In New Delhi, five-year-old Rohan Karir carefully aligns his fully loaded rocket launcher. The enemy has little chance. In Bangalore, Huda Masood has been planting C4 bombs. And Deep Panjuani's 'Elite Commandos' are scratching out an assault strategy in Mumbai.
Welcome to this year's World Cyber Games. After several battles across India, WCG is set to culminate in Mumbai on Sunday, September 14. Three legs, in New Delhi, Bangalore and Pune, have been completed. The final leg will be held in Mumbai from September 12 to 14.
Over 30,000 gamers registered for the Indian preliminaries of the 'Olympics of gaming'. Yet, only nine of these will go on to test their mettle at the world finals in Seoul, South Korea, between October 12 and 18. The stake: a total purse of $350,000!
Though the gaming fest is into the third year, this time round it is exceptional. The participation has jumped from the 7,000 last year to the 30,000 now. Indiagames.com, the organisers of WCG in India are ecstatic.
The phenomenal jump in participation has also brought to the battlefield the entire spectrum of Indian gamers: From the really young to the lone woman warrior.
Huda Masood: The gun-slinging girl
Huda, 21, studies at Bangalore's Institute of Dental Science. She explains how she arrived in 'boyland': "It was purely accidental. I had stopped gaming for two months. And when I came back, I saw a poster for WCG. I then asked Alvin if he wanted to participate just for kicks. Alvin now leads my team 5[bM] (Five Blind Meeces). We got laughed at because we had newbies in our team, excluding Alvin, and it was more of a prestige issue for us to actually get through.
"I had gotten out of a bad relationship and was clueless about what to do. I started hanging out with a bunch of boys who constantly talked in Counter Strike (game) lingo. It was pure curiosity and boredom. I asked Naz, one of my friends, to teach me. The boys at the gaming centre were far too shocked to protest. Then I found out I had a knack for it and every time I got a kill the other team would berate the guy who got killed by a chick!
"I think the predominant insular culture of India has a lot to do with less number of women getting into gaming. No one likes being the odd one out and taking insult for being weak. And if you do the boys' stuff you're in danger of being labelled butch, moreover you have to be really gutsy and really good. Blood and gore form a small part of why a lot of women don't play."
On being the only woman at WCG India, Huda says, "I loved the attention. My boyfriend says that he's now known as 'The chick that plays CS' boyfriend'. Also I think that I'm representing women. But I'm not really. More than that I love the respect I'm getting for being relatively good. It's true; you have to be one and a half times better than an average man to gain their respect.
"I want them to stop making fun of the guy who gets killed by me because I'm the girl. But I hope a lot of women come to play and they better play good otherwise they get hooted off. And the team loses face. One thing I can say about the boys I game with, very chivalrous, very couth and polite. They'll call the other boys names but they never say anything to me. There are advantages to being a girl."
At WCG, 5[bM] fared pretty well in round one and round two but lost to a team from Chennai.
"It's a sore point for us Bangalore teams that Chennai teams came to Bangalore and swept us, pretty unceremoniously, under the rug. Nevertheless, we are now a lot more respected, although we're still going to keep our clan name as the 5[bM]. We learnt to strategise and work on certain aspects. On the whole gaming is like a game of chess, you exercise your mind and your reflexes," says Huda.
Rohan Karir: The kid
Rohan Karir is five years old. The youngest participant at WCG. "I want to join the Indian Army when I grow up. That's the closest I think I can come in the real life to what I enjoy on screen." He plays the 'first person shootout' genre of games like Unreal Tournament 2003, and Quake.
"I developed an interest in games when I was 3. Then I used to play board games and cards. For the competition I practice about 5-6 hours a week at my place and my uncle's gaming café."
Although he lost the battle at WCG, he says "I won the first round and was 'fragged' in the second. I had no clue of the second stage of UT 2003 and lacked practice for it."
His parent's Sanjay and Kiran Karir say, "We want our child to first complete his school assignments. After that if he can spare any time, he can spend that at his will. Which he does by playing games on his PC."
Rahul Rohira: He shoots to win
Rahul, a final year commerce student from HR College, Mumbai, has represented India at Seoul, two years in a row. Will he win this time too? The defending champ also runs Skirmish, a gaming parlour at Bandra. "I am into gaming since childhood. Then I played on consoles like ATARI and Nintendo. Now I play on an AMD Athlon XP 2000+, GeForce 2 video card, ASUS motherboard with 256 MB of DDR Ram. We have a LAN party at my parlour or I practice alone."
Rahul and his team, ACID, have been putting in 5-6 hours of practice for the WCG India showdown in Mumbai. They are playing Counter Strike.
"To become a good gamer one must have a deep interest for the game and must not leave playing after a few days. Also in India there is lack of sponsorships for gamers. Abroad there are major software and hardware giants sponsoring gamers and tournaments," he says.
To win in a tournament like WCG against international players is not a cup of tea. "We have to play as a team, no one or two players can help you win the game. Also you require to put in lots of practise and patience. It's a team effort. Just like cricket where no single player can win a match single-handed," Rahul explains.
As for now he doesn't want to pursue a career in the gaming industry but has definite plans to take his gaming parlour, Skirmish, to other cities.Bullets, reflexes and strategy
WCG has three categories: First person shootout like Unreal Tournament 2003 and Half-Life Counter Strike. Sports like Fifa 2003 and Real-time strategy like Age of Mythology and Warcraft -- The Frozen Throne).
For most participants, the real motivator is not the money but an opportunity to satisfy their passion and pit their skills against the best.
Competitions like these go a long way making the gaming culture popular. WCG India sponsor Indiagames.com's Cyril Kerry says, "With technology prices falling and PCs making their way to remote parts of the country there will be more people getting interested in gaming. Currently, the only drawback that Indian gamers face is in the online gaming arena because they lack the necessary bandwidth. This is not a problem for international gamers. But with gaming parlours coming up in cities, we may see a definite change."
In fact, Ajay Karir, Rohan's uncle, used to run a cyber café in New Delhi. But he had so many enquiries from people interested in gaming that he converted his café into a gaming parlour. Its popularity now prompts him to chuckle, "Believe me, I was right."