Shikhar Choudhary was on his way to work in Bengaluru when a Twitter notification popped up on his phone. Karthik Varma was already in his office in Hyderabad when he received an email about Hearthstone being excluded from the postponed Hangzhou Asian Games.
Both were gearing up to represent India later this year in the biggest tournament of their respective Esports careers until Thursday, when their Asian Games dreams quickly went up in smoke.
The Hangzhou Asian Games Organizing Committee excluded Hearthstone, a digital collectible card game, as one of the eight Esports programs from the Games in which Esports is making its debut as a medal event. As per the official statement, negotiations between its US-based makers Blizzard Entertainment and its operator NetEase regarding the extension of the operating rights and partnership agreement fell through in November 2022, resulting it “all servers hosting Hearthstone on the Chinese Mainland” shutting down.
Had the Games not been pushed back by a year from its original schedule of September-October 2022, Choudhary and Varma would have competed for a medal in it. Instead, the two will now miss out on the event as well as the experience of an Asian Games altogether.
“When I saw the tweet, I was shocked and extremely disappointed at the sudden turn of events,” Choudhary said. “Playing for India at the Asian Games would have been massive.”
The duo booked their Asian Games ticket by making the final of the National Esports Championships held in April last year. In the semi-finals, Choudhary had beaten Tirth Mehta, who won the Hearthstone bronze at the 2018 Games in Indonesia where Esports was a demonstration event. Lokesh Suji, director of the Esports Federation of India, said “we were quite optimistic about Hearthstone getting us a medal” again in this edition.
So was Choudhary, who had ramped up his preparations over the last three months solely keeping the Games in mind. Both Choudhary, 26, and Varma, 28, have full-time jobs as well; the former works as a data scientist with a bank in Bengaluru while the latter in a software start-up company in Hyderabad. Still, the two dedicated a couple of hours daily before and after their office time to gaming on weekdays. On weekends, that would rise to 8-10 hours.
“Now I look back and think, kyu kar raha tha yeh (what was the point of it?). I could have given that amount of time to something else—my job, my family, maybe even studied something. What happened is not in my control, but now I feel I wasted time on this. The last three months, especially, I had completely dedicated myself to this,” Choudhary said.
Unlike mainstream sports, the opportunity to represent the country doesn’t come too often in Esports (Mehta, for instance, isn’t part of this Asian Games). And each of its competitive games is specialised. Indeed, Choudhary isn’t even sure if he will continue pursuing Hearthstone. “The game itself has question marks over it, so I have no idea if I will continue playing it. I haven’t thought about it yet,” he said.
While Choudhary started playing the game during his college days, Varma’s entire family is into gaming. His father and brother too play Hearthstone, and often compete together when at home. So for him, Hearthstone will continue to be a part of life.
“I was more looking forward to the experience of just being at the Asian Games. That is something which is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Varma said.
One that has been snatched away from them for a reason beyond their control. They will, however, cheer for their fellow Esports competitors from India at the Asian Games, which will now feature seven medal events. “I hope they win as many medals for the country as possible,” Choudhary said.