New Delhi: In late-January, at a gathering of serious-looking parents and students who had come to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi speak about exam pressure, the conversation suddenly veered toward video games. An anxious mother couldn’t stop complaining about her son’s (a Class IX student) obsession with online games. Modi listened intently, paused briefly, and asked: “Yeh PUBG wala hai kya? (Is this a PUBG issue?)” The entire room, filled with tense faces, burst into laughter.
The sweeping age band—between a Class IX student and the country’s prime minister—and their common understanding of the allure of alternate worlds that lay inside screens, in many ways, captures India’s gaming culture and the tipping point at which it is neatly poised.
PUBG, or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, for example, is not just available on consoles and PCs but in Android and iOS smartphones as well in the form of PUBG Mobile. The game throws 100 random players in a set location who kill each other and win the match. And the lure of the game is highest for a slew of young Indians getting online for the first time through their mobile phones.
Some of them even go “pro”. There’s even a respectable name for gaming: e-sports. Take Ankur Diwakar, for example, who calls himself “JauntyTank” (Plays FIFA) based on his online persona. When he first started playing games back in 2007, the industry was still seen as a hobbyists arena. Today, Diwakar gives lectures at many Indian universities to explain why e-sports is a viable career option. He even has a regimen, like most sportsmen. “Playing all the time won’t help,” he says. A “healthy calendar” and “procedure” is required to make it big at the professional level.
While the term “e-sports” is still unknown to many, to those in this industry, India has been a market that presents more hope than many others. And is seen to be at the cusp of radical change—in the number of players, their age profile, and the social attitudes toward gaming. Such changes in social outlook are already evident, such as the recent Taapsee Pannu starrer Bollywood flick Game Over, whose central premise is: what if life were a video game.
There are, of course, some downsides. The anxious mother who, a few months ago, felt the need to complain about her son’s gaming behaviour to the PM had her reasons. In May, the World Health Organisation officially included gaming disorder as a disease in the International Classification of Diseases, placing it next to gambling disorder. PUBG, in particular, has come in for scrutiny from a slew of government entities.
But India’s gamers have little time to waste on these concerns. They’re too busy with their consoles and thumbs. The number of Indians who game has shot up from 20 million in 2010 to 250 million by 2018, according to a KPMG and Google report. And there’s significant money involved too. By 2021, India’s gaming market is expected to earn revenues worth nearly $340 million, according to a Frost & Sullivan estimate. There is money even in designing and exporting games, an estimated annual global market of $1.7 billion within a few years.
India has its own unique niche and opportunity as well. The country’s gaming boom, which is in its nascent stage, is overwhelmingly mobile-first. While the rest of the world lines up to buy the newest console, India latches on to the mobile phone to access games.
The Indian gaming story is likely to be somewhat similar to the pattern of growth in other forms of media. Games and media apps (like Netflix, Hotstar, etc.) are among the most downloaded apps in the country. And experts say that if there is a future for e-sports in India, it will be driven by the mobile phone.
“In 2019, all of a sudden, you have amazing content, especially with games on smartphones. And they even run on cheaper phones priced around $100 (approximately ₹7,000),” said Oliver Jones, co-founder of Bombay Play, a Bengaluru-based company that makes games for Android OS and iPhones.
Restricting e-sports to consoles and PCs in India will only restrict the overall market, said Keerti Singh, head of growth at Hitwicket, one of the most downloaded games on smartphones in India. She pointed out that mobile games like Clash Royale and PUBG have already held major tournaments, with big cash prizes, in the country.
In fact, late last year, four teenagers who go by the team name “Terrifying Nightmares” won ₹15 lakh in the PUBG Mobile Campus Championship. Industry sources say PUBG Mobile is grossing revenues in India that are comparable to Dream11, the first Indian gaming company to enter the unicorn club.
Interestingly, unlike Dream11, PUBG’s growth didn’t require television advertisements or brand ambassadors. Also, it wasn’t designed around cricket, which has always been the biggest phenomenon in the country.
Impact of Internet
With a dramatic rise in internet penetration and dirt cheap data prices, India has seen a wave of young millennials, hailing from smaller cities and towns, flood a slew of online services. This, in turn, has created new markets. Singh points out that vernacular content does well in India, even in gaming.
On the other hand, internet penetration has also led to a rise in media consumption overall. Bombay Play’s Jones suggests that concepts like game streaming could be big in the future. He drew a parallel to Google’s recently announced platform Stadia, which allows gamers to play a game without actually installing it on their computer.
While Stadia is meant for high-quality gaming, Jones pointed out that a similar avenue is being explored in mobile gaming as well. Gaming platforms like PayTM’s GamePind will possibly be important in future, says Jones. Such platforms allow people to play games without downloading them on their devices.
Jones added that if games could be delivered to users through other apps, like a WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, that would increase discoverability and, hence, viewership. “It’s like the transition from DVD to Netflix,” he said, citing how users worldwide moved from buying DVDs to watch content to streaming them via online streaming services.
The more evolved, or pro-side of e-sports, is also growing in the country, and it requires better equipment. Companies like Dell, Lenovo and others have already witnessed growth in the high-end gaming focussed segment in India—with most of the growth coming surprisingly from smaller towns. They account 30-60% of HP’s sales in the gaming segment, according to Anurag Arora, category head, personal systems, HP.
In a recent interview, P. Krishnakumar, senior VP and GM of Asia Pacific and Japan at Dell, said that the sales of gaming laptops is driving the overall sales of the PC segment in India at the moment. According to Lenovo, the company is seeing a 25% year-on-year growth in the gaming segment in the country.
This marks a significant change in how the Indian market has functioned so far. From the early 2000s, until very recently, gaming equipment was always considered to be expensive, usually priced in the ballpark of a lakh or more. But by 2019, the price of laptops capable of entry-level gaming had crashed to under ₹60,000.
Mobile and pro-gaming
Most developers, gamers, and creators agree that mobile gaming has a significant impact on the overall market. However, this is not just because it gives people access, but because it creates an audience for e-sports.
“Gaming (including e-sports) has seen a good uplift with the rise in mobile gaming stemming from the proliferation of smartphones and cheaper data plans that happened over the past 2-3 years. This has had a positive effect across the entire gaming industry and can be considered as a stepping stone for many gamers into the highly immersive gaming universe,” said Robert Fisser, VP and GM of Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe.
Much like any other sport, leagues, competitions and other events in gaming need viewers. While the number of gamers in the country has obviously grown, it is these viewers that can eventually be monetized, through advertising etc. Or, at least, that’s the home.
This is exactly what mobile gaming provides. While not all of these users will graduate to professional gaming, many will watch livestreams of gameplay by others, pay to watch e-sports tournaments, and more.
A case in point is PUBG Mobile. While the game has a more advanced console and PC version, the number of people playing those in India is low compared to those playing on phones. However, streams and videos of PUBG Mobile on YouTube and Twitch often have viewership in the lakhs.
According to Abhay Sharma, founder of GamingMonk (an Indian gaming company that organizes e-sports tournaments), the company’s videos on Twitch and YouTube routinely get over 300,000 views now, and unique views have also increased. That’s an important statistic for a market that has traditionally been hamstrung because of a lack of audience. “Average watch time by viewers is over an hour per user,” said Harsh Kothari, founder of Neon Gaming.
Career in gaming
In April , ESL (formerly known as the Electronics Sports League) held ESL One in India, a pro-gaming event that is very well known globally. The prize pool for the event was a whopping $300,000, which translates to a little over ₹2 crore. ESL is the world’s largest e-sports company and it entered India a few years ago. While India is just about starting down the path of “professional gaming”, there’s been a rise in the total prize money in tournaments, especially in the last two years.
Neon Gaming’s Kothari says that more brands have entered the space now. For instance, the PUBG Mobile Campus Championship mentioned earlier had been sponsored by Oppo, a smartphone brand. The tournament had a total prize pool of ₹1 crore, and that for a mobile game. PUBG Mobile is among the most popular games in competitions today, Kothari said.
With more events happening, gamers have a better shot at increasing their earnings from playing games professionally. A mobile gamer today can earn from games like PUBG Mobile and eventually graduate to the more serious games on PCs and consoles.
Furthermore, a gamer doesn’t necessarily earn from playing tournaments alone. Streaming, or “casting” games, is a viable source of income globally. Industry stakeholders say they have seen a definite growth in the number of streamers.
In fact, GamingMonk even has a program where it pays gamers salaries to produce a consistent stream of content for people to watch. Ankur Diwakar (JauntyTank) himself is working on a mentorship program, through which he will charge people to train and help gamers build a career in the industry.
“In 2018, people weren’t willing to pay to be associated with e-sports. Suddenly, in 2019 everybody is willing to pay,” said Diwakar.
The fact that India is a big market for gaming is no secret, but that’s because the population of the country provides a big market for everything. GamingMonk’s Sharma said that though there are big tournaments happening, one could argue that the scope of earnings hasn’t increased on a monthly basis.
Sharma explained that a lot of companies are running events that last for months and marketing them as high-payout events. However, the prize pool is distributed over several legs held over many months, making the actual possible income quite low.
That said, he says that while the professional e-sports tournaments may not have improved as much as he wanted, competition at the grassroots level is increasing. This allows more casual and enthusiast-level gamers to keep their interest alive.
“By looking at the number of gamers in the country who tune in online to watch live gameplay streams, it’s clear that e-sports is becoming quite popular. However, even though there are many fragmented events taking place offline and online, very few can be compared to similar global events. Professional gaming as a concept is still alien to most parents and even gamers. India is a market with huge potential and many global investors are setting their sights on gaming,” said Sony’s Fisser.
What’s changed in 2019 though is that gaming is being taken seriously. Product makers like Dell, Asus, Lenovo and HP have all brought their newest devices to the Indian market and also host their own gaming events. This adds to the burgeoning number of gaming events that are already happening in the country.
Since many brands want to advertise particularly to the youth, e-sports and gaming present the perfect opportunity. Sharma said there’s been growth in this direction, though a lot more is needed to sustain large-scale gaming tournaments.
In the end, 2019 has been a hit-and-miss sort of year. Diwakar thinks 2020 will be the year when e-sports really begins to peak in the country. Given India’s unique combination of an ongoing mobile revolution and an incredibly young population, it can only go up from here, says Sharma.