Zeyan Shafiq’s eSports team was abruptly left without players when India banned the hit PUBG mobile game over its diplomatic row with China.
So Shafiq, who is based in occupied Kashmir, India, did something very unusual: he entered Pakistan over the frontier.
The 18-year-old Shafiq expected reprisals for his shift, but none came. This led to an extraordinary coalition between Indian and Pakistani gamers, forged in one of the world’s most violent areas.
“Of course, when we made this move, we had many things in mind, including the possibility of a backlash,” Shafiq told AFP.
But all went well with the grace of God and people embraced us on both sides. They noticed that this is eSports and that there is no bias between these two nations.
PUBG, or the Battlegrounds of PlayerUnknown, is a fighting game in the military style where teams compete online, and whose smartphone version has been downloaded hundreds of millions of times worldwide.
The game echoes real life in war-torn Kashmir, where shells and bullets hurtle almost everyday over the LoC control line), the de-facto Indian-Pakistan border, both of which claim the entire Kashmir region, but control only parts of it.
But India barred the PUBG app, which is approved by Chinese technology giant Tencent, along with hundreds of others, following a deadly clash with Chinese troops on another contested frontier.
After they had already won a shot at joining the PUBG World League, which promises $2 million in rewards, it left Shafiq’s Stalwarts Esports squad without members.
I managed to hold a spot for my team somehow, but was not permitted to pick Indian players. So I got in touch with the players in Pakistan,” he said.
“Last year’s Pakistan team played in the World League […] so I told them they were supposed to work with me and they agreed.”
Tendulkar and Imran Khan
The step by Shafiq slices into decades of India-Pakistan tensions, whose sporting relations are non-existent. It’s been 13 years since either side toured the other side to play cricket, the favourite game in both nations.
An unofficial Indian kabaddi team caused controversy early this year when it landed for a tournament in Pakistan. The government of India and the Kabaddi federation both declined to send a delegation.
Relationships were not necessarily so bad. In 1987, in an exhibition game in Mumbai, the future Indian batting hero Sachin Tendulkar, then 14, stood as a fielder for a Pakistan team headed by Imran Khan, now the Pakistani prime minister. Yet a move like that is impossible now.
In their bid to join the PUBG world league, Stalwarts Esports finally failed. But one of the Pakistani players, Abdul Haseeb, said the partnership was a hit in some respects.
Without worrying about national boundaries, we were happy to represent our talent,” he said.
“Our aim of being on that platform and representing both Pakistan and India was ultimately fulfilled by the love and support we received from both countries.”