esports industry has grown immensely in recent times, but it still requires further support. There are encouraging signs: Red Bull is planning to launch a mobile gaming chapter and it seems like the government has also identified Esports as an area to invest in. The formation of more platforms and gaming teams will help the cause further. However, one thing is clear; with the talent it possesses, Pakistan can prosper in this field with the right approach.

The writer tweets @tahagoheer

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 12th, 2020

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