Seated in the comfiest of chairs and eyes glued to the dancing pixels on the screen in front, Tirth Mehta was competing in his first major esports final and had already started dreaming of hotels in California and the $1,500 prize money… when the internet went out. “I couldn’t sleep that night,” Mehta, who had to involuntarily forfeit the 2015 Electronic Sports League final, remembers. “All I thought was, had it been an hour or two later, I would have had a chance to represent my country abroad.”
Mehta continued to grind out wins, and decent money from gaming tournaments for three years, before his pilgrimage came to an end in Jakarta.
The 23-year-old from Bhuj, won the bronze medal at the esports event at the Asian Games, the lone Indian to take the podium in the demonstration event. It’s been a whirlwind couple of days since then, what with surprise welcome ceremonies at the airport, promises of “we’ll get you recognition from the Centre” from local politicians and words of encouragement from Indian athletes.
“The fact that we were staying at the athletes village, with our contingent was symbolic for me,” says Mehta. “I met Hima Das and Amit Panghal. They were very excited to know that I won medal by playing a video game. Who would’ve thought, when I started playing games, that I will win a medal at the Asian Games?”
Not his parents, for sure.
“It was tough initially, but soon they realised my passion. And I was able to balance my academics,” says Mehta, who finished third in the Hearthstone game.
“Now, my parents were watching the stream and supporting me from home. But they’d only know if I was doing well by the cheers or the popups on screen. It’s a complex game. My elder brother knows the basics so he tried to guide them through it.”
Passion for Hearthstone, a strategic turn-based, card-collection games, stems out of Mehta’s years playing chess as a teen, and he believes that India could capitalise on its pedigree of strategy games to become an Asian powerhouse in the form, instead of the more reflex-based multiplayer titles.
“India won three medals in the bridge game, so I think it is something that comes naturally to Indians. Other players from top Asian countries dropped out of colleges, schools at a young age and honed their reflexes consistently. In fact, now colleges grant leave in case of tournaments,” says Mehta. “It will take some time in India. Here, we have to complete at least graduation to secure our future. So, by the time we are ready to fully have a go, we are already behind others.”
While acknowledging its growing appeal, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach has hinted at a tough inclusion drive for esports at Tokyo Games, due to some of the titles ‘promoting violence or discrimination’.
“So-called killer games. They, from our point of view, are contradictory to the Olympic values and cannot therefore be accepted,” Bach, who won a gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics in fencing, said on Saturday, essentially ruling out First Person Shooters. Mehta, whose preferred game Hearthstone could also be under the scanner for simulated, cartoony attacks, understands the sentiment.
“I know these titles are the most exciting, and easiest to follow. But there’s also a need to realise that they can hold different interpretations in different countries, depending on their gun sensibilities,” says Mehta. “I can understand the stance from the huge international event of Olympics, though I wish we could find some middle ground.”
In March, US President Donald Trump met representatives from video games company to discuss violent content in the wake of a school shooting. Last week, at the Madden tournament in Jacksonville, a disgruntled gamer shot two people dead before killing himself, adding fuel to the long-raging debate of violence and video games. Mehta, however, draws no connection.
“In my opinion, last week’s tragedy was more about mental issues and the gun laws in America. The violence in video games narrative doesn’t work when you look at the popular TV shows and movies of our time. You need games to escape real-life tragedies.”
Mehta remembers running out of his house on that dreadful morning of 26th January, 2001, when the city was jolted by the 7.7-magnitude earthquake.
“Many of my relatives lost their lives, many are disabled. But Bhuj bounced back from that tragedy and was rebuilt to be on par with the metros. The infrastructure has especially improved in the last couple of years. But it’s about ambition. Here, unlike the metros, people don’t want to make the commitment to take that extra step.”
Could India’s first medallist in esports make a difference?
“Earlier when I told their parents to let them play a little longer, they’d say, ‘Tirth’s only saying that because he somehow ended up making money from it. Now, it would be hard for them to ignore an Asian Games medal,” says Mehta. “Medal ke saath bolne se ek alag hi effect aayega.”