FIFA esports in India is growing at a rapid rate. Once seen as a casual game meant to be played with friends, it is now considered a serious career option. From local tournaments in cafes and pubs to gaining eligibility for the FIFA Global Series and the inaugural edition of the eISL, the change is there for everybody to see.
Saransh Jain is a FIFA pro who has been through it all. The 20-year-old Pune-based gamer, part of Chennaiyin FC, recently won the eISL. He became the first Indian to win an FGS qualifier earlier this season. The M42 Esports athlete repeated the feat by winning the third qualifier in April. This pushes him back to #1 in the Asia South rankings.
In conversation with Sportskeeda Esports' Yasho Amonkar, Saransh describes the growth of the game's competitive scene in India, shares his eISL experience, and reveals how he manages to perform consistently.
"Winning the FIFA Global Series ticket means a lot to me personally": Saransh
Q) You have been in the FIFA esports scene longer than most players. What are your thoughts on the growth of the game's competitive side in recent years?
Saransh: I started playing FIFA competitively in the 2017-18 season. It was a national qualifier to go to Singapore. Although I had played other national tournaments, this was more significant. As a 16-year-old, it was massive for me to win the Asian Football Gaming Championship qualifiers and represent India in Singapore.
So looking back at that now, the competitive scene has developed a lot. The expectations of people have grown a lot. We used to mainly play local Kick Off tournaments back then. However, since Ultimate Team got involved and the FIFA Global Series started, the entire landscape has changed for the better.
India wasn't eligible for the FIFA Global Series for a long time. We finally got eligibility to compete at the highest stage last year, and this year we already have one confirmed spot. It is insane how the growth of the competitive scene has happened so rapidly in India.
In the late 2010s, many of the participants were older people with jobs. However, many players are starting early now. This shows that FIFA players have started looking at this as a viable career option.
Q) For a long time, FIFA esports in India was limited to local tournaments in cafes and the odd online tourney. What was your initial reaction when you learned about the introduction of eISL?
Saransh: I want to say that I saw this coming after the Indian Super League got added to FIFA. However, I didn't expect it to be held in this format. Although the older tournaments were great and fun to play in, the prize pool of the eISL was on another level.
I showed my mom the prize pool and the four-month duration of the tournament, and she couldn't believe it. The format of playing a single leg of FIFA after a three or six-day break was something the competitive scene in India hadn't witnessed before the eISL. This was a massive change compared to the typical one-day or two-day events.
The first season of the eISL was great, and it will only help with the growth of FIFA esports in India. Many relatively unknown players got some well-deserved exposure. This will persuade people sitting at home to grab a controller and start grinding. It is a great and exciting time for FIFA esports in the country.
Q) Which was the first FIFA you ever played? Since when have you been playing Ultimate Team?
Saransh: The first FIFA I played was probably FIFA 07 with my cousins. I started playing Ultimate Team when I was in the sixth grade, around the time when FIFA 13 or FIFA 14 was going on.
Competitively, I started playing the game in FIFA 18. There were several LAN events that I took part in in the late 2010s. India got eligibility in FIFA 21, so I started focusing more on the game.
Q) Most competitive players stick to a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 formation. Do you have a permanent formation, or do you like to be dynamic and change the setup based on the meta?
Saransh: I generally like sticking to what works for me, i.e., 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1. Formations, custom tactics, and instructions have never had a significant impact on my style of play. Recently, there has been a 3-5-2 meta, but I haven't given it a go. I prefer using a 4-man backline as it offers more balance to the side.
Q) What are your thoughts on the format used by eISL teams to select their players? You were dominant in the Chennaiyin FC eISL qualifier. How do you feel the overall level of competition was?
Saransh: The qualifiers were great, but they would have been better if all the participants had used 90-rated ISL teams. This would allow all players to be on a level playing field.
If a player who hasn't been playing regularly wanted to play the qualifiers, his Ultimate Team would have been much weaker than someone who has grinded early in the season.
I reckon the qualifiers of various teams were held too close to each other, and some were going on simultaneously. Hence, we had to pick which teams' qualifiers we would participate in. Moreover, if the tournament is 2v2, qualifiers should also be 2v2.
For instance, if Navin and I want to be on the same team again. In the current format, we will have to enter the same team's qualifier and hope that we aren't on the same side of the bracket, which is based on pure luck.
Perhaps they could structure the tournament like the ePremier League, wherein the qualifiers are long and the tourney is short. Overall, I feel the qualifiers were great, but they could be even better with these changes. I personally had no issues with this format as I have been playing Ultimate Team competitively.
Q) Chennaiyin FC is one of the strongest sides in the history of ISL. What did it mean to represent a club of such stature?
Saransh: It was a great experience. The club is owned by legends like Abhishek Bachchan and MS Dhoni. Abhishek Bachchan posted a tweet to congratulate us after winning the eISL, which is a big deal as he is such a popular celebrity.
They have won the ISL twice, so there was added pressure to perform well for a top club like Chennaiyin FC. The people at the club were excellent and did everything to make our lives easier during the tournament. I would love to represent the club again.
The support from the fans was insane. I didn't expect so much love from them. I received constant messages of love and support from Chennaiyin FC fans throughout the season.
Q) Your team was always among the goals. Both you and Navin were vying for the MVP award until the end. Is the all-out attack strategy something you both had pre-planned?
Saransh: Not really. Honestly, I am not that great at defending on the PS4 version of the game. I felt that I had to outscore my opponent to get the win. I fancy a fast-paced game, especially when it is a single-leg match. I tried pressing my opponent to avoid a cagey affair.
Although I conceded some goals, I also scored a lot. Navin had a very dominant possession-based game. He controlled more games than I did, which led to fewer goals conceded. Navin kept scoring as he was attacking for most of the game.
Q) Given your track record, many of your opponents considered you one of the pre-tournament favorites. How do you ensure such compliments don't get the better of you?
Saransh: Since I have been playing competitively for a while, I have had that pressure for a few years. I have gotten used to having the "pre-tournament favorite" tag recently. It wasn't like that when I started, and I miss being the underdog.
I don't think it matters to me personally. Navin used to tell me that we should try using the tag to our advantage. I have high expectations of myself, so people saying such stuff didn't affect my mentality going into the tournament.
Q) Chennaiyan FC won the inaugural edition of the eISL spectacularly. Was there extra pressure while playing in the playoffs, or do you treat all matches equally?
Saransh: We finished second on the table after having a fine league season. After we went to the Losers Bracket, there was added pressure. Other than that, I treated most of the matches equally. League stages mean a lot as your playoff qualification relies on your league performances.
However, once we went into the Losers Bracket, it was a do-or-die situation. Every match felt like a final. The grand final was broadcasted on national television, which made me nervous before the game. Although I had played in many national-level finals earlier, this felt different.
Q) Apart from representing Chennaiyin FC, you are also a part of M42 Esports, who have qualified for the Team of the Season Cup in London. How elated were you when Charanjot and Aditya won the Singapore Open?
Saransh: I think it was insane. Going into the tournament, I expected a lot from Charanjot and Aditya, and they delivered. The Singapore Open being played on the Singapore server was a big disappointment as there would be a difference in ping for players from different countries.
They traveled to Chennai to experience a lower ping. I followed their journey, and they played brilliantly. They never felt like they would lose a match, and I am really excited for the Team of the Season Cup in London.
There will be 32 teams from around the world. I am sure they will do well. Charanjot and Aditya have been practicing co-op, and I reckon they are in a great place to finish in the top four or even win the tournament.
Q) You have been on fire in the FIFA Global Series qualifiers. Having won two of the three qualifiers, how do you manage to stay consistent at the highest level?
Saransh: I think it's been incredibly difficult to perform day in and day out in so many events. However, maybe my experience in the field has helped me a lot this season, having played international tournaments before. The season isn't over yet, so let's see how the rest of it goes.
Q) Despite already earning a ticket to the FIFA Global Series through eISL, you were still keen on playing further qualifiers when you could have easily taken a break. As it turned out, you won the qualifier. How have you built this constant urge to compete in qualifiers and tournaments?
Saransh: I've always been someone who loves competing a lot. Hence, I don't like missing out on events. That's always the case with me. I am very competitive, so I want to try to do well in every tournament I play.
Q) Although every iteration of FIFA has its hidden gems, certain cards are brilliant every year. What are your top three players in FUT history?
Saransh: Neymar Jr. has been a constant player in my team every year. I love having some version of Ruud Gullit in my midfield suits my style of play. If I had to pick a defender to complete the trio, it would be Raphael Varane. He has a great body type in-game and has the pace to catch up to any striker.
When I started playing Ultimate Team competitively, Heung-min Son had a brilliant card. He has also come clutch for me in previous iterations of the game.
Q) You have already achieved so much in FIFA esports, and I am sure there's a lot to come. What has been the best moment of your career so far?
Saransh: There have been a few things that have stood out for me. Being the first Indian to win a FIFA Global Series qualifier was very special. Another notable moment was when I won the eISL and gained a ticket to this year's FGS event. Although there have been many great moments, these two are closer to my heart.
I have been trying to qualify for FGS for many years. India finally got eligibility last year, and now I will be the first Indian to represent the nation on such a big stage. This is why winning the FGS ticket meant a lot to me personally.
Q) Although esports players spend hours perfecting their art, a game like FIFA could get tedious after a while. What do you do to unwind?
Saransh: I am someone who doesn't play any other games. If I am not playing FIFA, then I am not playing anything. I like going out with my friends and hanging out. This is a good way to take my mind off the game.
This FIFA season has been quite hectic and stressful for me due to playing on two different consoles. It gets frustrating at times as the gameplay on PS4 and PS5 is very different. To combat this, I have started doing yoga to relax my mind.