The rise of e-sports is the first sign of the apocalypse for some, says Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

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The rise of e-sports is the first sign of the apocalypse for some, says Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

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SportsCafe Desk


Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has had love for both cricket and computers since childhood and feels that the instant inclusion of technology in sports has distressed the old school people. Moreover, Nadella considers cricket as an obsession for South Asians and he himself as a cricket traditionalist.

The Hyderabad-born CEO of US technology giant Microsoft Satya Nadella has been a cricket nut since his early days, but in his world, baseball is the boardroom king, with "curveballs" and "ballpark figures" flying in from "left-field" in business meetings the world over. However, for him, it is a whole different game. 

"Cricket for most of us South Asians is an obsession. I grew up with it, I played under some amazing captains, and ever since, I think, even in my day job, I reflect back on the lessons learned on the dusty fields of the Deccan Plateau," said Nadella in an exclusive interview with Cricinfo.

Nadella is a cricket traditionalist at heart and knows about it to the core.

 "I've always thought of Test cricket as the Russian novel, with its plots and subplots. It has such an intricate tapestry to it that the more people would watch it, the more in love they would be. I don't have the expertise to give ICC advice, but I hope they figure out how to get people to come back and watch it, because if we lose Test cricket, you'll have one less fan…"

Nadella has had a shining past, from emerging as a well-rounded graduate and 1st XI offspinner from Hyderabad Public School in 1988 to applying for a place at the University of Wisconsin to study electrical engineering, at the age of 21, he embarked upon a journey which indeed took him to places. But, his passion for cricket never changed, no matter where he had been.

"I went to the United States right when Sachin Tendulkar started to play for India so I look at it and say, wow, I missed the entire Sachin era of Indian cricket. But luckily enough, thanks to streaming, and video on demand, and sites like Cricinfo, I was able to follow his career. It was as if I was in India all through. I guess that's the power of modern technology," said the tech genius.

Moreover for him, sport has not been just a passion but an inspiration to lead his life as well.

"Sport is one place where I've realised you are, in fact, much more hardcore, and willing to drop anyone who's not in form. But also, you've got to know when to persist in that very crucial time, when it could make all the difference. It's fascinating to watch that. It's like trying to find a new No. 4 batsman - if you don't give someone a long enough run, they'll never make it. Or a spinner, who I have a lot of sympathy with - just because one batsman hits you for a couple of sixes, that means nothing. You've got to get them back."

Particularly, three life lessons emerged directly from Nadella's days on the cricket field, the importance of competing at all times, playing with the team and one more indelible lesson that he relates to his own bowling.

"One day I was really struggling, bowling trash, being hit all over the park. So my captain, who could also bowl offspin, replaced me, took the wicket, then gave me the ball back," he says.

"I always wondered why he did that, because I went on to get a bunch of wickets in that match. I feel he did it because he didn't want to break my confidence, and I thought 'What an enlightened leader.' I think that's true for any of us who lead organisations. We all have to make big calls, but you have to have that sensibility. One of the key things that makes people tick is confidence in themselves, and you don't want to break that unnecessarily."

Further, Nadella explains the relevance of the growth of software industry for the progress of sports sector.

"If you look at any field - sport, healthcare, education, public sector, automobiles - every company in every industry is becoming a software company. Whenever I watch cricket games, all the people in the dressing room doing the analysis all have laptops, and so we want to supply the tech that drives their success. I think if there's anything you can be sure of, we will have more screens and more computers in our lives, not less."

However, the inclusion of technology in every aspect of life, particularly sports does not delight many people, especially the parents of device-obsessed kids, who find it increasingly hard to persuade them to unplug for any length of time. According to Nadella, the rise of e-sports is regarded as the first sign of the apocalypse for them, yet he believes that a mixed-reality future will offer sport, quite literally, the best of both worlds.

"I play a lot of Bradman 360 on the XBox, and I'm looking forward to that game being a virtual reality game, which would be awesome to see. One of the phenomena we are seeing is that the ability to see something immersively, virtually in particular, gives you more of an impetus and inspiration to go and see it in physical reality."

"We should not think of these digital enhancements as a replacement to the actual thing. If anything, we should think of how does this help you perhaps engage more? What if I could lay down the Lord's pitch in my backyard and practise my straight drive, and maybe the next day actually come to Lord's? That would be fun."

Earlier this month, Microsoft launched a mixed-reality headset, in partnership with Samsung, that Nadella believes in the long run will be an amazing distribution vehicle for sport.

"The mixed-reality dream goes beyond being a gaming or commercial application. One of the things we've seen, in soccer mainly, but even in cricket to some degree, is that fan engagement is no longer limited to just the game. Real Madrid has some 500 million followers, which is the equivalent of the second biggest nation state in the world. And they are all using a lot of Microsoft technology to completely transform the fan experience way beyond the stadium."

But it might take a few years to bring this next-level technology into action. A meeting with Cricket Australia in Melbourne last year underlined the extent to which sports analysts have taken the tools which companies like Microsoft are offering them. 

"I was pretty stunned to see their use of technology. Take Steve Smith's record from when he was a schoolboy cricketer. Every match is digitised, so they now have a digital twin of Steve's career, which can then be used not only to improve his own performance but to identity the next Steve Smith."

"One of our guys in India took a whole lot of video of Rahul Dravid, and he tells me that our AI can detect the transitions of his straight-drive technique changing, which is pretty amazing. The degree to which technology can now get used so broadly is exciting."

Nadella is of the view that the use of technology should not be restricted, rather it should be used as much as possible.

"We should not shy away from technology and technology change throwing up new challenges. One of the things that has made cricket such an enduring sport is the variability of it. The weather, the continents in which it is played, the change at any given time. If the opposition can analyse you, you have to be really on top of your game to improve, and what a challenge that would be. I'm sure Dravid would have enjoyed it."

"Last year 300 million PCs were sold, compared to a billion smartphones. But guess what, PCs are the lifeblood of creativity. You can't create much on a phone - you do need large screens. Similarly, I hope that the world finds that they can really start thinking about cricket's three formats all being part of the viewer's experience"

Nadella feels that there is a lot to learn from the past and it is crucial to keep bringing change with the change of time.

"The one thing that is constant for us as individuals or institutions, or even sport, is change. The key is not to rue having missed anything. The question is how are you going to catch the next wave? Here we are, 43 years after inception, the third largest tech company in the world, and competing with a whole load of new characters."

"Maybe this is something I should follow up. Maybe there's a huge opportunity for us to partner up with the ICC," he concluded.

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