The conversation around the adoption of blockchain technologies in video games and esports has been gaining a lot of steam in recent years.
While some of the major organizations have partnered up with crypto exchange firms, the global phenomenon of “crypto adoption” is yet to achieve mainstream popularity in some of the world’s developing regions.
In a conversation with Abhishek Mallick of Throneofgadget Esports, Zeyan Shafiq, founder at Stalwart Esports, opens up about the importance of “decentralization” in gaming, and how the esports industry can benefit from the adoption of blockchain technology.
He talks about the future of cryptocurrencies in gaming, and why “play-to-earn” titles should be the future of video games in order to engage the grassroots who only have access to low-end devices.
Here is an excerpt of the interview.
Q. Zeyan, I would love to hear about your journey so far in the esports industry. From KashBook to Stalwart Music, to Stalwart Esports, and Stalwart Felix, your story as a successful 20-year-old entrepreneur is just incredible. So talk to us a bit about the early days, and the inspirations that you had, and the hurdles that you had to face to be who you are today.
Zeyan: So far, with Stalwart Esports, we’ve been touching new heights every day. Something that started from a room in Kashmir is now home to several esport athletes throughout the world. It has been a very exciting journey from KashBook to Stalwart Music and then finally to Stalwart Esports.
KashBook was a brainchild idea that I executed to help my native Kashmiri people access social media when it was banned there back in 2017. Stalwart Music was a music label that focused on uplifting Kashmiri musicians since there was no proper music label in Kashmir at the time.
Since my childhood, I was always fascinated by technology, my father who was a computer software engineer always taught me new things which fueled my interest even further. I started learning HTML through YouTube and that’s how I began coding in the early days.
I’ve always had the support of my parents in everything, but I never asked them for financial backing because I always felt that I would lose their money with my ideas, and that was one consequence that I did not want to face.
So when I was 14, I got introduced to cryptocurrencies and I eventually ended up buying some coins, which I absolutely forgot about. In 2017 the world saw a huge rise in crypto adoption, and I soon realized the importance of trading cryptocurrencies, and started out as a day trader.
In the same year that social media was banned in Kashmir, I invested in building KashBook and it luckily went off; the adoption was crazy and the support I received was overwhelming.
That’s when startups caught my interest, and I soon tried doing a lot of things that failed and never got the recognition that I wanted it to. I always dreamt of building something that could benefit underprivileged but talented individuals who have low resources and income.
That’s when I Invested in Stalwart Music and it took off considerably well. We produced some good songs and it was eventually acquired by a local businessman.
Later that year I was introduced to esports and I found out that this is the space that my heart wants to be in, and since that day we’ve just been grinding and we still feel there’s a lot to do and many more milestones to achieve.
Q. Founded in January 2020, Stalwart Esports has quickly grown to be one of the biggest and the more successful esports organizations in the region. Spanning its roots across multiple titles like PUBG Mobile, Free Fire, Call of Duty Mobile, Clash Royale, and PES, Stalwart Esports is notorious both domestically and on an international level. Can you tell us about some of the vision and working ideas that went behind its making? What would you say has been the toughest period for the organization since its conception?
Zeyan: The vision was always clear; to be the number one in the title we’re competing in. We’ve always focused on this dream, and that’s the reason why we were able to produce some of the finest esports athletes who are now recognized around the world.
We’ve been through many tough phases, the first one being the PUBG Mobile ban in India, which left us in turmoil with all our investments. This is when we took a strategic decision of shifting abroad to the South Asian region to continue our journey, but things were hard because of all the complications.
But eventually we managed to get a solid foothold in the region and now we’re considered as one of the finest rosters on the circuit.
Q. Quite recently, Stalwart Esports has become the first organization to have completely shifted to cryptocurrency, officially adopting blockchain technology for salary payments. What prompted this shift? What importance do you feel decentralization holds for the future of esports and the video games industry?
Zeyan: This shift was prompted by the convenience of using cryptocurrencies as a payment method, as traditional banking is too slow and often levies hefty charges.
We were able to send money from India to Mongolia in less than 1 minute. I’ve always been saying that gamers value “digital assets” over “physical assets” and that’s how cryptocurrencies and NFTs have importance in the field.
Decentralization is important to gamers and esports athletes because it helps them to question their judgment and abilities. When given responsibility and “decision-making freedom”, they are challenged to develop solutions depending on the situation.
In the long run, this does a world of good to their confidence and promotes self-reliance. Also, since most gamers are famously known by their “pseudonym”, Pseudonymity, I feel is the key to decentralization, because it’s an identity that’s chosen rather than given.
Q. There have already been examples of major western organizations and big esports leagues partnering up with crypto agencies. One notable example that comes to mind is that of FTX signing up with both TSM and the North American League of Legends Championship Series. Do you feel that ventures like these will have a big impact in lesser regions like South Asia, particularly India, where industry leads will soon look for opportunities like these to help develop the domestic scene?
Zeyan: Crypto and NFT’s have seen rapid growth in South Asia especially in India, in the past two years. With over 15 million Indians investing in cryptocurrency, it is no longer a “preserve of techies”, but increasingly viewed as a new asset class.
Indian developers have even produced some of the finest crypto projects which are now globally known and used by many. I’m sure in the coming year, we’ll see crypto exchanges partnering up with regional esports organizations.
Q. There has been a lot of discussion of late regarding the adoption of blockchain tech by major publishers and how there can be AAA games in the market that champion the “play-to-earn” moto and allow gamers to rake in digital revenue the more they invest in a title. Sure! There are certain NFT IPs like Blankos Block Party and Axie Infinity that do cater to the idea, but we are yet to see big publishing houses go down that route. What are your thoughts on this? Do you feel that cryptocurrency will be a necessary milestone in the roadmap for some of the biggest video game publishers, at least in the next five years?
Zeyan: I believe play-to-earn would become a necessity for a game publisher, especially considering the fact that a large part of the world’s game base has access to only low-end resources.
AAA publishers often launch games for people who have enough resources, like consoles and gaming computers, not catering to the needs of the more underprivileged. And that’s where the play-to-earn formula would change the scenario.
It would offer equal opportunities to anyone who wishes to participate in gaming and esports and would help them with financial assistance as well. Financial security is the most important thing we need to focus on because in countries like India, most parents don’t consider gaming as a career and this would help them explore and recognize gaming as a prominent profession for their children, eventually boosting the region’s gaming market and industry.
Q. What are your thoughts on the South Asian esports industry as it stands today? What would you say are some of its biggest pros and cons, keeping in mind how diverse community engagement is for both mobile and PC esports?
Zeyan: The South Asian industry is an untapped market, while we have a lot of investors or foreign organizations in India, it’s shocking to see that there are almost none in other parts of the region.
We’ve witnessed some of the finest athletes across multiple countries in South Asia, and I believe that if they’re offered proper assistance they are capable of performing just like the athletes in China or India.
Q. There is quite a bit of disparity in the popularity that mobile and PC titles enjoy in India. PC has always been a struggling platform, but with the coming of Valorant, things are looking up quite a bit. In the next five years, do you feel the gap between the two will eventually lessen?
Zeyan: Well, I believe it’s due to the accessibility of resources. There are many mobile gaming aspirants who want to explore titles on handheld devices, and all they require is skill and a good smartphone.
On the other hand, a normal gaming PC could be unaffordable for most people, and that’s why we earlier used to notice lesser viewership numbers. But I’ve recently watched the VCC India Qualifiers and I can say that times are changing and people have started to recognize and respect PC titles as well. In The next five years, I believe PC titles will have the same amount of viewers as mobile gaming because people in India have started to explore esports on more platforms.
Q. If I am not mistaken, Stalwart Esports currently has rosters in some of the more popular mobile esports titles. Are there plans of expanding into PC, possibly something like Valorant as the first competitive title to venture into on the platform?
Zeyan: Yes, We’re looking to expand into PC titles, we’ve been exploring console titles as well and now we’re considering the PC division. We’re eager to get into Valorant, we’re just looking for the perfect people.
Q. What are your thoughts on Battlegrounds Mobile India and the steps that Krafton has taken to build on the popularity of their predecessors?
Zeyan: Krafton has done a brilliant job with Battlegrounds Mobile India, the issues like children overspending on the game and making unauthorized payments from their parents’ banks were very concerning. So I am happy to see that this has been resolved and further preventive steps have been taken.
Q. What’s the future like for Stalwart Esports? What can fans expect from the organization in the coming months?
Zeyan: Currently, we’re just focused on claiming the championship in the upcoming PMPL so we can get to globals. We’re soon planning to launch an academy program as well where we could offer support to underprivileged gamers by offering them a platform to play and the resources required to compete.
For fans we have merch and goodies lined up, apart from the happiness they’ll get from our competitive results, and I believe that’s what a true fan would always wish for.
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