When Arslan Siddique finally got a visa to go to his first Evolution Championship Series (Evo) in Japan, in February 2019, he had to book a last-minute flight that had multiple cancellations and it took him two and a half days to land in Fukuoka, four hours before his Tekken 7 match was about to begin. Three days later, he competed in the finals against Alexandre ‘AK’ Laverez from the Philippines. Arslan won, and nobody understood how. Just a few months later, in August, came the international Evo 2019 in the United States, where top players from Europe and the Americas were also competing.
He came up against his old rival from Korea in the finals, Jae-Min Bae ‘Knee’ – by all accounts, the world’s most experienced Tekken player and winner of eight previous tournaments. Arslan had previously beaten him in Japan in the semi-finals and in Dubai at a smaller scale tournament in 2018. This was the same year he won King of Fighters IV tournaments in Oman and Kuwait, often using his favourite character Ash, which he takes his gaming moniker from. In America, Arslan was the only participant in the knockout stages who was not from a high-income country, the only one who almost missed the tournament because of visa problems. His win in Japan was called a fluke, beginners’ luck; a narrative that went like this: “the world didn’t know about Pakistani Tekken playstyles, it was new, hence effective, but he would be figured out soon”. Well, he wasn’t figured out soon enough. He beat Knee 3-2.
Arslan played as Kazumi, a woman in a white kimono wearing a red slash around her waist. The game casters were confused when Knee’s intimidating character Devil Jin with demon wings kept losing round after round to Arslan’s solid defence and devastating combos. “Where’s Pakistan?” one asked in exasperation. “What’s Pakistan?” the other replied. But Knee already knew.
After Arslan won the trophy, he took to the floor to place his forehead on the ground in supplication. Then he lifted his fists towards the 9000 people cheering for him in the crowd, and the USD 14,000 prize money waiting for him. They did not know who he was before, but they had found out now. He was the champion.
Now the world is looking at Pakistan to produce more.
History of gaming in Pakistan
Arslan Ash is not the first international success story in Pakistani esports, though. That honour belongs to then 16-year-old Syed Sumail Hassan (22 now). The kid from Karachi who competed for the biggest esports prize pool in the world, Dota 2’s The International, which Sumail, won with his clan Evil Geniuses in 2015. His older brother Yawar Hassan became a professional too. They both had to relocate to the US because of ping/latency issues (the time it takes from a mouse or keyboard command to take effect on the screen.) Sumail’s lifetime earnings over several teams and tournaments are close to four million dollars.
To get the full sense of the odds that Arslan Ash, and others like him, have had to overcome to get to where they are, perhaps we need a little detour into the past. After the 1990s, the heyday of arcades in rich countries, the same craze popped up in Pakistan. Neighbourhood shops with coin-operated arcade machines sprung up with Street Fighter, Double Dragon and eventually, Tekken. Small scale tournaments were organised by the owners of the arcades looking to bring more kids and rake in more coins.
“What does your son do for a living?”
“Oh, he plays video games.”
As a witness to a Street Fighter tournament down the street from my house in 2000, I saw a heavily tipped favourite being asked which character he would play with. He pointed towards the pixels on the screen under the name M.Bison. None of us knew what the M stood for, so he confidently declared, “I’ll be Muhammad Bison”.
Then as the 2000s rolled on, gaming cafes sprung up. Gaming PCs were expensive. In these cafes, you could rent one out on an hourly basis. Groups of friends collecting as clans birthed many local tournaments, the trend carried into universities and colleges, FAST National University, the National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences in Islamabad, started doing an annual esports event that featured Dota, Street Fighter and FIFA.
But then, with the advent of broadband internet and relatively cheaper gaming consoles which were now fully online capable, gaming cafes became redundant. Good for the individual consumer, but not for the very nascent competitive gaming scene, which stalled as a result.
Not enough tournaments. No sponsorships. It was not until 2018 that Mountain Dew’s Dew Gamers Arena tournaments took shape and started the first countrywide gaming events. That was the same year that Arslan won in Dubai, but he was not on their books. His sponsors were his friends and well-wishers. After his win there, Slash eSports came calling, then FATE eSports and finally Red Bull themselves.
In a country where 24.3 percent of the population lives below the poverty line (as of 2015), gaming is seen as a pastime of privilege.
Before that, he was playing on borrowed gamepads and borrowed time. He was turning 23 in 2018, and there were demands on his education and future career. Societal attitudes towards gaming have been historically dismissive all over the world, if not outright antagonistic. Governments have questioned the violence of video games and how they are depriving a generation of kids of healthy outdoor activities (Arslan Ash is a regular at the gym and has biceps to show for it). Science now demonstrates that kids growing up on video games tend to develop sharper hand-eye coordination, motor functions and problem-solving skills.
Despite governmental concerns, the corporations went where the money was. The worldwide gaming industry is estimated at USD 178 billion in 2021, compared to the worldwide movie industry, which amounts to a paltry USD 21 billion in 2021. Mobile games like Candy Crush Saga alone make a billion dollars a year.
Yet as the world moved towards cashing in on one of its most lucrative markets, societal dismissal remained doubly concentrated in Pakistan. Not just seen as a frivolous activity, but in a country where 24.3 percent of the population lives below the poverty line (as of 2015), gaming is seen as a pastime of privilege, a hobby of people who have money and nothing productive to do in life. A career in gaming as a source of income remained unthinkable until now.
Arslan Ash got engaged last year. Something unheard of in terms of rishtas (proposals). Imagine a family meeting Arsalan’s mother and asking, “What does your son do for a living?”
“Oh, he plays video games.”
Words she’d never have dreamt of speaking in the past. Arslan’s mother pleaded with him not to go down the gaming route and not to interrupt his education.
“I’m from a middle-class family, and they invested a lot of money in my studies, so telling my mother that I wanted to go professional in esports, it obviously made her very upset. I pleaded with her to give me one year; that if I don’t win anything, I’ll come back and study again.”
His late father wasn’t as lenient. “He used to stop me going to the arcades. It was right in front of my house, so on the way back from school, I always went there, and Tekken was the main game they had.”
Arslan lived in Daroghawal, Lahore, a low to middle-income area in the Old City, with its narrow streets and small houses. When other kids thought he was unbeatable, they took him to a bigger arcade in Samanabad, and Arslan beat everyone there too. Then he took part in a wider inner city tournament but finished only fifth at a Tekken 6 arcade event. He was disappointed. “I wanted to do better.”
Then he did just that. At 26, gaming is his only source of earning.
Both his brothers lost their jobs during the first COVID-19 lockdowns. Arslan was the only one supporting the family with his gaming earnings. He also wants to support people who want to become professional gamers. “The people I train against have made me what I am. The government has no idea how much talent there is here, for esports. How much revenue it can generate.”
“Where’s Pakistan?” one asked in exasperation. “What’s Pakistan?” the other replied. But Knee already knew.
The international gaming community’s new narrative was this: “Let’s not forget you are only as good as your local scene.” So they discovered Bilal Ilyas, Heera Malik and the fantastically titled Awais ‘Awais Honey’ Iftikhar, all making professional earnings in Tekken since Arslan’s win. In fact, there have been all-Pakistan finals in Ukraine, Dubai and in Japan at a later tournament.
Gaming was tricky during the lockdowns. The best internet still had patches of high latency, so with the money he made, Arslan Ash rented a basement and called it a Tekken Bootcamp, where people came from all over Punjab to train and play for free.
Foreign players wanted to see the hidden but thriving Tekken scene in Pakistan. They came from Italy, from Spain; Knee himself spent four days in Lahore. Tekken also saw its first international cups in Pakistan, with a handful of foreign players at the Dojo in Lahore and the Takra Cup in Rawalpindi in 2019.
Arslan gets recognised in Pakistan now – he gets recognised outside the country as well. He won ESPN’s best esports player of the year award in 2019. He has always felt he was representing not just himself but Pakistan, and he hopes one day the government will feel the same about esports players.
To be fair, the Pakistani government did finally set up an E-PAK initiative in July 2021 under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to facilitate esports and have put in a lot of money in establishing a competitive Free Fire Pakistan League. But Arslan Ash was very unhappy last November when he couldn’t compete in Red Bull’s own Kumite tournament in Las Vegas, where he once again ran into visa troubles. He was disgruntled that there is no official support for esport visas. He has since won a tournament in Florida (December) and one in Islamabad (January), accumulating a further USD 5000 approximately.
The rise, fall, and rise of Pakistan’s favourite game
There is one game however, that has not only overcome the latency problems in Pakistan but absolutely blown everything else out of the water worldwide. That’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, specifically PUBG Mobile, which is free to play.
Four years ago, PUBG was just another battle royale format game – last person/last team standing wins. It was vying for space with Fortnite and Free Fire. Now it is Pakistan’s most popular multiplayer video game to play and watch. This is despite a temporary ban after alleged complaints from parents about its violent content. There were rumours of a very sensitive major general in charge of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority who claimed his son had abandoned his studies since he started playing this game.
Using the contentious Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act – which has been criticised for being used by the state to enforce censorship on free speech and clamp down on criticism against the security establishment – the PTA said it had the authority to remove material that threatened public order and decency. The order stated that the game is devoid of morality, highly addictive, destroying the youth, and just generally a waste of time.
When the Islamabad High Court ordered an immediate lifting of the ban, PTA refused, citing ‘explicit and indecent’ skins and suits that went against the teachings of Islam. The Islamabad police even linked a couple of deaths by suicide to kids addicted to the game but unable to cope with its competitive pressures. After much public outrage, sit-ins, and negotiations between PUBG officials and the telecommunication authority, the ban was eventually lifted.
In August 2021, PUBG Official Pakistan introduced a guest player for their fall season Gully Squad event; the former cricketer Shoaib Akhtar, represented in digital form in a green jersey and trousers, with white sleeves and white pads. A world-famous star was about to go from bowling bullet deliveries to delivering actual bullets. Running around the PUBG map bringing down opponents indiscriminately – if not with guns, then with aggression, sledging and the use of his elbows; like that infamous test match against India in 1999.
You could play with him. You could play against him. You could get his voice pack to throw taunts at your opponents with. He was the first brand ambassador for PUBG Pakistan and was on a stream with its official YouTube partner channel, MrJayPlays. The stream with Shoaib Akhtar saw over 350k views (a base USD 300 in monetary terms just from Google AdSense). Akhtar said his preferred weapon would be a frying pan (an actual high damage melee weapon in the game) because he would enjoy bashing players’ faces in, but since that would not have any range, he settled for an M416 assault rifle.
When the Islamabad High Court ordered an immediate lifting of the ban, PTA refused, citing ‘explicit and indecent’ skins and suits that went against the teachings of Islam.
MrJayPlays, whose real name is Jahanzaib, has 644,000 subscribers on YouTube. His streams get enough views to make him PKR 200,000 a month. He has not quit his day job yet – he does a lot of IT consulting – but there is always the possibility of branching out into other streaming content, like he has done with Grand Theft Auto 5, just in time for the announcement of Grand Theft Auto 6. The people watching his streams come for his commentary, not the game itself; he will find another game should PUBG die down. He continuously finds himself in the top four trending streams in Pakistan and he was awarded the Streamer of the Year award in January 2021 by Portal Entertainment Esports Awards 2020 and Dew Gamers Arena. Pakistan’s first Esports Awards Show.
In November 2021, PUBG Pakistan announced a digitised version of Dirilis: Ertugrul, the titular character from a Turkish drama series that even Prime Minister Imran Khan is a fan of – the same man heading a government that banned the game for disrespecting Islamic injunctions – because he’s a nugget from Islamic history, now a nugget in PUBG history, in his resplendent armour from the drama serial itself.
Esports and gender
It is not just attracting celebrity cameos however, PUBG is turning the gender ratio of Pakistan’s gaming on its head. There are hundreds upon hundreds of women playing in arenas traditionally – and sometimes incorrectly – considered an exclusive space for boys. It was not that women were not playing video games. They were just a bit discreet about it to avoid unwanted attention and hassle, if not outright harassment.
A 19-year-old girl who plays non-competitive PUBG and goes by Mayja1ler says she’s been gaming since she was 7. She still plays Rainbow 6 on her PC but prefers PUBG for the sheer convenience of mobile play. Unlike the usual story, it is she who got her brothers into gaming. She says she used to avoid letting people on the servers know that she is a girl, “sometimes they try and get too chummy, other times they cuss too much”. But as more and more women are playing PUBG openly with their headsets on, their own voices on the servers, reactions are changing.
The most popular of these voices is doubtlessly Doctor Pikachu, with her mini-dinosaur suit, crow feet and cat ears costume, adorably carrying weapons of mass destruction. She has 336,000 subscribers on her channel and over 150,000 views on many of her streams.
Her real name is Syeda Maryam and she is a dentist in Lahore, while also studying to beat the living daylights out of moving pixels on her iPhone 12 Pro Max. I had to take a step back while writing this story, to ponder for a minute that a 22-year-old BDS student is earning more money sitting in front of her screen than it took me a couple of years in my professional career to make. She says her family supports her YouTube channel as a healthy hobby, as long as her dentistry isn’t affected.
“I’ve been playing PUBG Mobile ever since it came out in 2017. I prefer a sniper or an MM4.” She’s from Lahore. Although she has no plans to pursue gaming as a professional, she does have an all-women clan now. She used to play Call of Duty before, also Battlefield, and Need For Speed; this is not her first gaming rodeo.
Her PUBG uploads became famous on TikTok which brought thousands of subscribers to her YouTube channel. Much of Pakistani TikTok has a lot of PUBG videos with Punjabi rap music, often from India, playing in the background. She got 24 kills in one PUBG season and people appreciated her for being so good, ‘being a woman’. She said it came across as a backhanded compliment, but a compliment all the same.
Then there is Merciless Medic (which is how I have referred to most of the doctors I have met in my life). Dr Amber Iqbal, also from Lahore, has 133,000 subscribers and gets plenty of viewers on her streams, probably averaging around 50,000. OPPO recently gifted her the PKR 60,000 Reno 6 phone for being a gaming influencer. Medic was disgusted when the government banned PUBG. “Imagine, in this society where women get so few avenues to do their own thing – it took ages to convince my parents to let me keep streaming – and then to find out one day that they randomly ban PUBG for no reason.”
She has her own clan which also includes only women. Medic is the only female PUBG player in Pakistan who uses a facecam on her streams, and it has been much easier to handle the comments section than she expected. “If anyone starts with language I do not appreciate, I immediately give them a shut-up call.” Which means muting them or kicking them from chat or just swearing at them in return. Unsurprisingly, the level of toxicity and vulgar language on Discord goes down in the presence of women, just as it is shown to go down in real life when gender segregation is reduced and women’s presence is normalised.
Discord is how online gamers communicate(that is why everyone’s wearing headsets with microphones in the facecam streams). Unlike solo games like Tekken, in team games like Dota and PUBG, communication is key. Winning or losing depends on how effective you are at giving out timely information.
Finally, there’s Dr Maryam Khan from Peshawar with 93,000 Instagram followers, a PUBG influencer who gets gifts and in-game crates from sponsors and officials. Doctors seem to make great PUBG players, maybe because they have studied human anatomy so thoroughly they know precisely how to pull it apart. For their efforts, Dr Pikachu and Merciless Medic received nominations at the Dew Gamers Arena’s Portal Entertainment Esports Awards as well.
But perhaps the most resounding success story is that of Star Anonymous. Muneeb Ansari of Rawalpindi, the son of a working-class father who runs a thela, a street-side food stall; who failed his board exams twice because of shop duties and dropped out before matriculation to go help his old man; and who while sitting there whiling away time started playing 8 Ball Pool on the cheapest smartphone on the market. “I made some trick shot videos and started uploading those on YouTube.” He got a subscribers list of 1000 pretty quickly, but it was nothing, money wise. Then PUBG exploded in Southasia, especially in India, whose big-name players Muneeb started watching. He learned fast and started his own PUBG streams.
He now has 2.28 million subscribers, the most of any Pakistani PUBG player. A school dropout, a working-class boy, now earning PKR 300,000 – 400,000 a year, in addition to the tournament money, plus the sponsorships and mobile phones he is showered with as gifts, such as the new iPhone 13 pro max, a phone worth PKR 250,000. All that comes with the territory of being referred to as ‘the best PUBG player in the country’. Just a star now, no longer anonymous.
The prize pool for the PUBG Global Championship is 2 million dollars in the 2021 tournament played in November and December 2021. The recently concluded Southasian chapter had 24 squads from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Mongolia who competed for a prize pool of roughly USD 30,000 in what was termed the South Asia Pro Scrims. The three Pakistani teams who competed in these scrims had to qualify through a national PUBG Mobile Club Open season against 32 teams. The prize pool was again USD 29,200, sponsored by OPPO.
The next rung on the ladder is the Middle East and North Africa plus Southasia qualifiers for the Global Championships, the prize pool for which is a very cool USD 150,000. One Pakistani team, i8, made it that far. PUBG ranks among the top 5 globally played games for concurrent players. Its peak was an impressive 3.24 million players in 2018.
Competitive PUBG in Pakistan goes back four years, almost immediately as it came out. I spoke to one of the participants, Mughis Fathan, in the first tournament in Lahore in 2018. The prize money was PKR 1 million at the time, sponsored by Gamebird, an umbrella company under Telenor. It was held at the Expo Centre Lahore.
Dew Gamers Arena then joined in to hold two tournaments in 2018 and 2019. The PUBG Mobile prize money was PKR 1 million to winners, PKR 500,000 to runners up and PKR 300,000 to third place. In 2020 they joined up with Mobilink Jazz for a PUBG tournament, offering free 4G data packages for participants.
The level of toxicity and vulgar language on Discord goes down in the presence of women, just as it is shown to go down in real life when gender segregation is reduced and women’s presence is normalised.
These Pakistani teams were not competing against Indian teams. Unlike in Pakistan, the Indian ban on PUBG, while now overturned, was still in effect during these qualifiers. However, there was a face-off between the two regional rivals as advertised by Bollywood actor Tiger Shroff in October 2021, a tri-series tournament between India, Pakistan, and Nepal for Free Fire, humbly called the World Esports Cup, sponsored by Infinix Smartphones. The Indian government has not gotten to banning that yet. Competitive Free Fire has a longer history in the region than PUBG, and a prize pool of USD 100,000 is nothing to scoff at, which the Indian team Total Gaming Esports took the biggest chunk of, around USD 49,000, after finishing first.
But PUBG, in both competitive play and live streaming, is where Pakistan’s obsession lies. The game is so popular that there is a PUBG restaurant on Raiwind Road in Lahore, complete with indoor decor with guns (props), action figures and Winner Winner Chicken Dinner written on the walls. It has fast food, burgers, pizzas and assorted claptrap, but what it also has is a Lahori speciality known as a broast. That right there, is the Chicken Dinner itself.
Despite the furor about indecency and addiction, PUBG is here to stay. Competitive esports is here to stay as well. Every day there’s a new professional gaming account on social media. Arslan Ash has 381,000 followers on Twitter, 489,000 on Instagram, the comments section is full of admiration and kids who want to follow in his footsteps. But he’s still a relatively new gaming idol. Sumail Hassan, the Dota 2 player, has 261,000 followers on Twitter and 155,000 followers on Instagram.
That is a bonafide celebrity. They both are, globally. So will Pakistan produce more champions in these games? In other games than PUBG? For a country of over 200 million people, 180 million of whom have mobile phones, it is tempting to ask, how can it not? Pakistan is digitised, it is making waves on multiple video and streaming services, it is making waves in memes, on YouTube (a report by The Express Tribune from 2021 had Pakistani YouTube users at around 90 million), and around 50 million on Facebook. The same trigger-happy PTA reported last year that the number of broadband users with an average of 2MBs per second stood at 100 million in Pakistan. All these kids need is an avenue, a government that understands the monetary value and millennial passion for esports, and finally to invest more in it.