HIS E-SPORTS venture in disarray after the PUBG ban in India, a Kashmiri teenager reached out across the border — and got players from Pakistan to represent his team for the qualifiers of a pro league.
Two months ago, Stalwart Esports, a professional gaming outfit owned by 18-year-old Zeyan Shafiq from Anantnag, secured India a slot in the PUBG Mobile Pro League (PMPL) South Asia qualifiers. But with its roster of Indian players unavailable to compete with the popular mobile game banned since September due to concerns over its links to Chinese companies, Shafiq reached out to members of the Pakistani champions, Team Freestyle.
They agreed. And although the India-Pakistan collaboration failed to advance through the regional event, which concluded earlier this week, it was a win-win for the fans, and Shafiq.
“When you have got the determination nothing could stop you, not even the ban!!!! Divided by borders and disputes, united by esports,” read the announcement by Stalwart Esports on Twitter last month. “If I have an option to pick a player from a country with which we don’t have good ties, but if that player is really skilled and I know if he will join my roster he can do wonders, why shouldn’t I provide a chance?” Shafiq told The Indian Express from Anantnag.
He said that he hasn’t let go of his Indian players — “they are my family” — and with PUBG slated to relaunch soon with a shift to Microsoft, the rendezvous with Pakistan remains a one-off. Shafiq’s outfit wasn’t the only Indian team to look for help from neighbours. FutureStation and Element Esports borrowed players from Bangladesh and Nepal, respectively. But the apprehension around Pakistani players representing an Indian team was high, says Shafiq. “When we took the decision, there were some negative aspects in mind as well,” said Shafiq. “If we would have faced backlash, we would have taken some action. But the majority understood that we were helpless and would have had to give up the berth. They welcomed the decision, and we were happy to continue.”
In Pakistan, meanwhile, the competitive PUBG season had been ravaged by Covid and a ban of their own in July. So Team Freestyle, the inaugural Pakistani champions in 2018, jumped at the opportunity.
“We received Stalwart’s email and thought it would be a great opportunity,” said Abdul Haseeb Nasir, aka Black in the PUBG circuit. “It was a lot of fun. Our performance was up and down but experiences like these help you form bonds. They are from India, we are from Pakistan. But we were getting support from both countries.” Nasir, who played under-16 cricket in Rawalpindi before PUBG took priority, is a 20-year-old cult figure in Pakistan — not only because of his virtual exploits but also as the “saviour” who helped lift the ban in his country on the favourite game of millions. On July 2, citing a suicide case, Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) announced the ban stating that “the game is addictive, wastage of time, and poses a serious negative impact on the physical and psychological health of children”.
This move came on the cusp of a Global Finals appearance for Team Freestyle, who had to compete over Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). The resulting lag and data loss meant they stood no chance in a game dictated by split-second frames. Nasir spent most of the rest of July at the Islamabad High Court after filing a petition against the ban. “I stood in the sun for days, engaged in a legal battle trying to convince that this is nothing illegal. People often say ‘this is a game about guns and killing people, don’t let your kids play’. I argued that this is just a game. Banning it will only be detrimental for Pakistan,” said Nasir. “The ban was lifted within a month and people who didn’t even play competitively knew that Black from Freestyle did this.”
That community, however, threatened to turn on Team Freestyle when Stalwart came calling. “We were getting some hate initially. For Stalwart, the question was ‘why are you picking players from Pakistan?’ For us, it was ‘why are you playing for India?'” said Nasir, who pacified his supporters by reminding them that they will be addressed as “players from Pakistan”.
“We explained that the slot is because of India, but Pakistan is being represented in the competition. We said ‘instead of four teams from Pakistan, now there were five. You should be happy’,” he said. Tensions dissipated once the competition began. Over four days and against 19 opponents, Stalwart Esports ebbed and flowed. But the live chat was flooded with viewers professing love for the India-Pakistan collaboration.
Shafiq believes the showing bodes well for South Asian teams, a region which has historically struggled against heavyweights from East and Southeast. “I do understand there are political disputes. But this is high time we rise above them and show some unity, at least in the gaming aspect. There were many negative comments because India and Pakistan joined forces. But overall, the reaction was mature,” said Shafiq. “I will sum it up with one comment I saw: ‘India + Pakistan = OP (overpowered).”
“There might be problems between the countries, but this unites us,” asserts Nasir. “Believe me, we have as many supporters from India as we do from Pakistan. Every day they reach out to us via DMs, and you can’t explain how it feels. In those moments, it doesn’t matter who is from India or Pakistan. The love we get is the same from both.”