Esports has grown from a curiosity to a major event around the world, but its popularity in India was still limited as access to consoles and PCs was scarce. That changed with the growth of the smartphone market, and the massive popularity of games like PUBG Mobile. With 50 million players in India, regular official tournaments—both from publisher Tencent Games and global organisations like Electronic Sports League (ESL)—it’s no surprise that many Indian esports teams have sprung up to compete.
Like any sport, competitive gaming has professional participants, who can earn a lot of money and fame. It takes both skill and training, and the odds of making it big are slim thanks to increasingly well-funded competition. And this means that for teams that make it through the ranks in India, there’s a wall that comes up as they face-off against better trained and financed teams from around the world.
However, at least one team seems to have figured out what it takes to compete on the world stage. Mumbai-based Entity Gaming has been around since 2016, with teams for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2 under its banner. The Dota 2 team did well in the ROG Masters 2016, until it was finally knocked out by global giant Fnatic. More recently, Entity Gaming’s PUBG Mobile team placed fifth at the PUBG Mobile Club Open - Fall Split Global Finals in Kuala Lumpur, competing against 29 teams from around the world.
“I was always a Dota 2 player and was fortunate to go to TI6 [The International, the biggest global Dota 2 competition, in August 2016],” said Neerav Rukhana, one of the founders of Entity Gaming. Now in his 30s, Rukhana comes from a family of real estate developers. “I didn’t see any Indian players — there were a lot of Pakistani and American Indian players winning millions. After TI6 I spoke to players in the Indian Dota 2 circuit to find out what’s stopping us from achieving at a global level.”
What he learned was that people were unhappy about infrastructure like Internet connectivity and equipment, and they wanted a boot camp where they could improve their skills training against other professionals.
Rukhana saw the opportunity and just a month after TI6, he had a boot camp up and running in Kalina in Mumbai, where he started working with a Dota 2 team under the Entity Gaming banner.
Three months later, Entity Gaming was participating in the ROG Masters 2016 in Kuala Lumpur and had a strong run in the event. Unfortunately, this got cut short when they went up against Fnatic—one of the biggest teams at the time. Fnatic had finished fourth at TI6 a few months earlier, netting $1.4 million (nearly Rs 10 crore) in winnings.
Entity Gaming finished sixth at the ROG Masters 2016 in November, just below Fnatic. And while the team would have liked to have done better, the response to the team from the Dota 2 pro players and community was very positive, according to Rukhana.
“It became a passion project turned into a business because we got a lot of support from the community back then,” Rukhana said. “Not just the Indian community but the international community as this was a team that qualified for the regionals of a major which was a big deal at the time.”
From there, it was time to grow, and Rukhana partnered with Tranzeneca Gaming, a Chattisgarh-based firm. That partnership only lasted for a few months, after which Rukhana turned to another Mumbai gamer for a team-up.
Ready player two
“Three years ago Neerav [Rukhana] connected with me saying he started an esports passion project,” said Entity Gaming co-founder, Varun Bhavnani. “He took six months to convince me to join. His pitch to me was ‘we have a team and it will do wonders, let’s win’.”
Bhavnani, another Mumbaikar in his 30s, who worked in video game development for Indiagames for close to seven years, was a competitive Counter-Strike player who qualified for the World Cyber Games in Mumbai in the early 2000s, finishing in runner-up spots three years in a row.
Although Bhavnani had not participated at the global level (only the first place winners at WCG got to do that), he knew what a professional gamer needed to make it—which went beyond training and equipment, but also helping tell their parents what they wanted to do for a living.
“It took a lot of convincing back then for my parents to support my passion. The only thing I kept stacking up were certificates of merit at college events, and some prize money and gaming gear,” said Bhavnani.
“The future was bleak. How do you give up something you loved and still continue to do it? I found that in making games for a while.” With Entity Gaming, Bhavnani found a way to get back into the competitive spirit.
Bhavnani and Rukhana spent the next two and a half years putting together teams for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Dota 2, and PUBG Mobile.
As the games evolve, the training also keeps changing—for example, PUBG players on smartphones used to train by playing against people who were using emulators to run the game on computers. This gave the computer users a big advantage in aiming, and so it would force mobile players to sharpen their skills. This has, however, fallen out of favour.
“They’re going to be facing mobile-only players as it’s accurate to tournament situations,” said Rukhana. “If you’re up against an emulator team you become a defensive player because you know the opposition has a superior aim.”
“It helps us crafter better strategies that aren’t focused on defence,” added Bhavnani.
Leveling up gamers
What they quickly found in their boot camps was learning how to deal with the players outside the games was as important as knowing about the games themselves.
“You’re dealing with young boys who are in that phase where they’re exposed to social media, have relationships, and all of that stuff,” said Bhavnani. “There are too many distractions right now. How do you reset a player and tell him that this is a long-term vision?”
Entity Games’ youngest players are 17, the oldest 24—the teams are mostly adults, but Bhavnani and Rukhana realised that treating them like that isn’t enough. By default, the two men, both of whom recently had their own children, found themselves using the same tactics they use as parents, with their gamers as well.
“We both [separately] just became fathers two months back,” said Bhavnani. This experience, he said, informed the relationship between them and the players.
“It’s not a professional relationship we have with players,” said Rukhana. “Everything they do, what happens to them, or the industry—it feels personal. It’s not just about the money, it’s about our time and effort and guidance that’s been invested in them.”
This was most obvious days leading up to the PUBG Mobile Club Open — Fall Split: South Asia (PMCO), a Delhi tournament to select teams that would take part in the global tournament in Kuala Lumpur.
“Before PMCO we had a huge fight between the players,” Rukhana said. “Someone broke someone else’s laptop, or something like that. We were of the mindset that ‘what is going on?’ We were discussing that the team won’t do anything and might come last.”
Rukhana and Bhavnani had to counsel the team members, try and understand what they’re trying to accomplish, and help them realise that they’re all after the same goals.
“We spent three hours doing that and were consulting parenting guides at the time. While going home we wondered where the day went,” Bhavnani said.
By the time the actual tournament took place though, the parenting lessons seemed to have paid off, and the team got first place in Delhi, and made a good showing internationally too, ending at fifth place at the global level.
This doesn’t mean that the practice is over. The players are on a break after the intense tournament right now, but they will get back to watching matches and getting feedback, going over replays, and watching videos of how other teams play. Bhavnani said that the key to success has been about building bonds and improving the chemistry of the team. “Everything is rosy when the team is winning, one needs to be prepared for when it’s not their day,” he said.
“For us it is passion combined with that feeling that you were so good at gaming but you couldn’t do much then,” says Rukhana. “So you replicate it by passing on your knowledge, your experience, and your training to new talent.”