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Game, Set, Winning Match

Online gaming could be mainstream entertainment in future, but teething troubles remain

Game, Set, Winning Match
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Baahubali is the ‘most ­popular’ game on Google Play this year
Game, Set, Winning Match

Are video gamers better learners? Will playing video games keep Alzheimer’s disease away? Can gaming be an IQ test? The answers are the topic of several news stories that get thrown up in a random Internet search for ‘video gaming’. And, pray, why gaming? Isn’t that kid’s stuff that kids shouldn’t be so crazy about in the first place—a pastime that’s not just lazy, but brings together disagreeable ingredients like shooting and violence. Sometimes, the associations can get horrific, as residents of Noida near the national capital experienced last week when a schoolchild apparently addicted to a violent video game was suspected of killing his mother and sister.

In a country where many parents still frown on sports as an encroachment on their kids’ study time, gaming surely can’t be a legitimate fancy, you’d ask. But what’s really happening is that gaming in India is slowly shedding its niche, stereotyped image. And its future as a mainstream entertainment option, ind­ustry folk say, looks promising. The smartphone, they say, is turning gaming into more than just child’s play.

Sample this: India has been inching up in the list of top five countries for game downloads. In May, a study by KPMG and Google projected that India’s gaming industry would have around 310 million online gamers (from about 120 million now) with a market size of $1 billion by 2021, more than thrice what it was in 2016. As investor Vani Kola of Kalaari Capital puts it, gaming is witnessing a “sil­ent yet a massive evolution”.

Recent reports say Mumbai-based Nazara Technologies, the company beh­ind the popular Chhota Bheem game, is eyeing an IPO (Initial Public Offering). And, if you looked at Google Play, Baahubali: The Game topped the ‘most popular’ game category during 2017 in India, beating international titles like WWE Champions, Super Mario Run and Pokémon Duel. Or take Smaaash Entertainment, a venture backed by Sachin Tendulkar, that’s betting big on games with arcades in several Indian cities.

Mass Market?

The growth story from a game-downlo­ads perspective may appear pretty exciting given that India currently has about 350 million mobile internet users. “The real question is, when will it become a market that monetises? That’s been the reason why most people in the business say India is not yet a gaming market,” says Rajesh Rao of Dhruva Interactive, among India’s oldest game publishers. When he started Dhruva in 1997, gaming was still practically non-existent, except for a minuscule band of devotees like himself—the ones, he jokes, who probably got hooked when a visiting uncle brought home a console.

“Good games are being made for mobiles, but they aren’t ­monetising well enough,” says Rajesh Rao of Dhruva.

“It’s really only now, thanks to the mob­ile phone, that it is getting mass-market attention,” says Rao, who also heads Nasscom’s Gaming Forum. If Dhruva had to find a way to survive by becoming a services company working for global game publishers rather than building its own games, it was because, as he puts it, “We just couldn’t get a sense of market viability for making games for India. Even ­today, very good games are being made for mobile phones, but they still aren’t monetising well enough.”

But Rao is sensing change. “How did we suddenly go from paying Rs 30-50 per ticket to shelling out a few hundreds for a movie ticket?” he asks, referring to the multiplex boom. “It’s because the movie-­going experience became really good. Similarly, today we don’t mind paying Rs 500-600 a month for Cable TV or DTH? The mobile brings you a Playstation-like capability of sorts in your hands, in full High Definition. And that’s what changing the game.” So we have housewives playing Candy Crush or ­Bingo Bash and grandparents exploring card games on smartphones or tablets. And there’s no more need for “side-loading” (transferred games from another device offline) as data is getting faster and cheaper.

“Everybody is playing, not just the ­early adopters, cool dudes and millennials,” says Rao. “This is a phase of discovery and habit-formation. Games had a bad image that’s being rapidly shed. There’s a better understanding of why kids find games interesting. That’s a big deal.”

Nazara CEO Manish Agarwal believes there is a paucity of entertainment opt­ions in India and gaming is one of the few interactive forms of content consumption. “No wonder it appeals to all age groups...from four to 70,” he says. “Perhaps 80 million mobile gamers today are casual or infrequent users who mostly download free games, while the remaining 20 million are serious players who would pay. In the next three years, the number of evolved gamers will go up to 100 million, while the total number of gamers goes up to 300 million. That makes it exciting from the point of view of business scale and opportunity.”

Poised To Leap

Nazara Technologies, known for the popular game Chhota Bheem, is eyeing an initial public offering

In 2016, Nazara clocked 22 million downloads for its games on Google Play and this year, till September, the figure was 34 million. Top games this year inc­lude Chota Bheem Speed Racing, Motu Patlu Run and RCB Star Cricket. Five years ago, Agarwal says, only western games were available in India. That’s changing as “whether it is Baahubali, Chotta Bheem or cricket games, when you talk about entertainment, it needs to connect with you”.

Meanwhile, state governments in Karnataka and Telangana are wooing the animation and gaming segment with sops, as part of the IT ecosystem in Bangalore and Hyderabad. For instance, the Karnataka Animation, Visual Effects, Gaming and Comics Policy, unv­eiled in August, proposes a Rs 50-crore venture capital fund, an inc­ubator and production grants. In Hyd­erabad, work on a 16 lakh sq ft facility, billed as a one-stop shop for gaming and animation, began this year.

“I think Baahubali, the movie, did a great job of creating awareness for ‘Made in India’ visual effects. People could see the quality,” says Rao. Soon, industry experts hope, people are going to want more, say, eSports or offline Virtual Rea­lity or Augmented Reality kind of exp­erience. “Gaming will then become a 360-degree affair rather than being limited to a mobile phone,” says Agarwal.

“Sports and entertainment are what this market is all about,” says Nikhil Vora, founder and CEO of Sixth Sense Ventures, which recently picked up a min­ority stake in Smaaash Entertainment. Unlike amusement parks, arcades such as Smaaash, which are located within city limits, can potentially get more frequent visits from patrons, while also offering more than movies and dining. “This combines everything you get in those options, plus more,” says Vora.

The Hardcore Gamers

Some weeks ago, Ankit Panth logged into his computer to start streaming a live video. As he attended to a string of messages on social networks, he fixes up a game with an online buddy. “You guys are lucky, you’ll get to see a game,” he announces. He twirls a knife a few times and then selects a hand gun to fire at targets inching towards him as though on an assembly line. “Now, let me practise.”

Gaming pro Ankit Panth says it is tough to earn a steady income, given that the scenario hasn’t been consistent.

In the world of eSports, the 28-year-old Mumbai-based professional ­gamer goes by the moniker Ankit V3nom Panth. A pro for at least nine years, he leads a team that plays Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS-GO), a game of terrorists versus counter-terrorists, at tournaments across India.

But, just what are eSports? These are contests for video-game junkies, something like an IPL for gamers, where teams battle it out on computers for prize ­money, pitting speed, skill and strategy honed from countless hours of gaming. Over the past couple of years, the pace has picked up and there is an eSports event every two months or so. “Earlier, we had only about four in a year,” says Panth. A few weeks ago, he had been shooting for UCypher, the eSports league backed by one of Indian television’s most recognisable names, Ronnie Screwvala. Come January, UCypher will go on air, on MTV. The teams will bid for professional gamers, who will play for Rs 51 lakh in prize money in the first season. Will this do for eSports what the Pro Kabbadi League did for the humble Indian sport?

This year, the top team at The International Defence of the Ancients-2 (DOTA-2) championships at Seattle took home $10.9 million. DOTA-2 is a “massively multiplayer” online game that is popular at eSports tournaments along with League of Legends and CS-GO.

Panth feels things could well be heading that way in India too. He has got some sponsors and managed to keep a team going for several years. Although young fans ask him for selfies on the street, he says it is tough to earn a steady income as a professional gamer as the scenario hasn’t been consistent. “Entries (at tournaments) have increased, but whether gaming can be a career option is still doubtful. We have to wait and watch,” he says. On his live stream, as he is playing, he is also chatting with younger fans smitten by gaming. “Don’t watch me play. Exams are more important because we don’t yet know the future of gaming in our country,” he advises.

“They don’t know that I am still struggling,” Panth tells Outlook. “Sometimes I earn Rs 20,000-30,000, sometimes Rs 5,000. In a big tournament, I may earn Rs 1 lakh. But what if I lose?”

Incidentally, this year, the Olympic Council of Asia decided to include eSports as a medal sport for the 2022 Asian Games in China. So can competitive gaming become a television spectacle here as well? “Can we give it the next platform, that’s what we are asking,” says Supratik Sen, CEO of USports, a comp­any owned by Screwvala. “It’s in an interestingly poised place globally. Therefore, we put together UCypher.” Their league is designed as an open qualifier system and the first year will have six teams playing CounterStrike, DOTA-2, Tekken and Real Cricket on PC, console and mobile. “It’s new age entertainment and it’s going to be a new-age sport,” says Sen.

Game on?

By Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore

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