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All eyes on India's nascent virtual gaming industry, the country's new, booming sport

A 2019 report published by KPMG and the Federation of Indian Fantasy Sports (FIFS) estimates that the user base of fantasy gaming platforms crossed 70 million Indians in 2018.

Published: 30th August 2020 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th September 2020 09:10 PM   |  A+A-

Fantasy sports is estimated to have 100 million users in India by the end of the year.

Fantasy sports is estimated to have 100 million users in India by the end of the year.

A new form of sport is booming in India with player base expected to touch 10 crores by the year-end. As the Indian Premier League is set to start next month, floodlights are back on the nascent virtual gaming industry in the country.

When Mumbai Indians were crowned champions of the 2019 Indian Premier League (IPL) at Hyderabad’s Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium, Karthik Sinha was elated. It had nothing to do with healthy inter-city rivalry. Nor was he a Rohit Sharma fan. The 22-year-old Bengaluru college student and his friends had just finished playing an exciting season of IPL Fantasy. Every catch dropped, every misfield or shot hit on the field had impacted their earnings. “It was our first season. We’d watch the matches, pick players based on form and debate constantly on replacements. It was a thrilling experience. We were the owners of our virtual team. Every decision we made benefited the team or cost us,” he says. 

Sinha is a new entrant to the world of fantasy sports. And he is among the millions in India who get hooked on it. With the IPL set to begin on September 19 in the UAE and fantasy sports startup Dream11 winning the title sponsorship rights of the event this year, this arena has sparked renewed excitement among the gamers. 

What’s Fantasy Sports?

It is a research-based online game where participants create their own imaginary teams made up of real players from different teams, who are scheduled to play in a league or a match. They win or lose based on the real performance of the players in their fantasy team.

A 2019 report published by KPMG and the Federation of Indian Fantasy Sports (FIFS) estimates that the user base of fantasy gaming platforms crossed 70 million Indians in 2018. That’s not all. Participants in the still-growing sport spent around $1.73 billion in 2017. “Fantasy sports is a research-based online sports engagement platform where fans can actively participate in sports they love by creating their own virtual teams made up of real-life players. It has been played worldwide for 60-plus years, but was an alien concept for the Indian sports market till some time ago,” says John Loffhagen, Chairman, Federation of Indian Fantasy Sports (FIFS).

How it All Began

The first fantasy sports league dates back to the 1960s. Wilfred ‘Bill’ Winkenbach, a co-owner of the Oakland Raiders, created the first fantasy football league in the US and called it the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League (GOPPPL). Over time, as word spread about the new game, similar leagues came up for baseball and hockey. The internet boom of the 1990s helped this hobby go mainstream. Its growing popularity resulted in a boom of websites and apps, and 24/7 channels dedicated to fantasy sports were launched.

By 2016, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (an organisation representing the interests of fantasy sports and gaming companies), the segment was a $7.22 billion industry with 59.3 million players in the US and Canada alone. In India, the first fantasy cricket experience came through Super Selector. ESPN Star Sports ran it in 2001. But it could not take off as it was way ahead of its time. “Online fantasy sports saw massive adoption from the early 2010s with the availability of smartphones and high-speed internet. Dream11, India’s first online fantasy sports platform, successfully launched its ‘freemium model’ in 2012,” says Loffhagen. There’s been no looking back ever since.

The Lure

Fantasy gaming companies offer sports fans a range of contests. In India, they centre primarily on cricket. Players put their sporting skills to the test by setting up teams for upcoming matches from a real-world player pool. These drafts can be set up using virtual credits. For example, if you are allotted 1,000 virtual coins, you will have to select a team of 11 players within that budget.

Every player is assigned a credit score based on recent performance, and marquee players such as Virat Kohli or Steve Smith command a premium. There are daily (on match day), series-based (during a tournament such as Asia Cup, Champions Trophy or World Cup) or season-based (IPL) challenges. There’s even a Draft Fantasy option, where one picks a playing XI, captain and vice-captain, trades players with fellow mangers, and wins prizes depending on the team’s final standing.

“Draft Fantasy is played by 95 per cent of basketball and football fans in the US. Most platforms in India offer only Daily Fantasy, but we offer the draft format for cricket,” says Rakesh Desai, founder and CEO, CricBattle Inc.

Players can choose to join free or paid leagues. There’s also the option of customising leagues. “Fans pay to form private leagues where they can play with their friends and family. They can make their rules, set a salary cap for real players and have their own scoring system,” says Desai. No matter what option one picks, participants stand to win money depending on how their players fare in the game and what cash contest they choose. 

Platforms such as Dream11, Starpick and MyTeam11 follow a freemium business model. They derive revenue from commissions. This is mostly residual money collected from users towards registering for paid leagues. “While live action remains the top priority for any sports fans, fantasy gaming platforms like Dream11, HalaPlay, CricPlay, Mobile Premier League, My11Circle and many more allow fans to go beyond the sport, engage minute-by-minute along with their friends, family and co-workers, and compete against each other for their prediction expertise,” says Rajesh Sethi, former managing director, NBA India.

Game of Skill

For a long time, fantasy sports was perceived to be a form of sports betting, which is illegal in India. This hampered its growth in the country initially. But there’s a difference. Placing a wager on a game is deemed to be chance-based since the punter has no control over the outcome. In fantasy sports, however, there are a variety of variables involved that give the user an edge. One needs both research and luck to make the right selection.

A big turning point for the industry was the Punjab and Haryana High Court ruling in 2017, which stated that a Dream11 game involved substantial degree of skill. According to it, users had to acquaint themselves with the “past performance, physical state and form of athletes available for selection” and assess “the relative worth of an athlete and the anticipated statistics arising out of the athlete’s performance” in a real-life match. “Therefore, the element of skill has a much greater and predominant influence on the outcome of the Dream11 fantasy sports game than any incidental chance,” the court observed. The court declared Dream11’s Fantasy Sports format as legal and protected by Article 19 (1) (g) of the Constitution of India.

Official Support

The 2017 ruling was a shot in the arm that the Indian fantasy sports industry needed. It allowed platforms to seek funding to expand business. Collaborations with media became easier. And more users were open to playing the game. What also helped was support from the BCCI and ICC to promote fantasy cricket. “Till 2015-16, we used to get notices telling us that we cannot use official matches, cricketers or tournament names in our contests. That is no longer the case,” says Desai.

India had less than 30 fantasy sports operators in 2017. By 2019, this number grew to 140, making it one of the biggest fantasy sports markets in the world. The same year saw Dream11 sign a four-year sponsorship deal with the BCCI for the IPL. Just a year ago prior to that, the company had brought in former India captain MS Dhoni as its brand ambassador. Others followed suit. Mobile Premier League roped in Virat Kohli while the Pandya brothers, Hardik and Krunal, signed up with HalaPlay. Even former Indian cricketers such as Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag and Kapil Dev now endorse brands. 

Edging in

While cricket remains the primary money-spinner in India, sports such as football, basketball, hockey and kabaddi are also available on fantasy sports platforms. A 2019 KMPG and IFSG report shows cricket as the most popular sport on Dream11 constituting approximately 85 per cent of its user base.

At the same time, it notes that the user base has reduced over the last three years as other sports gained traction due to the emergence of new leagues in collaboration with the VIVO Pro Kabaddi League, Hero Indian Super League, NBA and International Hockey Federation, among others.

“The appetite for sports beyond cricket has led to consumers look for avenues that give them an immersive experience. The NBA partnered with Dream11 in 2016 and has witnessed impressive year-on-year engagement which serves the business as well as awareness objective of the league in India,” says Sethi.

Dream11 offers daily and season-long contests in sporting events such as the NBA and the Pro Kabaddi League. Starpick offers support for baseball, MMA, tennis and football. F1 too has a loyal fan-following on Fantasy Sports platforms.

Into the future

2020 was off to a rough start. Countries were forced to lock down to contain the spread of a raging coronavirus pandemic. Tournaments across the globe were cancelled or postponed. This impacted the business of fantasy sports platforms as well. With no matches or races coming up, there was little motivation for players to sign up.

However, platform owners believe that this was just a temporary phase. As the stadiums slowly reopen for sporting events, they see a huge growth potential in the near future.

“Fantasy sports will mature in India only in two-three years. The ecosystem around it is still being built. Today, no one calls themselves a fantasy sports expert. There is no 24/7 channel dedicated to it.

There are few ads that focus on it. The support of the BCCI and cricketers is creating awareness, but we still have some way to go,” says Desai.

To move things along in this direction, CricBattle Inc is in talks with a few channels to launch a reality show on the lines of Bigg Boss but centred on fantasy sports. 

The future looks bright. According to the FIFS, it is estimated that more than 30-crore Indian sports fans will watch sports online by 2020 and at least 33 per cent of them will play fantasy sports.

“Fantasy sports and real-life sports share a symbiotic relationship. Several studies have found that fantasy sports help in increasing sports consumption. Currently, over eight-crore sports fans play on fantasy sports platforms.

This number is expected to grow to 10 crores by the end of the year. The rising popularity and growth of sports leagues, coupled with rapid improvement in digital infrastructure and payments, has ensured that fantasy sports can safely be called a new trend among sports enthusiasts in India,” says Loffhagen.

With the World health Organization (WHO) prescribing video games as a healthy social pastime to combat social isolation during Covid-19, it is a win-win situation for the gamers as well as the platforms.

Under the WHO-backed campaign called #PlayApartTogether launched in March, 18 of the world’s biggest game industry leaders promote the cause with a message to avoid spreading the coronavirus, while still being connected with each other remotely. So, it’s time for the stay-at-home players to pick their team. Let the games begin.

The Indian Gamer

A 2019 KMPG and IFSG report outlined the key categories of sports gaming in India, with a focus on understanding the fantasy sports consumer. These were some of its findings.

Nearly 

75% of respondents played fantasy sports one to three times a week, with the majority engaging in it once a week. A significant 20 per cent reported playing more than five times a week.

85% of all respondents played fantasy games on mobile apps

54% played for free; 46 per cent have played paid contests at least once in the last 12 months

The playing frequency was fairly consistent across the age groups of 18-24 and 25-36 with nearly 75-80 per cent of the respondents playing one to three times a week. Nearly 50 per cent in the 37-50 age group reported playing fantasy games more than four times a week.

72% of the respondents considered ‘fun and excitement’ as the primary motivator for engaging in fantasy sports platforms

71% of the respondents played Fantasy Cricket and 54 per cent Fantasy Football. Other sports such as kabaddi, basketball and hockey were less popular among the respondents.

When asked to recall the names of platforms that came to the respondents’ mind, 60 per cent referred to Dream11, followed by official websites of Premier League Football/English Premier League (EPL) and the IPL.

Taking Centrestage

Dream11: Founded in 2012 by Harsh Jain and Bhavit Shet, it has emerged as a market leader with 90 per cent market share. There are a number of formats and challenges available to cricket fans who can pick a cash contest that fits their budget. 

CricBattle Inc: Started in 2011 by Rakesh Desai, it was one of the earliest entrants to the fantasy cricket world. Today, it is one of the few platforms to offer a draft fantasy and league customisation options to sports fans. 

BalleBaazi: Saurabh Chopra, Navkiran Singh and Puneet Dua launched this in 2018. The fast-growing app with a user-friendly interface today has 40 lakh+ users. Fans can select one of three gaming modes: Bowling Fantasy (select five bowlers who can pick the most wickets), Batting Fantasy (select five batsmen who can score most runs) and Classic Fantasy. 

HalaPlay: Founded in 2017 by BITS Pilani alumni Swapnil Saurav, Prateek Anand, Ananya Singhal and Aman Kesari, it today has a user base of more than a crore. It offers data analytics and machine learning to help users draft teams, analyse their playing behaviour and help them improve their fantasy skill.

Howzat: Ojas Vipat and Abhishek Kumar from Junglee Games joined hands with Vinfotech to build this app. What sets it apart from other apps is its unique scoring system. It has over 70 lakh downloads. 

Down the Years

1962: Wilfred ‘Bill’ Winkenbach sets up the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League (GOPPPL), the first reported Fantasy Football league
1963: The first draft for the league is made. Oakland Raiders quarterback and hall of famer George Blanda is the first selection.
1969: The first public fantasy league is created by Oakland restaurateur Andy Mousalimas. It is open to the patrons of the Kings X Sports Bar.
1980: The Rotisserie scoring system for fantasy baseball is developed by Daniel Okrent and his fellow journalists. 
1981: When the Major League Baseball goes on strike, sports journalists begin to write about fantasy baseball. Word spreads and fellow baseball lovers join in to play the new game. 
1989: Over one million people are playing fantasy football
1990s: The internet boom strikes. Fantasy sports gains popularity
1999: Yahoo! Inc. sets up a fantasy sports system that is free to use. Other leagues so far had a cost associated with playing.

The Fantasy Sports Trade Association (today known as the Fantasy Sports and Gaming Association) is founded to represent the interests of fantasy sports and gaming companies

2001: Fantasy sports is introduced to India by ESPN Super Selector. It involves picking a team of 11 cricket players within a limited budget. Points are awarded to contestants based on selected players’ on-field performances.
2003: Super Selector attracts 5,00,000 contestants during the 2003 Cricket World Cup in South Africa.
A Fantasy Sports Trade Association survey shows 15 million people playing fantasy football and spending about $150 a year on average, making it a $1.5 billion industry
2008: Dream11 is launched. It would eventually emerge as the market leader in India with a 90 per cent  market share in 2019.
2012: Dream11 introduces the ‘freemium’ fantasy sports in India for cricket fans
2015: Australian research firm IBISWorld reports that fantasy sports is a $2-billion industry, clocking 10.7 per cent annual growth, and employing 4,386 people in 292 businesses
2018: The global fantasy sports market size is $13,900 million and is expected to reach $33,200 million by the end of 2025, according to a report by QY Research
There are more than 70 fantasy sports operators in India 
Dream11 has 45 million registered subscribers 
2019: Dream11 joins India’s unicorn club
2020: Fantasy sports is estimated to have 100 million users in India by the end of the year

“Several studies have found that fantasy sports help in increasing sports consumption. Currently, over eight-crore sports fans play on fantasy sports platforms. This number is expected to grow to 10 crores by the end of the year. The rising popularity and growth of sports leagues, coupled with rapid improvement in digital infrastructure and payments, has ensured that fantasy sports can safely be called a new trend among sports enthusiasts in India.” 

John Loffhagen, Chairman, Federation of Indian Fantasy Sports

“While live action remains the top priority for any sports fans, fantasy gaming platforms like Dream11, HalaPlay, CricPlay, Mobile Premier League, My11Circle and many more allow fans to go beyond the sport, engage minute by minute along with their friends, family and co-workers, and compete against each other for their prediction expertise.” 

- Rajesh Sethi, former Managing Director, NBA India

“Draft Fantasy is played by 95 per cent of basketball and football fans in the US. Most platforms in India offer only Daily Fantasy, but we offer the draft format for cricket.” 

- Rakesh Desai,  Founder and CEO, CricBattle Inc



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