One of India’s first Apex Predators and ex-Call of Duty pro, Shantanu “Aura” Pandey, is now fighting his way to the top with fellow teammates at LevelZero Esports.
Along with his teammates Adarsh “Paddox” Verma, Abhishek “YoLo” Rawat, and Shrey “shine’ Verma, Abhishek started LevelZero Esports as India’s top apex Legends roster. Since then, the organization has evolved to include multiple esports rosters like Super Smash Bros. and Fifa.
Sportskeeda Esports’ Suryadeepto Sengupta got a chance to sit down for an exclusive interview with Mr. Pandey and learn about his early days, LevelZero Esports, and his plans ahead.
Here is an excerpt of the conversation
Q. So Shantanu, tell us a bit about yourself. What’s life like outside playing video games?
Shantanu: I've been playing games casually and competitively for more than eight years now. So, I really don't have much to say about my life outside that, but I am a k-drama maniac who has watched just about every k-drama out there. I also like to travel and go on trips from time to time since I am from a hillside area. I have visited many amazing places and would like to visit more in the future.
Q. Are there any other career options you are looking into apart from focusing all of your time and energy on being an esports athlete?
Shantanu: Not really. I dropped out of college to pursue a career as an esports player. I have previously looked into part-time jobs, but they are very time-consuming, and time is one thing that flies while you practice to become the best.
I joined a college later in Kolkata, where attendance wasn't an issue to complete my graduation. I realized over time that a minimum qualification does no harm to anyone, plus it all fell into place when we did not have to go to college anymore because of COVID norms.
Hopefully, I'll be a graduate by the next year and remain a full-time esports athlete in the coming years.
Q. What are some of your earliest gaming memories, and when did you decide to pursue professional esports?
Shantanu: I used to play a lot of single-player games growing up. Call of Duty is one of them. I remember back in 2012 when I was still new to the internet and randomly got a video on my YouTube recommendations explaining how to play Call of Duty 4 multiplayer. I watched that, and I think that was the beginning of my career as an esports player.
Q. How was the situation back home? Were your parents supportive of your esports career, or were they skeptical about the viability of the career?
Shantanu: Definitely not in the early stages when I was still in school. I mean, back then, even I was playing video games just for fun for like eight-to-ten hours every day. I would even bunk school from time to time just to play Call of Duty to the point where my mom had to lock my laptop in her closet.
But as I started to understand and appreciate the depth of esports, I started taking it seriously. My mom eventually began researching about esports on the internet herself and learned that it is actually a pretty big thing in this generation.
So, she started supporting me as long as I was focusing on my studies as well, which I definitely wasn't. In 2018, I attended a LAN event in Chennai, and we came 2nd, which was a very big achievement for me and my mom. She then knew that I am 100% invested in becoming an esports player, so she let me do whatever I wanted after my 12th as long as I was enjoying it.
Q. Other than esports, what are some of the other genres of the game that you enjoy?
Shantanu: There isn't any end to the list of games that I enjoy, but a few games I enjoy more than others are the Resident evil series, RDR2, Tom Clancy's games, and most importantly The Witcher 3. I have spent more than 1,500 hours exploring this game, and I can never get enough of it.
Q. You started as a Call of Duty player, do tell a bit about your experiences back in the days.
Shantanu: I started playing Call of Duty competitively when its professional scene was just about to end. I then randomly went to a TeamSpeak server, where I approached Paddox. Paddox and I had been playing together since 2016, and we decided to form a team.
We used to have these WhatsApp groups to schedule scrims and had slowly built an amazing community around us from where we found our current teammates: YOLO and DOXZ3R.
Q. As a former Call of Duty professional player, what do you think about the esports perspective of the current Call of Duty games? Do you think the yearly release model hurts the franchise from an esports perspective, or it helps to keep the formula fresh and active with new content and additions?
Shantanu: I mean, Call of Duty has always been a console game with a big console esports scene. Even Call of Duty 4 only had a community-made mod called "promod" that made a small competitive scene around the game. Overall, the Call of Duty franchise has always been for casual players to enjoy and for devs to make money.
Q. When did you decide to switch from Call of Duty to Apex Legends?
Shantanu: I had quit playing Call of Duty in early 2018. At that time, I had no intention of going pro in a game as there were no games left to play competitively except for maybe CS: GO, which I definitely wasn't interested in playing.
So, I was playing random games like Overwatch and PUBG while making plans for my future. Then Apex Legends released in early 2019, which gave me the big break that I needed. I was once again reunited with my ex-teammate Paddox and later on Yolo to form a professional team for Apex.
Q. Do enlighten us about your journey as one of South Asia’s first Apex Legends Predators?
Shantanu: Apex was the one game after Call of Duty where it felt like home. I enjoyed playing it every single day and would play ranked with my teammates all day.
At first, we thought it would be really easy to get through the ranks and get to Predator, but as we started ranking up, we started getting more and more cheaters in our games, which was really frustrating.
At one point, we decided just to stop playing ranked for the sake of our mental health. We decided to take a break and visit each other for a few days. So, Paddox and I went to Delhi, where Yolo was currently living, just to chill and enjoy for a couple of days, which was really refreshing.
It also gave us a boost of confidence. We went back to our places a couple of days later and started grinding again. It was really hard and frustrating, but we overcame all obstacles to become the first Apex predators from our region.
Q. Who is your favorite champion in Apex Legends, and what is your reasoning behind choosing that specific champion?
Shantanu: Pathfinder. The main reason behind me making an instant connection with that character from the day I started playing is because you can play extremely aggressively with him, and I always like to stay in the frontline no matter what game I play.
Q. What do you think about the long-term sustainability of the Battle Royal genre as a primary esports option?
Shantanu: Battle Royal will always be one of the most fun to play and exciting genres of games, but it's mostly about who gets the better loot at the beginning of the game, and I don't think all that RNG belongs in esports.
Q. Tell us a bit about your early days before LevelZero Esports.
Shantanu: When we started playing Apex, we were trying to approach organizations to get signed up as a team, but we were unsuccessful every time. Then we started to realize that there's a lot of neglected talent in our country waiting for an opportunity to prove themselves. From there, we got the idea of building LevelZero Esports.
Q. What’s the team dynamic like in the LevelZero Esports Valorant roster?
Shantanu: In the early stages of our progress, it really wasn't that great because not one of us had a counter strike background, so it was really hard for us to adapt to the game as a team.
But we've been grinding a lot as a team and building good synergy amongst each other, and it is starting to show. The boot camp we are currently in has been helping us grow a lot as a team, and there has been significant improvement overall. If we can keep this momentum going, I have no doubt in my mind that we will become one of the best teams in the region very quickly.
Q. What was the driving factor behind you switching from Apex Legends to Valorant?
Shantanu: Honestly, because there was no other game to play competitively at the time. I have always been into fast-paced shooters, but there aren't really many games of that genre for me to play.
I was really hyped when I saw Valorant's teaser because I thought the game would be similar to Overwatch with regards to gunplay and mechanics, but I was severely disappointed at its release.
Q. How do you think Valorant sets itself apart from other 5v5 FPS esports such as Call of Duty or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive?
Shantanu: Valorant is a mix of Overwatch and Counter-Strike in terms of abilities and game mechanics, respectively. On the other hand, Call of Duty is a very different game from both Counter-Strike and Overwatch in terms of mechanics.
Valorant is a very new concept, which is specifically made as a competitive esports game created by amazing developers who listen to the community and bring necessary changes and content to the game from time to time to keep the game fresh and alive.
Q. Where do you see the game in the upcoming years?
Shantanu: It will easily become one of the top esports games as soon as LAN events start happening again.
Q. Who is your favorite Valorant esports player?
Shantanu: It was without a doubt BRAX (previously played for T1), but he's currently not playing in any team. I currently enjoy watching Envy Victor a lot as he has a very similar play style to mine, and I get to learn a lot from watching him play in tournaments and streams.
Q. Let’s switchgear and discuss the Indian Esports Community. How do you think it sets itself apart from other foreign communities?
Shantanu: The Indian esports community is still in the making compared to NA and EU. We are very small, but we have lots of hidden talent in our country, which I am sure can be brought out through Valorant.
But, even if we are smaller compared to them, I guess we still manage to have the same amount of toxicity as them or even more. I feel like the people in our community are very narrow-minded and feel like they are superior to everyone, which definitely isn’t the right mindset for anything in life.
Q. Do you think in the near future Indian Gaming Community will be competing at the same level as the NA or EU esports community?
Shantanu: It will take decades for that to happen as the parents of our current generation have not been introduced to things like esports and competitive gaming. Hence, it’s really hard for the current generation to try and make a career out of it. However, it is definitely possible.
Q. Where do you see yourself and LevelZero five years down the line?
Shantanu: Dominating on whatever game I am playing at that time with Levelzero in front of my name.
Q. And finally, your top 3 tips for a budding esports player?
Shantanu: 1- Focus on the grind. Find players with a similar mindset to yours and form a team with them. It's really easy to find people to play with these days because of discord.
2- Don't boost your ego by believing you are the best after getting a small tournament win. There will always be someone better than you out there, so keep grinding until you compete and win at the highest level of the game.
3- Keep your socials active. Social media is one of the best things about our generation. Post clips on Instagram and Twitter, and actively make small montages. Create YouTube content and live stream whenever you have free time.