efe-epaBy Karl Sexton and Nilanjana Bhowmick. Bangkok/New Delhi

Last year, a 24-year-old man from a small town in Gujarat in western India bagged a bronze medal at the Asian Games in an online card game, shining a light on a rapidly growing and hitherto uncharted sector of electronic sports in India and the wider Asia-Pacific region.

Tirth Mehta defeated a Vietnamese player 3-2 to win a bronze medal in a 30-card online fantasy card game, Hearthstone, the first-ever esports category at the Jakarta Games on Aug. 31.

"Esports has already made a huge splash around the globe. We see professional players and content creators getting paid huge amounts in sums that even the highest tier of regular jobs don't get," Mehta told EFE, adding that it has been now accepted as a mainstream entertainment medium.

Mehta’s success did not come overnight, though.

He had the support of his parents, whose only conditions were that he did not spend too long on the computer, that he take frequent breaks and use a screen guard to protect his eyes.

But not everyone receives the same kind of support.

"Unfortunately, India is still lagging behind, mainly because of the perspective of the common people. They still consider gaming as a 'timepass' activity rather than a potential source of income. They fail to realize how huge of an industry esports has become over the years," he said.

Mehta became involved with esports gradually. He started playing in small tournaments and eventually started tasting success in them.

His major breakthrough came during the ESL Legendary Series in 2015 where he managed to qualify for what was considered as one of the top-tier tournaments at that time.

He followed it up with decent showings at other online tournaments as well as live competitions.

Mehta rued the fact that India has still not understood the potential of the esports sector, although there is no dearth of talents.

"Too many players are either afraid to lose and make a bad name of themselves, or are afraid to commit to playing competitively. Some players also couldn't compete because they don't get parental approval, but I hope the recent trends such as esports being included in the Asian Games have helped them change their perspective at least a bit,” he said.

Mehta is now training his sights on earning a gold medal.

There are an estimated two million enthusiasts and some two million "occasional viewers" in India, according to a Frost and Sullivan report titled "Industry Insights for Online and Mobile Gaming in India" that was published in Jan. 2018.

However, it is not just in India that esports have been making waves.

Considered a pastime for geeky teens until relatively recently, competitive gaming is now a $906-million worldwide industry that is expected to reach $1.5 billion by 2020, according to esports global analytics firm Newzoo, and it is a sector that is driven mostly by millennials.

The global surge in popularity over the past decade has also led to the foundation of training and gaming academies for players to perfect their skills and hone their craft now that pursuing professional careers are viable and potentially lucrative options.

Southeast Asia, which is set to become the home to at least an estimated 40 million fans by 2020, is also a major hub for the burgeoning multi-million dollar industry.

In Singapore, the Informatics Academy teamed up with Singapore’s Cybersports & Online Gaming Association (SCOGA), which was founded in 2008.

The founder and CEO of SCOGA, Kelvin Tan, says the program focuses on skills required for high-level gaming that can be transferred to various other professional fields.

"We use competitive video games to teach skills such as leadership, teamwork and communications," Tan said. "We hope that this prepares them for the jobs of the future and help them achieve their aspirations."

The industry, which has a global audience approaching 500 million, is expected to see its first ever billion-dollar year in 2019, according to Newzoo, which expects the total number of esports fans to top 201 million people this year, a growth rate of over 16 percent.

The popularity of esports is exploding across the world, and nowhere more so than in Asia.

Newzoo says China will be home to 75 million esports "enthusiasts” this year, while South Korea will see the largest ratio of gamers relative to its total population, at 12 percent.

Esports’ unique quality in terms of competition is that it does not overly rely on physical attributes such as strength or speed, which has meant that female participants, and in turn viewers, are well represented, at least compared to other, more traditional sports.

The strength and depth of the female talent pool in esports has given rise to the Female Esports League (FSL), featuring all-girl teams such as Asterisk, one of Singapore’s leading gaming squads.

Backed by corporate sponsors as well as tens of thousands of fans, the league is one of the main forces driving the regional growth of the sport.

The games are live-streamed to a viewership that has eclipsed that of many traditional sports; the 2018 League of Legends (LoL) World Championship amassed more than a 205 million viewers, nearly double that of the 2018 Super Bowl at 118.2 million viewers, and far more than the 2018 Wimbledon final of 9.44 million or the 7.3 million peak viewership of the 2017 Tour de France.

However, esports is also dominated by men; women working in any role in e-sports or playing esports is estimated to be about just five percent.

Invited to participate in an Experts Discussion on “Increasing female interest and participation in esports careers” at the inaugural Global Esports Forum by Intel/ESL on Mar. 1, 2018, four leaders of groups representing women in gaming in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy drafted a set of recommendations.

“Women’s esports needs to be seen as a 'product' in its own right and not a by-product or add-on, or proving ground for the existing male-dominated industry which has grown up with the majority of attention paid to the men’s game," a report by the forum said.

"This is not a segregation of men’s and women’s esports, as girls at school being directed by teachers and those women who want and choose to compete with men, should be encouraged to continue to play in an open environment," the report added. "A distinct women’s esports product is a short-term expedient to grow significantly the esports global audience."

"Linked to the need for promotional opportunities, there is a need to increase significantly the number of women-only tournaments and leagues," it added.

With over 580 major esports events and a total prize pool of $112 million in 2017, esports is no longer restricted to LAN (local area network) cafes, but has instead blossomed in large arenas with thousands of cheering spectators.

As the industry continues to grow, esports are cementing their place among other traditional sports, and in 2022, when the industry is estimated to generate $1.8 billion, will be added to the medal events at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China.

“The potential of esports is now visible,” Mehta said.

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