Counter-Strike, India Style

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Counter-Strike, India Style,71155-1.html?tw=wn_story_page_next1

Counter-Strike, India Style
By Alexander Zaitchik| Also by this reporter
02:00 AM Jun, 23, 2006

NEW DELHI -- Add another category to India's intensifying regional competition with China: online gaming.

Five years after China pulled away from its giant southern neighbor in all things internet, young Indians are logging on for Quake 4 and Counter-Strike marathons in rapidly growing numbers. Deepening PC and broadband penetration, together with invigorated promotion and heightened game awareness, have India on the cusp of an online gaming explosion.

And those leading the charge aren't shy to admit that the elephant has a dragon in its sites.

"We are going to catch China by 2010," says Sukamal Pegu, the 24-year-old founding member of the gaming division at Indiatimes Online, South Asia's largest internet service provider. "It will be a challenge, but we're making strides on China every day."

Tangible progress will be marked by the first Indian participation in the Electronic Sports World Cup, which kicks off June 30 in Paris. Earlier this month, 162 regional qualifiers from nine Indian cities came to New Delhi -- including 8-year-old Rohan Karir, a TrackMania prodigy -- to compete for 10 tickets to Paris and a shot at some of the $400,000 ESWC prize money. All told, more than 20,000 Indians competed, making it one the biggest national gaming tournaments ever.

Of those, perhaps only 1,000 could be called "serious" gamers, with a mere five or so enjoying international reputations. But casual interest in online gaming is spreading fast. As India's middle class expands, home PCs and internet cafes are proliferating. Millions of young Indians have more disposable time and income than ever before.

India's online growth has kept pace with Mumbai's bullish stock market. The number of connections increased by more than half between 2004 and 2005, from 25 million to 39 million. Sanjay Trehan, head of broadband at Indiatimes Online, predicts that by next year the numbers will more than double, possibly climbing as high as 100 million. Crucial for the growth of online gaming, 60 percent of these new connections will be broadband (defined in India as 256 Kbps and higher).

Not a few of these new broadband links are found in India's 100,000 internet cafes, which now derive between 30 percent and 40 percent of their revenues from online gamers. The growing appetite for gaming has led one internet cafe chain, Sify, to launch a broadband-only, gaming-oriented cafe brand called Game Drome, which both hosts and promotes local and national competitions.

"Gaming is a big driver of our business and it's getting bigger," said Anshil Opal, of Sify's gaming division. "The more we educate the public through our website and the cafes, the faster word-of-mouth spreads."

Which could lead to the creation of a formidable new sector in India's information economy. According to a report released last month by the San Francisco consulting firm Pearl Research, which focuses on gaming trends in Asia, the Indian online games market will exceed $200 million in 2010.

"India is basically where China was in 2001," says Allison Luong, Pearl's managing director. "That's when China's games market started to develop and an online games culture started to form."

The maturation of India's gaming culture faces obstacles, however. Among these are cultural ideas about youth leisure that are firmly at odds with heavy game use.

"Today, childhood (in India) is geared toward studies," says Ruchir Khanna, of Indiatimes Online's gaming division. "There's intense pressure on kids to outperform their peers in school and get into competitive elite universities, which doesn't leave much space for video games. It's changing in small steps. The culture is only just now starting to accept it."

Another obstacle is the current lack of games with specific Indian themes, characters and story lines. Although India is a hub of outsourced game programming, almost no content has been tailored explicitly to the Indian market. But like everything else in India, this, too, is changing.

"My guess is that in one year we'll be saying there are too many companies designing Indian-themed games, with Hindu gods and Bollywood music," says Indiatimes Online's Pegu. "A lot of big Asian companies have already started fishing for local partners."

When games with Indian themes become available, they will have to be marketed -- not a strong point in the industry's short history.

"One of the reasons broadband is being underutilized in India is because of a marketing failure,AfAC/AC/aEUsA!? says Pegu. AfAC/AC/aEUsA!A...aEUoeMost people still have no idea there is gaming content available to them."

Led by Indiatimes Online and Sify, a national marketing infrastructure for the promotion of gaming is just now taking shape. Contributing to growing interest are India's proliferating cable channels, many of which air programs that deal partly or exclusively with gaming culture. As a sign of India's emergence as a self-conscious, if nascent, gaming power, Renaud de La Baume -- president of Games-Services, the parent company of the Electronic Sports World Cup -- attended the competition's June finals in New Delhi. Also present were a host of top managers from Nvidia, Intel, Level Up and Razer.

But even in some future India defined by relaxed cultural attitudes toward video games and a cornucopia of beautifully crafted games targeting the enormous Indian market, one problem will remain: electricity.

Power cuts are a daily part of Indian life, and no one -- not even well-off, up-and-coming stars in Mumbai and Bangalore with their own backup generators -- can escape the pain of a poorly timed power outage.

When asked if he ever loses games or hard-won progress due to blackouts, Pegu closes his eyes and groans.

"It happens all the time," he says. "But that's not going to change. That's India."

Liz Woolley