Lines between esports, gaming, gambling blurred

Despite the evolving digital culture in a country with over 500 million smartphone users, India is yet to recognize esports as a real sport involving speed, agility and strategy like traditional sports. China was one of the first to do so in 2003, and over 50 other countries have followed suit since then. Neighbouring Sri Lanka declared it an official sport last year, after 150 schools participated in an inter-school esport championship. Last month, Indonesia recognized esports and included it in the national games. The 2019 Southeast Asian Games in the Philippines had esports as a medal event. Video games like League of Legends and Pro Evolution Soccer featured in demonstration events at the 2018 Asian Games.

This month Ukraine became the latest to recognize esports. Government recognition means esports teams from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Ukraine can participate in world championship events representing their countries, just like the BCCI’s cricket team represents India in the World Cup. Apart from being a matter of pride, official recognition brings regulatory clarity.

No framework

Right now, because of the scant attention that esports has received from the Indian government, lines between esports, competitive gaming and fantasy sports get blurred, causing confusion. What involves skill and strategy and where it verges on public gambling are also obfuscated in the absence of a regulatory framework.

The first step would be categorization of the different forms of gaming. When teams enter an esports tournament and play for prize money, showcasing the best video game players to a mass audience, the model is similar to IPL. It has players, franchises, sponsors, broadcasters and advertisers.

Fantasy sport has a different proposition. Here you create a virtual team, whose performance is linked to that of players in a real event like IPL. For example, you could pick the names of players participating in Kings XI Punjab vs Royal Challengers Bangalore and form a fantasy team according to rules set by a platform like Dream11. Your team would gain points based on the real performance on the ground.

The betting element comes in when you pay money to register your virtual team for a contest with other virtual teams. Here the winners gain money from the losers, with the platform taking a cut. Courts have so far ruled that picking a fantasy team involves strategy, and so it doesn’t come under the purview of gambling, like in a card game or roulette that’s based more on chance.

The skill vs chance question is hard to resolve because there are varying degrees of each in sports, including traditional ones like cricket. The laws that courts interpret to make judgements on this, based on the 1867 Indian Gambling Act, are also archaic. Hence the need for a regulatory body that considers the different models of online gaming.


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