When Siddh Chandarana, a 14-year-old amateur Indian footballer, was told by his doctor that he will not be able to play because of allergic bronchitis, his career in the sport seemed to be over.
Eight years later, the boy from Mumbai, now 22, was granted his visa to Denmark as one of the three Indians, alongside Charanjot Singh (18) and Saransh Jain (21), to represent the country at the FIFAe Nations Cup, the esports equivalent of the FIFA World Cup 2022.
“I’ll forever be grateful to have the opportunity to do what I love. Visas finally stamped, off to Copenhagen tomorrow for the FIFAe Nations Cup,” he wrote on Twitter.
FIFA by Electronic Arts has become one of the most significant online games since its launch in the 1990s. By 2018, it became the most played game in the world, with a player count close to the whole population of the United States of America.
So much so, that it will be a pilot event at the Commonwealth Games and a full-fledged medal event at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, with FIFAe being one of them.
The FIFAe World Cup, initially called the FIFA Interactive World Cup, is the marquee esports tournament of the enterprise and holds the Guinness World record for being the “largest videogame” tournament.
Team India beats the 2018 FIFAe World Champion
India, a relatively new stakeholder in competitive esports, became eligible for FIFA Global Series tournaments only in 2021.
“When we got affiliation for FIFA, it gave more purpose to gaming (esports), because previously for tournaments quarterly, you don’t even bother practising a lot,” Charanjot told Sportstar.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) organised the eFootball challenge in 2021 to select its National Team for the eNations Cup.
Charanjot won the inaugural season, with the tournament initially starting in a 1v1 format, but failed to qualify in the top 32 in the World Cup.
For the 2022 edition, India beat Malaysia and South Korea to seal its spot, rising to 18th and becoming the third-ranked nation in South Asia, below Singapore and Japan.
On its way, Charanjot beat the 2018 FIFAe World Cup Champion Mosaad “Msdossary” Aldossary.
“Last year during the zonal qualifiers, we faced Saudi Arabia. In the first match against Msdossary, I lost. But we matched again in the winner’s final. At that time, I knew that if I play my game, I could beat him. So, I went into the game with the same approach and I beat him 4-1. And, that was a great feeling, to beat a world champion,” said the 18-year-old.
The ‘eISL’ push to esports in India
Esports in India have flourished with the introduction of eISL, the esports counterpart of the Indian Super League (ISL), which gave its winner a direct slot in the FIFA Global Series qualifiers.
“eFootball for football brings in a younger demographic. It becomes easier to go ahead and fall in love with your club, so it recruits more people to your club. It recruits more people to football,” Akshat Rathee, the founder of NODWIN Gaming and the associate partner for the eISL, told Sportstar.
Saransh, along with Navin Haridoss of Chennaiyin FC beat Mumbai City FC in the final to take home Rs. 15 lakh and book a spot in the FGS Qualifiers.
“Through the eISL, we had a spot given to a person directly to qualify for the Global Series playoffs, which meant a lot. That was the main reason why I participated,” said Saransh, India’s top-ranked FGS player from South Asia.
“It’s something I wanted for a long time. I used to watch events at home and the FIFAe World Cup. But we never really had the opportunity to go into it.”
‘It’s a sense of pride to be doing this as an Indian’
India is grouped alongside the Netherlands (#3), Mexico (#7), Italy (#8), Poland (#21) and debutant Morocco (#38), and begins its campaign against Italy on July 27.
Globally, esports has also become a post-retirement avenue for elite professional footballers, with Sergio Aguero (KRU esports) and Mesut Ozil (M10 esports) among the most prominent founders of esports companies.
While Siddh is a former M10 athlete, the player who beat Charanjot in the individual playoffs for the FIFAe World Cup 2022, J. Afonso, is an esports athlete for the esports company of Liverpool and Portugal forward Diogo Jota.
“We started our practice for the FIFAe Nations Cup after I returned from London,” said Charanjot.
“There is a bit of an issue with it as there are not many nations from our region against whom we can practise. But we are trying; Saransh and I are practising for now and when we fly to Denmark, we intend to practice for a week at least ahead of the finals.”
On July 16, the team hit a stumbling block before its journey to Copenhagen, with the players’ visas stuck during approval. However, the issue was resolved with the intervention of the Danish embassy. The Indian team left for Denmark a week later.
“Now that I’m here, it’s very exciting to finally be able to play one after what, 4-5 years of trying for it,” Saransh told Sportstar.
Saransh carries the Tricolour with him for every tournament around the world. He has been to Germany for the Virtual Bundesliga with it as well.
“I have travelled to a couple of international events before and I’ve always carried one (Indian flag) with me. It’s a sense of pride to be doing this as an Indian and it’s going to mean a lot,” said Saransh.
When the eTigers begin their campaign against Italy in the FIFAe Nations Cup on July 27, they will do so as three out of a population of 1.3 billion — with consoles, the Indian flag and hopes of unfurling it in the final on July 30.