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Esports in India has been picking up pace in recent times, largely on the back of PUBG Mobile, which has roped in over 50 M users within the first year of its release. The game’s explosion in popularity has opened up many opportunities for streamers, tournament organizers, and talent, with nearly 30% of the total esports tournament prize pools in India in 2019 coming through PUBG Mobile alone.
As the Indian market evolves into a mobile-first landscape, commentators and talent are adapting to serve the needs of the local audience. One such personality who has had to add a new set of skills is Sudhen “Bleh” Wahengbam.
Already a well-known name in the country, Wahengbam has grinded his way to the upper echelons of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) scene, where he is recognized internationally as the “Asian CS:GO Expert.” Bleh is by far India’s most successful English language commentator, having attended international competitions such as the ESL Pro League Season 9 – Finals and DreamHack Open Rotterdam 2019.
Wahengbam started out with Counter-Strike in 2002-2003 and was introduced to the esports side of it after starting college in late 2004-2005. Back in those times the industry was still in its nascent stage; there were no matches being live streamed on Twitch and YouTube video on-demand (VOD) were few and far apart. This was the time when casters like Paul “Redeye” Chaloner and Joe Miller emerged as the voices of the game.
“For me personally watching CS was associated with these guys casting the game,” says Wahengbam.
A career in shoutcasting didn’t catch his attention instantly, but it was something that he was always a fan of. However, things changed in 2012 after CS:GO released.
“When CS:GO came out I started to participate more actively in competitions as a player. It was tough because not many events took place in Asia, especially in India. I was competing, but could not fully commit.”
After his short stint as a player, when the E-Sports Entertainment Association League (ESEA) Open Division came to Asia, he noticed that no one was covering the league and decided to give it a shot.
“It was a random decision, one that was made out of my love for the game and also because I had a soft corner for the Asian region, as I used to follow the old-school Counter-Strike 1.6 teams.”
He created a new Twitch account and started his grind, which went on for the next 18 months as he continued to provide commentary for various Asian CS:GO tournaments.
“Back then I also had a nine-to-five non-esports related job, I used to go to work, come back in the evening and then cast a few games. As people started to notice the streams, I created a Facebook page, slowly starting to gain a following while increasing my network, as players started to engage with me. One thing lead to another and slowly over time, it became my main job.”
India has seen rapid development in esports over the past few years with PUBG Mobile being a major contributor. Naturally, the demand for talent also grew exponentially, with regional talent being in higher demand, an idea which was uncommon before 2019.
Between 2012 and 2018, CS:GO and Dota 2 were the dominant esport titles in the country. The benchmark for what counted as high viewership was significantly lower than when PUBG Mobile was introduced to the masses.
“The country has faced tough times. At one point the only credible tournament organizer was ESL India and I used to cast events for them. But despite hosting the biggest national tournament which included both CS:GO and Dota 2, the viewership consistently remained low. It soon became a very closed environment, offering no growth, and making the whole circuit very stagnant,” says Wahengbam about his early times as a caster in the country.
But fast-forward a few years and the Indian esports eco-system stands a completely changed reflection of its former self. Gaming and esports live content in India is consumed largely in local languages on YouTube today.
As of now, the casting business is on an upwards trajectory and Wahengbam believes that work for upcoming casters and talent in India is available in abundance.
“Opportunities for talent are infinitely more than what they were three years ago. The scene has completely changed and work as a caster is available by the bucket; the sad part is that there is a shortage of talent.”
In a country of 1.3B people, where about 13M people are actively playing PUBG Mobile on a daily basis, what is it that is discouraging individuals from picking up casting as a career?
Wahengbam believes that, “Casting as a career is certainly viable nowadays, but go back just 18 months and I would have definitely disagreed with this statement unless one was ready for a long grind and a huge reliance on good fortune.”
Up until about a year ago, English language casters were the primary choice for Dota 2 and CS:GO tournament organizers. Established casters had long since proven their capabilities and were the go-to choices when talent was being considered for an event. Regional language livestream experiments for these game titles yielded poor results when compared to the English live streams and therefore, the opportunity for regional language talent was practically non-existent.
But while the past may have left a huge gap between the supply and demand of talent for esports in India, it is being bridged slowly with a surge of regional casters joining the fray following the success of PUBG Mobile regional language live streams.
“PUBG Mobile has pulled in a lot of viewership. People are actually watching tournaments, and this is really good because at some point these people will branch out to other games like CS:GO and Dota 2, uplifting the region to a whole new level,” says Wahengbam.
A significant portion of this audience does not speak English as its primary language. This is where the conventional English casting takes a huge hit while regional casting prospers.
“Earlier it used to be the case where if a person couldn’t speak English well, they couldn’t do much in esports as a caster. Now, you’re good to go without knowing a single word in English, as long as you understand the game and have a good command over the local dialect.”
The entry barrier has certainly dropped for talent in the country, as many have taken great advantage of the situation to turn themselves into social media influencers with a solid fan base and a loyal following.
“Here is the thing, if I had just focussed on covering the Indian scene I would have gotten nowhere,” Wahengbam says confidently, having lived through all of this first hand. “No one from out of India would even be bothered about Indian CS:GO events. So I did the logical thing and expanded out to Asia to cover more events and the move paid off.”
In instances when Asian CS:GO teams like Tyloo (from China) or Skyred (from Vietnam) caused an upset or had a good run in a tournament, the go-to-guy to find out more about these teams was Wahengbam. Soon after, he established an identity as the “Asian CS:GO Expert.”
With the demand for regional talent in India growing day by day, we dove deeper into the qualities that a tournament organizer looks at when hiring talent for its event, and how much those services costs in India.
While the cost varies from tournament-to-tournament, based on multiple factors, an organizer can expect to pay anywhere between INR 15K ($210 USD) to INR 30K ($420) per day to an upcoming caster who has been around the industry for less than a year.
Giving an example out of his own journey Wahengbam remarks, “My first ever paid gig as a caster was for INR 10K ($140) per day back in 2014, where I worked for around twelve hours a day.”
In the past, talent (ability to commentate) was valued higher than influence (ability to pull in a crowd) in India. The conventional approach that tournament organizers adopted was to view talent as a factor that influenced retention and/or engagement rather than reach. With PUBG Mobile events, this approach is now being challenged.
Wahengbam acknowledges this changing trend. “PUBG Mobile has transformed the business. Many of the casters being hired now have a big social media presence and a massive fan following, bringing in a lot more to the event than just casting. They give a boost to the viewership despite having less experience as commentators, and that is a good tradeoff that organizers can leverage.”
PUBG Mobile has introduced competitive gaming to the masses in India. Streamers have consolidated many of these eyeballs onto their platforms. By utilizing these popular streamers as talents, events are making the transition from casual gamer to esports enthusiast smoother for a lot of these first-time gamers.
“A lot of PUBG Mobile viewers don’t even know what esports is. For them gaming starts and ends with this game. So tournament organizers have been smart to hire these talents who are already popular in the scene and have a massive following, because at the end of the day most of these viewers are tuning in to watch a specific player or streamer, rather than the game itself.”
However, in the long run this practice of hiring influencers to do a job that isn’t part of their core skill set could be detrimental for Indian esports. Wahengbam believes that this is shortsighted from tournament organizers. “At one point the viewers will mature and at that time there will be a shortage of good casters to replace these influencers. They need to start including talent who are better commentators than influencers.”
Having an influencer as a talent certainly caters to the crowd but their inability to breakdown the game in an entertaining and informative manner could be perceived as an injustice to quality casting. This in turn is hurting the sphere of regional casting, as despite the existence of opportunities the skills of talented commentators are not valued as much as their ability to pull in a crowd.
Wahengbam is of the opinion that in order to create a harmonious relationship between tournament organizers and talent, casters should not try and undercut their fellow talent and should never settle to do a tournament for free. Allowing for some wiggle room during negotiations is fine, however, the minimum threshold should not be one that harms the prospects of his/her peers.
He points out some key mistakes that upcoming casters are prone to making that hurt both the tournament organizers and talent. “Someone like me who doesn’t have a crazy fan following might not bring massive viewership, but I do bring years of experience in commentating,” says Wahengbam. “What I mean to say is that everyone has something special that they bring to an event, and that should be respected.”
He also went on to reveal that he has had to say no to many tournaments in the country because they asked him to offer his services at ridiculously low rates or to “do it for the community or for free.”
All of this applies when we assume that casters work as freelancers who are hired by tournament organizers. However many upcoming casters in India are currently contracted as full-time salaried employees to tournament organizers directly.
“A caster who is stepping in without much experience and little to no social media presence, will find it beneficial to work as an in-house caster with an organizer or join a talent agency. They will get time to build themselves, setup contacts across the board, enjoy a steady monthly salary, and after their contract comes to an end step out as a freelancer. It’s not easy at all starting off as a freelancer in India at the moment,” says Wahengbam when talking about making a decision to go solo versus working as an employee of a tournament organizer.
And while choosing to be a freelancer or an in-house caster is a flexible decision, sticking to a single game is not. “Even if you are good and your price low, it is unlikely that you will be getting a piece of the pie, at least not at the top-level events of established titles like CS:GO and Dota 2 that already have proven casters with existing working relationships with tournament organizers,” Wahengbam remarks. “Even after doing quite a few national and international events in CS:GO, I have now started to diversify. I believe there are a lot of opportunities right now in broadcasting in the country and diversification is the best way to take advantage of it.”
So, despite him being super passionate about Counter-Strike, he has dipped his toes into the PUBG Mobile pool as well.
“I love FPS games, so I am using my experience to try my hand at this title. Why shouldn’t I? It makes absolute sense for me to diversify. In no way do I mean to give up casting my main title, but I also do not want to pigeonhole myself and my career.”
A great start can work wonders for anyone, just like it did for Wahengbam. His grind to do what no one else was doing gave him an opportunity to work with SoStronk and NODWIN Gaming. He has done everything from production, casting, to now working as a business analyst with SoStronk while freelancing as a caster.
Doing well within India is just scratching the surface, especially for those casting in English. The world is starting to notice India’s growth as a preferable gaming destination, which is evident with multiple international tournament organizers already having organized multiple events within the country.
Wahengbam had to work really hard to find his niche to reach where he is right now. “I started as a caster, doing solo play-by-play commentary. Today when I am invited for an international event, 99% of the time I go as a desk analyst, because I have built my reputation as being an Asian CS:GO expert. You have to learn to adapt in order to grow. Initially, I was very nervous because I used to cast without a camera pointing at my face. But I got used to it, bringing with me my brand of humor, while being the cynical guy on the panel. I also like to believe I get along well with the other talents. Basically be yourself, do your prep work and do the best job you can do.”
It is a long and sometimes painful grind, but it is certainly possible for new talent to break out in the Indian circuit, especially now that the casters are getting so many opportunities right in their backyard. A luxury that today’s veterans like Wahengbam were not afforded.
Disclosure: NODWIN Gaming is a minority investor in and a client of AFK Gaming.
Aditya Rawat is a staff writer for AFK Gaming.
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