The glow of Pakistan’s cricketing triumph over India, be it the Championship trophy or the World Cup, does not fade away with time. But the clashes between the age-old rivals are not limited to the cricket field, extending into the virtual world.
Esports are multiplayer video games played competitively by professional gamers and watched by spectators. It’s a $1 billion-plus market globally, growing at a double-digit compound growth rate annually.
It comes under the wider auspices of video gaming, an industry that is projected to reach $227 million by 2026 in Pakistan, according to Singapore-based Intenta Digital. To put it in context, this is roughly the value of exports generated by the famed Sialkot sports goods.
“Esports is close linked to gaming. Pakistan is amongst the highest countries ranking in terms of league sports. There are people like Ash who come from humble backgrounds but have made their mark internationally,” says Samar Hasan, co-founder of Epiphany Games.
While in some ways, esports trends run parallel in both countries, Pakistan outranks India in terms of prize money
In most cases when it comes to tech, India’s spending and investment are ahead of Pakistan’s by leaps and bounds. In the case of gaming, however, the average spend per person in Pakistan is $5.67 which is lower than most countries but at par with India, claims Intenta Digital.
However, ranked 34 with $5.2 million in prize money, Pakistan is 10 points — $1.7m — ahead of India in terms of esports earnings, according to esportsearnings.com. But the industry is not flouring as it could be.
While the industry is growing, it contends with the inefficiency and corruption that are endemic to most sectors of the economy.
“There have been cases where the tournament registration fees (usually about Rs1,000-1,500) have not been enough to cover the cost of prize money,” says Mahreen “EngineerBunny” Butt, Esports host, analyst and caster.
The money is spent on fancy settings and lightning equipment instead of substance, she rants. A lot of the tournaments are more about marketing than about the sports which is hampering its growth.
Another example is the case of a local company breaking a non-disclosure agreement with an international company to make a quick buck.
“We are not trusted,” says Ms Butt. “A foreign company’s desktop graphics card that had not been formally launched into the market was made available to a local company under a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Breaking the NDA, the graphic card was sold at a much higher value than the price at which it was supposed to be sold. Since then, the industry has lost the trust of international companies.”
State patronage or the lack thereof
What does Arshad Nadeem, Sialkot’s FIFA football and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy have in common? Global acclaim without state patronage.
Pakistan’s former federal minister for science and technology Fawad Chaudhry had last year announced that esports will be recognised as a sport for which a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Pakistan Sports Body and the Pakistan Science Foundation.
Mr Chaudhry announced the Free Fire Pakistan League (FFPL) — the first national esports initiative in Pakistan, sponsored by Singaporean game developing company Garena. The fourth season of FFPL kicked off this month.
However, speaking to stakeholders, these developments seem to have limited traction in developing virtual sports in the country. The kudos achieved by Pakistanis that allow it to rank ahead of India and be among the top countries in the world belongs to the efforts of individual players rather than systematic support.
In India, an Animation, Visual Effects, Gaming and Comics taskforce has been created in the 2022-23 budget. A whole host of organisations such as the Electronic Sports Federation of India and the Esports Development Association of India exist to govern and promote the sport. Not surprising since, according to Forbes India, their esports industry is expected to touch INR11bn by FY25.
“We see a lot of gamers and developers coming from second-tier cities. A lot of indie games are being made there,” says Ms Hasan talking about the ongoing Ephiphany Game Jam. Indie games are short independent video games usually created by one or two people.
This experience seems to be echoed across the border where India’s tier-III cities and towns witnessed a significant rise in the number of gamers according to the Times of India. Some of the small towns have witnessed 100-200 per cent growth in gamers since 2020.
Skills not money
India’s Board of Control for Cricket, commonly known as BCCI, is worth $2bn — an amount nearly double what Pakistan is pleading for from the International Monetary Fund to stabilise the spiralling economy. Yet, the big bucks have not stopped Pakistan from winning several times in the past. Similarly, Pakistan outranks India in terms of esports earnings and may continue to do so time and time again.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, August 29th, 2022