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Babysitter to Street Fighter: How this esports athlete juggled roles on way to Asian Games

A freelance interior designer, Mayank Prajapati spends most of his daytime looking after his two-year-old. It is only after wife Shweta, a business analyst at the American Express office nearby, is done with her shift that Prajapati embraces his alter ego. That is when the 33-year-old Gurgaon resident becomes a Street Fighter, who kicks, punches and beats others to a pulp. All within the confines of his PC room.

Later this month, he will be among India’s first-ever contingent of 15 esports athletes vying for a medal at the Asian Games.

Scheduled to fly to Hangzhou this week, Prajapati credits his wife for being his guardian angel in an expensive industry with increasing accessory demands for players to thrive in a highly competitive atmosphere. “Your family support means a lot if you are to play esports in India. Without that, I don’t think it’s possible. They are the ones who are paying for every thing like the internet, high-end computers, or high-end mobiles. Like the headphones that I’m using right now, they are high-end gaming ones that cost a lot. So my wife bought me those,” Prajapati tells The Indian Express.

Then there is the matter of time management. “Even for practice sessions, you need to have family support,” says Prajapati. “You are sacrificing a point of your daily life for a few hours of practice. We are just husband, wife and a child living alone. I need to take care of my child when my wife is working. For the four-five hours of practice, I usually have to sacrifice a little bit of my sleep. But it’s all good.”

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There are moments when the pay-off for all the sacrifices have been immensely gratifying for the Prajapati family, none more so than his Asian Games qualification. Playing in a locked room on his PC for the qualifiers, Prajapati remembers hearing his wife shout in elation from the other side of the house.

“She was ecstatic. The qualifier that happened was online. So I was sitting in a different room and she was watching the livestream. After I finished my set, I heard her scream. So I knew that she’d gotten to know that I’d qualified for the Asian Games,” he says.

It is that moment and the pure passion in it that forces one to trace back the roots of Prajapati and Street Fighter. In doing so, we come across the changing landscape of gaming in India before being hit by a bolt from the blue: the game and the gamer coming together for good was nothing but a serendipitous act of online shopping.

Like most 90s kids in India, Prajapati did not have a gaming console at home. But born and brought up in the national capital, with an ongoing restructuring of the country’s financial state, there were the newly in arcades to visit. “There was one near my area and we used to go there and play for like 6-7 hours. I used to tell my parents that I’m going for tuition and I used to spend my entire time in video game shops.” Playing what? “I’d heard from my friends that they played a game called Street Fighter and it’s basically two people fighting each other. I was really fascinated because at that time the games were like Contra and Mario. There weren’t many multiplayer combat games at the time.” This was 1998-99.

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But 10 years down the line, things had changed. With the middle-class being able to afford personal computers, the numbers at the arcades started dwindling. So did the interest in games like Street Fighter and Tekken. Single player based shooting games were the new thing in town and Prajapati was all for it.

While making an online cash-on-delivery order of Call of Duty, he accidentally opted for the newly released Street Fighter 4. “At that time, I didn’t know there was an option of paying on delivery. There was no confirmation dialogue. I didn’t want to order Street Fighter,” he says. “But it cost only 499. So I thought to myself, I might as well try it out.”

It has been some journey since. One that seems to have reached a decisive point, for Prajapati and his fellow esports gamers in India. The inclusion of the sport as a medals event at the Asian Games presents an opportunity to end the social biases of which they were once at the receiving end. Prajapati knows a medal in Hangzhou can be worth its weight more than gold. He speaks of a meeting the Indian contingent had with the ESports Federation of India.

“We need to have faster internet, gaming chairs, a place to practice, and 20-30 high-end PCs for us all to do so. We want the government to sponsor us,” says Prajapati. It is a deja vu for him and a tale of foresight for the governing body in India.

He remembers how he convinced his late mother to buy him a new personal computer fresh out of school.

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Interested in pursuing a career in 3D, he had asked her to buy one that supported high specs for designing software. “I know it was for something else entirely,” says Prajapati, with a smile. He admits it was the only way to procure a gaming PC and play the games he wanted to, like Street Fighter.

Much to his surprise though, “She never asked me why I wasn’t using it for 3D.” In fact, when others in the family asked, she would take it upon herself to explain how her son, a freelance interior designer, was traveling to cities to compete in video game tournaments.

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In 2019, when her son won Rs 1,00,000 at Dreamhack Delhi event, Brijbala would not tire of sharing the news with family and friends. As fate would have it, she passed away before knowing that her son will don India colours at the Asian Games. One can imagine the scenes that would have been at the Prajapati household.

© The Indian Express (P) Ltd

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