If you happened to pass through BritAma mall in downtown Jakarta a couple of days ago, you might have spotted the future of sport. Ask for directions to this brave new world and you are directed to a hall next to a MMA kickboxing gym and a beef bowl restaurant. This is nothing like anything you would find at other venues across the city or in Palembang. Apart from the unorthodox location, it's the fact that the 12 participants - six each from China and Korea - are playing League of legends, a computer game that was first released in 2009.
Competitive video gaming - eSports -- isn't sport as you know it.If muscular six-foot-five Sun Yang is the star of the Chinese swim squad, pudgy five foot Uzi Jian Zi Houw is the star center of the Chinese League of legends roster. On the opposing side, 'Faker' Lee Sang-Eok and the rest of his bespectacled compatriots dressed in oversized T-shirts, acne, and boyish wavy hair seem to have wandered out of a Harry Potter lookalike convention.
There's plenty of virtual magic in their chosen profession though. At least that's what it looks like. Players control six avatars with different powers and characteristics. The game takes place on a virtual map featuring a jungle and a river. Three roads link the home base of either team. Three towers on each side protect access to these roads. They can unearth various treasures to increase their powers. The goal is to destroy the base of the opposing team. So far, so good.
The rest of the game is a blur. There are minions (little creatures meant to draw fire from towers), tanking (taking heavy fire, not throwing games) double and triple kills, dragons to slay and if they are really good, a dragon players can control. If you are a first time viewer, this world might come across as incredibly inaccessible. There are a couple of excited sportscasters but there's little they say that's very useful.
It's also one you might add to your thesaurus soon. eSports is being included in the Asian Games as a demonstration sport as a test event and being pitched for the 2022 Games as a full medal sport because it is big. Other federations look on with envy and marketers salivate as they glance at the numbers.
There's no hand-wringing about falling audiences and falling funds. No 100 ball matches or 3-on-3 basketball needed here. Wednesday's match went on for 3 hours, spectators glued to the strategies being played out on a screen projection. Matches aren't being broadcast on CCTV but millions of viewers are expected to be streaming the final on twitch. While unfamiliar to the rest of us, these players are legends in their own world. Uzi has 3.03 million followers on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of twitter. The same is true for Korea's Faker too. "There's probably no teenager who doesn't know who he is," says Lee Kuan, one of the score or more reporters from Korea who are covering the tournament. There's incredible prize money on offer too. The DOTA world championships last year for instance had a prize pool of 20 million dollars.
"Our entire world takes place on a digital platform. Why wouldn't sports also head there," is the assessment of Lokesh Suji, vice-president of the Asian E Sports federation. FIFA conducted a parallel tournament alongside the World Cup. The need to adapt for the Asian Games is perhaps even more urgent. The PC and gaming market in Asia hit $2.2 billion in 2017, a number projected to double by 2021, a year before the 2022 Games in Hangzhou.
Yet an obvious question is raised. What would eSports gain from competing in the Asian Games? They simply don't need to be here. This is a very libertarian community. "They don't take to authority or rules easily. You won't see people bowing down and touching feet over here like they do in other sports," says Suji. But if eSports want to be at the Asian games, they have to squish themselves into some restrictions. They are already compromising simply to hold a tournament in this mall, some 10 kilometers from any other Games facility. It's also why they decided to drop the counter strike game (the thought of players playing terrorists and counter terrorists apparently made organisers wary). At a press conference during the Asian Games, officials are asked about their stance on doping - they reply that they honestly haven't thought too deeply about it.
"Some of this is BS man," says Ankur Diwakar, representing India in the Pro Edition Soccer event. "I can't drink Red Bull because of sponsorship rights holder issues. You can't even curse because that's against the rules. What kind of a gaming tournament is it when you can't even swear," he rails. In the run up to the tournament, Indian gaming forums were abuzz with talk that players were being ripped off and selling their names and image rights for perpetuity. Suji who heads the Indian eSports federation says the controversy was a misunderstanding caused by the fact they were drafting the legalese and players were reading it for the first time. "We've just started dealing with all of this," he says. But there is reason that justifies becoming one with 'the Man'. This is essentially new money buying its way into an old society. "I wouldn't put up with this if I wasn't getting the chance to represent the country. That makes it worthwhile," says Diwakar.
"There's still a lot of people who look down on eSports. When they find out that we are actually representing the country in the Asian Games, there's a lot more respect. If sSports were at the Asian Games when I decided to quit my college and start playing games full time, I could have told people - look, this is a sport too," says 19-year-old Tirth Mehta who India's first E Sports bronze medal in the game Hearthstone.
And while some of it is confusing, there's plenty about E Sports that's just the same as any other 'sport'. There are moments of brilliance and strategy. There's emotional turmoil in defeat and exhilaration at victory. There's also a moment that's now standard fare for the Asian Games. At the conclusion of the League of legends tournament, the announcer calls out - "Please rise for the national anthem of the People's republic of China."
Some things never change.