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ARPU, Policy and Internet Speed holding back Indian esports: Experts

The esports audience in India has grown from 6 million in 2017 to 17 million in 2020. According to KPMG, this audience is expected to reach 130 million by 2025. Prize pools for esports tournaments have also grown by 25-30% YoY.

With growing investments in the Indian gaming sector, the once fractured esports ecosystem, where players often had to fend for themselves, is quickly becoming organised. Some challenges remain, such as the recognition of esports by the Government of India as a ‘sport’ and a clearly defined esports policy.

According to Biren Ghose, Chairman, CII National Committee, “By 2022, esports will have the same kind of reach and prominence that the feature film industry has achieved after 100 years.”

Adgully organised a Twitter Chat on June 4, 2021 to understand how Indian gaming became a spectator sport. The discussion was joined by esports gamers, streamers, talent management agencies and tournament organizers:

Anurag Khurana, Founder, Newgen Gaming

Aaditya Sawant, Dynamo Gaming

Abhishek Aggarwal, Co-Founder & CEO, Trinity Gaming

Ishaan Arya, Co-Founder, The eSports Club

Lokesh Suji, Director, Esports Federation of India and Vice President, Asian Esports Federation (AESF)

Pranav Panpalia, Co-Founder, OpraahFx and OP Gaming

Rohit Naresh Jagasia, Founder & CEO, Revenant Esports

Tarun Gupta, Founder, Ultimate Battle

Total Gaming, Esports gamer and streamer

Casual gaming to spectator sport

The discussion started with the experts sharing an overview of how esports has gained recognition and a dedicated audience in India.

Founder of Trinity Gaming, a talent management agency for gaming content creators and esports players, Abhishek Aggarwal explained, “There are four major factors that make any sport mainstream:

  1. There has to be enough number of people who want to play.
  2. An ecosystem comprising of infrastructure and grassroots development that facilitates the same.
  3. The mass popularity of the particular sport in terms of viewership.
  4. Not just national but an opportunity to have global recognition.”

Speaking about the factors that contributed to the growth of esports, Anurag Khurana, an Indian esports industry veteran, noted, “Multiple aspects have contributed to it, including surge in availability of smartphones and affordable 4G data, readily available gaming content and the undeniable role of esports and its fandom that its teams and players bring along.”

Tarun Gupta, an esports tournament organiser, observed, “In the last five years, India witnessed some very successful game titles hit the gaming scene. Games like PUBG Mobile, Call of Duty Mobile and Free Fire managed to pull gamers in millions. With the proven success of these games, brands and event management companies joined the bandwagon. Like never before, India saw leagues and tournaments with prize pools running in millions creating a full-fledged ecosystem for the gaming industry paving the way for gaming as a spectator sport.”

According to gaming content creator Aaditya Sawant, “In order for a sport to become a spectator sport, we should keep in mind that it will grow if it has enough players and their admirers. The high viewership of gaming content is itself a proof that how gaming became so popular and attracted spectators in large amounts.”

YouTube and gaming streamer Total Gaming added here, “With fewer entertainment options available during the pandemic, many sports enthusiasts moved towards consuming esports content.”

He remarked, “Recently, Free Fire World Series 2021 was hosted in Singapore and the Indian team couldn’t be part of it due to COVID protocols. Despite having no Indian team in the tournament, it garnered 1.9 million live concurrent viewership from India alone. This number grew in the last few months.”

Pranav Panpalia, who handles several prominent gaming influencers, noted, “People have always liked esports because of the self-esteem benefits they get from it. Like theatre, it is a venue for emotional expression. People need an escape from real-world troubles. And during the pandemic, this consumption grew manifold.”

Lokesh Suji, who is part of a non-profit which works for the development of esports in India, pointed out, “Esports is not new to India, it has been there for 15-20 years. There used to be World Cyber Games and every college fest had a gaming championship. With the penetration of cheap and easily accessible smartphones, esports has grown exponentially over last couple of years.”

Tournaments and Games that attracted massive audiences

The discussion veered towards the streaming platforms and tournaments that allowed Indian gamers to broadcast their skills to a large audience.

Panpalia noted, “In terms of platforms, it is hands down YouTube. YT has given Indian gamers a platform to not just stream their matches, but also create a human connect with their fans and audience set.”

Total Gaming added here, “Apart from YouTube, Booyah India, and Game TV are few platforms that boosted the Indian esports sector massively.”

Suji noted, “More than the tournaments, it was the individual esports athletes who were streaming their game plays which propelled the growth of Indian esports.”

Khurana noted, “Tournaments like PUBG Mobile Club Open and PUBG G Mobile Pro League drew attention from fresh esports enthusiasts, while tournaments from Skyesports and The Esports Club have done well too. YouTube, Facebook and Loco are driving forces platform wise.”

Aggarwal stated, “The most common video game genres of esports are multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA), first-person shooter (FPS), fighting, card games, battle royale and real-time strategy (RTS).”

He further said, “The popular franchises include League of Legends, Dota, Call of Duty, Free Fire and Counter strike. Apart from the local tournaments, many esports companies are hosting regular tournaments around popular games with a massive prize pool.”

While there are many gaming genres, Sawant stated, “If we talk about the games, the first one that comes to everyone’s mind can be PUBG Mobile. It encouraged more people to join gaming and reached laurels through gaming, content creator or professional esports. Tournaments like PMCO, STAR CHALLENGE, gave budding esports players a chance to represent their country in gaming.”

Rohit Jagasia, Founder of Revenant Esports, a New Gen esports company, opined, “I think tournaments supported or brought by publishers themselves lay a huge emphasis on the Indian gaming community.”

Tarun Gupta added here, “The popularity of esports in India came along with 100 million+ gamers playing mobile games like PUBG and Free Fire. This attracted league organisers in collaboration with brands to structure and organise big prize pool events propelling the Indian esports ecosystem. Renowned league events like PMCO and Free Fire India Championship garnered huge attraction among gaming professionals and avid gamers with staggering prize pools reaching Rs 50 lakh.”

Ishan Arya, Co-Founder of The eSports Club, an esports tournament organiser, said, “Mobile gaming has been one of the largest driving factors behind the growth of esports in India helping introduce a large part of the country to gaming.”

Mobile broke barrier to entry for gamers

According to an IAMAI-Kantar ICUBE report, Internet population of India would reach a staggering 900 million by 2025. As of 2020, the Internet population stands at 622 million. Mobile devices have become the first choice for accessing the Internet.

The discussion moved toward the rise of mobile esports, which is unique to India and other developing countries.

Gupta noted, “India is primarily a mobile-centric gaming industry comprising over 80 per cent of all Indian gamers, followed by PC and then console players. The reason behind this is basically the market penetration of cheap smartphones pertaining to ease of accessibility. Going forward with 5G technology around the corner and the cost of smartphones only becoming more competitive, we expect mobile gaming to lead the Esports scene in India.”

Jagasia opined, “The launch of Battlegrounds Mobile India, it will bolster the growth of mobile esports in a big way. Mobile is the future for gaming in India since users do not have to spend a lot of money on getting a proper set up to play games competitively.”

Sawant remarked, “Mobile esports will be a highly competitive genre in the esports market along with PC games. PC games prevailed much before the competitive mobile gaming, but had a lesser audience. Mobile games have not only made their rightful place in the industry, but also uplifted the PC games. Keeping in mind the progress of the mobile gaming industry, mobile gaming will not only help in creating great gaming influencers but also generate a great amount of revenue.”

Aggarwal stated, “India is currently one of the top five countries in terms of mobile gaming. According to a report by BARC and Nielson, the number of smartphone game users per week grew from 60 per cent in the pre-COVID-19 times to 68 per cent during the lockdown.”

Total Gaming added here, “A recent report by CLSA is a key indicator that mobile is a catalyst in leveraging the Indian gaming and esports market. Gaming app downloads during COVID-19 showed a 20 per cent surge in iOS App Store and a 51% surge in Android Play Store.”

Recognition, Earnings and Policy

Even with the promising growth trends, Indian esports, while brimming with potential, is held back by significant challenges.

Suji remarked, “The esports community wants and requires esports to be recognised by the government as a ‘sport’ in India to gain the benefits that any sports community and athletes would receive. This hampers the growth of esports in our country in a significant manner, as players don’t get benefits like any other sports – be it training, wellbeing, job security (sports quota).”

Gupta added, “The growth of esports in India depends primarily on how the government regulates the policy framework. The overall perception when it comes to gaming needs to change.”

Additionally, “The Indian esports scene is still in its infancy, with average revenue per user of around Rs 640. In contrast, the global market is over 15x ARPU.”

Aggarwal pointed out, “During the pandemic, esports got the much-needed exposure and it seems that it is slowly heading towards the mainstream. We have witnessed the numbers increase dramatically and gaming is now being considered as a viable career option by gaming enthusiasts.”

He further said, “We need more serious investments in esports, as the sector still needs to be developed. This investment may come from VC funding, brand sponsorships, etc.”

Arya noted, “The two major challenges that esports in India faces are: 1) Most brands still don’t recognise/ understand the potential of esports and how important it is in the modern day to connect with a unique and ever growing demographic; and 2) Teams and players in India still lack discipline.”

From an infrastructure standpoint, Total Gaming stated, “The biggest hurdle that I see is Internet speed. We need faster and stable Internet service for each one of us to grow swiftly than ever. We also need more esports tournaments in the country to unlock our potential.”

Khurana observed, “Esports in India can sometime be very top tier heavy. To grow further, we need to tap into the vast potential at the grassroot stages. This will help discover new talents, bring more engagement and a possible shift towards the mainstream paradigm.”

But perhaps most importantly, a guest tweet noted that esports in India will become a viable career option, ‘when our parents support us’!

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