The Ministry of Information & Technology banned 118 more mobile applications on September 2. Among them is the video game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds Mobile(PUBGM). This latest ban follows the Government’s first ban of 59 Chinese apps in the country in June earlier this year.
While a significant majority of the apps exist on the fringe of the mobile verse, for the eSports industry in the country, the ban on PUBGM is a huge blow. Competitive events — like the PUBGM World League, or even at the Indian region level in the name of PUBGM Club Open (PMCO) — gather viewership in the millions. A blanket ban on the app has left organisations which have invested time, money and infrastructure to support players and competitions in slippery territory, with most asking — What now?
“The thing is… we are still not clear whether it is banned temporarily or if it is for just one ban map or if the ban is permanent,” Nimish Raut, country head Fnatic India says, admitting that an uncertain future has left many people scratching their heads. “We just need to wait and watch — how long are they going to ban it for. We want to continue being optimistic about the fact that the game is going to come back.”
“While a political pressure we don’t understand… and I don’t think we should try and make sense out of it... It is something beyond our control,” Raut says.
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When asked about whether there will be a shift from PUBGM to any other game, two different organisations outlined two different approaches with the same motive — to continue to be a part of eSports.
While Raut asserts his desire to keep the team’s PUBGM pro players on the roster — and carrying the same title — Ashif khan, Owner and representative TeamESN PUBGM lineup India admits that they may have to change track. “We could shift our players to a new game if the ban is permanent. Call of Duty (COD), Free fire, or other battle royale games,” Khan says, before adding, “We don’t intend to leave our players behind since they also have a lot of expectations from the organisation. It is not like if one game is gone… there is no career. But the thing is… they will have to begin from scratch now.”
Set Back to eSports in India
The after effects of the ban will do more to harm an industry riding on a new wave of growth in the country. While the game may be associated with casual players in pop culture, for a huge number of professionals it was a livelihood, one snatched away without previous warning.
“A few days back the PM spoke about how he wants to get people into online gaming and esports, and wants to create more jobs,” Raut says. “But all of a sudden they say they are going to ban one the biggest game publishers in the world. It doesn’t make sense.”
For eSports in the country — once considered a high cost professional endeavour — PUBGM was a low cost alternative one that required skill, drive and enterprise to guarantee success.
“If we talk about PC games or competitive levels, they all need a high-end PC and graphics card,” Khan says. “But PUBGM broke that limitation for many who shone through. Players only relied on mobile and data.”
The game expanded its demographic by simplifying the rules of entry. If you had a mobile and had data, you could play. This simple expansion led to the inclusion of a huge number of players, growth of teams... more investment and more virtual careers followed.
Kuldeep Kumar (who goes by the alias Kull the Great) founder of Villager eSports sees the ban affecting the industry in a huge way. Villager eSports’ working model involves talent hunting, content creation and influencer management. Chief among their portfolio though are the online gaming events they organise, and Kuldeep readily acknowledges that their scrims are their main asset. The ban affects their business therefore in more ways than one.
“There’s definitely a huge set back for the industry and for us since a lot of money we made came from there,” Kuldeep says. “It is just a shock for us but since gaming hasn’t stopped… we won’t either. Just a lot of thinking on toes will happen now.”
One Door Shuts, Others Open
Almaaz Rehman, 16, joined PUBGM at the competitive level fairly recently. The leader of Team ESN knows that the ban is a huge hit to his future ambitions, but remains upbeat about what he wants to do.
“The journey was just starting for us. We played PMCO for the first time, and this ban was very shocking for us. It could affect our future since we spent everything on this game.”
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When the ban was announced yesterday, Rehman found himself confronted by his parents, who were “as every parent would be — a little worried about my future”. But Rehman himself remains centred confident in the knowledge that he has found what he loves and is willing to pursue it to the end. The space and safety of the community play a huge part in this self confidence.
“I would only move to another game now-- be it PC or mobile, which has a competitive platform. This is only if PUBGM gets banned,” he says before adding that the support he has received from the management is huge.
Villager esports’ Kuldeep sees a silver lining in this dark cloud for the fraternity. He hopes the ban inspires game developers in the country to come up with an alternative which is at par, if not better than PUBGM in the near future. Gaming, he says, is bigger than eSports, and eSports is bigger than just PUBGM. Once the dust settles down from the panic of the ban he hopes developers get funding opportunities from willing investors, many of whom will go into the venture safe in the knowledge that competition will be internal and on equal footing.
The reality though is this. Right now, India has no battle royale-competitive game capable of challenging one like PUBGM. Game development is a time consuming forever evolving process and any hopes of a quick fix are illusory. Complex games require complex development processes, and developers with the skills and investment to produce them.
For now the eSports industry will migrate to other games in the same mould, those like Call of Duty (COD) and Free Fire, and take them to the competitive level. Many hope better sense will prevail and the ban will be lifted. PUBGM India’s official statement saying it will comply with government orders on its discord server makes one thing clear: this immediate uncertainty will endure for a while longer.
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