When the Indian Super League (ISL) started in 2014, international football superstars such as Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pires and Luis Garcia were roped in.
Yes, these big names were at the end of their careers, but their presence saw the ISL become the fourth most watched football league in the world in the inaugural season.
Eight years down the line, the ISL has become one of the most important talent scouting platforms of Indian Football, with players such as Hormipam Ruivah, Sahal Abdul Samad and Sandesh Jhingan able to showcase their potential.
The business aspect of the league suffered immensely due to Covid-19, with matches being played in empty stadiums.
Amid the churn, ISL found an online avatar. The esports variant of the league, the eISL, made its debut in 2021 and recorded a viewership of more than 10 million across mobile devices, YouTube and Jio gaming platforms.
“Fundamentally esports for football brings in a younger demographic. It becomes easier to go on and fall in love with your club,” says Akshat Rathee, the founder of NODWIN Gaming, the associate organiser of eISL. “So, it recruits more people to your club. It recruits more people to football, more people to watch the ISL.”
In its debut season, the eISL hosted 117 matches. The tournament was a qualifying event for the FIFA Global Series 2022 — one of the world's biggest esports events — and had a prize pool of Rs. 74 lakh, with an additional Rs. 4 lakh for the MVP (Most Versatile Player).
Chennaiyin FC and Mumbai City FC reached the finals with the Marina Machans, represented by Saransh Jain and Navin Haridoss, winning the tournament 2-1 over three rounds in March this year.
“It is a big deal, not just for me but for everyone because of the different format. We had to stay in a bio-bubble for months," says Saransh, 21.
"Earlier when I used to go to events, they used to be like a two-day or a three-day event. But this time, I was gone for a long time, like four months. I had to sacrifice college as well.”
Saransh and Navin took home Rs 15 lakh for the win. What's more, Navin won the MVP. Saransh, however, went one up on Navin, beating his teammate for a place in the Global Series qualifiers, which is scheduled for June 30 in the United Kingdom.
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According to a report by KPMG , India has one of the biggest online gaming markets (by volume) at 433 million gamers while another study (by Sensor Tower research) shows it as the leading market for global mobile game downloads (at 761.2 million installations). This staggering pool of players has seen investors queue up.
India's success in global esports has been rapid.
In 2021, India ended the eFIFA season above traditional esports heavyweights such as Spain, Italy and Argentina.This year, with a global ranking of 19, India qualified for the FIFA eNations Cup 2022 for the first time.
The team is set to compete in Copenhagen in July. India's challenge has been led by Saransh, Charanjot Singh and Siddh Chandarana.Saransh, has seen the ecosystem change a lot since he started dabbling in esports as a 16-year-old.
"Back then, we didn't have the prize pool for events we have now. I used to play tournaments worth Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000, and then suddenly eISL came. I think that really changed the perspective for a lot of people. It made us realise there is a future in esports.”
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