Vasisth Roy, playing Dream11’s Secret Superstar online fantasy game. (Source: Vasisth Roy)

This IPL Season, Online Fantasy Sport Firms Are Having A Dream Run

Vasisth Roy scans the cricket websites for stats on players even as a commentator on television presents the pitch report, minutes before reigning champions Chennai Super Kings take on Mumbai Indians—a classic encounter in the Indian Premier League. The 20-year-old has to pick the playing 11 for his Secret Superstar online fantasy team before the first ball is bowled.

He wagers Rs 12,000 in all as his team takes part in three series during the the game. Points are awarded based on how many runs payers score, the wickets they take, the runs they save on the field, or catches taken or dropped in a live game. The virtual team with the best score wins.

“The game goes to another level as soon as you wager money,” Roy said. “The excitement is high and you want your players to hit more sixes and take more wickets.” His enthusiasm is not surprising. In the last three years, Roy made a profit of about Rs 12 lakh playing cricket online.

He is among 55 million Indians who have signed up for Dream11, India’s most-popular sports gaming platform that has turned a unicorn—valued at more than $1 billion. The cheap data boom and affordable smartphones have encouraged more Indians to shop, watch movies, listen to music and play online. The nation now has more than 100 such companies compared to a handful just three years ago. The number of users on such platforms, according to a report by KPMG and India Federation of Sports Gaming, is expected to touch 100 million this year.

The entire online gaming market is also growing. The revenues nearly doubled over four years to Rs 4,300 crore in the fiscal ended March 2018, the report said. It expects that to nearly treble by FY23 to Rs 11,800 crore as the number of online gamers touched 250 million in 2018. Fantasy teams are among the biggest contributors.

And they involve serious money. While users can play free, entry fee on a paid game could be as low as Rs 10, and the total prize pool can range from just a few hundred rupees to as high as Rs 10 crore. And the most popular ones are those that follow the IPL in the cricket-crazy country. Still, Dream11 has been around for about a decade but its user base nearly quadrupled since 2017.

A screenshot of pool size on Dream11.
A screenshot of pool size on Dream11.

What led to the exponential growth of the fantasy gaming platforms is the Punjab and Haryana High Court’s 2017 verdict. In a case against Dream11, it observed that playing such games required considerable skill and judgment and it couldn’t be considered gambling, said Arun Prabhu, partner at Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas. “The Supreme Court declined to interfere with the judgment and that gave much-needed stability to a nascent industry.”

Investors gained confidence. Nearly a year after the verdict, Dream 11 raised $100 million from China’s Tencent Holdings.

“People were reluctant to work with us,” Bhavit Sheth, co-founder and chief operating officer of Dream11, said over the phone. “Banking partners, payments gateways and even Facebook did not initially allow us to advertise,” Sheth said. The platform had 12 million active users just before the IPL season, he said.

The user growth came despite restrictions on the Google Play store as it doesn’t allow apps to operate pay to play leagues on the play store. Most fantasy platforms including Dream11 provide a direct download option from the website.

Star Power

Mahendra Singh Dhoni is the the brand ambassador of Dream11. (Source: Dream11)
Mahendra Singh Dhoni is the the brand ambassador of Dream11. (Source: Dream11)

Most of the top platforms have endorsements by Indian cricketers. While Mahendra Singh Dhoni is the brand ambassador of Dream11, Myteam11 has roped in Virender Sehwag, Halaplay has Krunal and Hardik Pandya, Fantasy11 has Murali Kartik, and Fantain has Suresh Raina.

“To create that identity and credibility since money is also evolved, it helps if you have endorsement from someone like Dhoni or Virat,” said Faisal Kawoosa, founder and chief analyst at Gurugram-based research firm techARC.

That’s how Lokender Sharma, 23, a part-time teacher and a cricket fan, was drawn. He saw an advertisement with commentator Harsha Bhogle urging users to “Make your own Dream11”. He made Rs 10, 000 from 100 credits he got on signing up, and put that money back in the game. This IPL season, his earnings stand at nearly Rs 2 lakh.

The format has spawned a league of online experts who offer pitch reports and player statistics everyday on YouTube. Some of those accounts like Fantasy Cricket Guru and Fantasy Predictions Free have more than 200,000 followers. “Some even charge for providing premium stats,” Roy said.

Vasisth Roy playing on his phone.
Vasisth Roy playing on his phone.

Not Just Cricket

Cricket remains the biggest crowd-puller but other sports such as football, kabaddi and basketball are also gaining a following.

“We are seeing interests in smaller games consistently increasing,” said Akhil Suhag, founder of FanFight which has about three million users. “People are requesting random domestic leagues, women sporting leagues to be added on the platform,” he said. “They want to play more and more.”

Anand Ramachandran, co-founder of Fantain, said there is no single day without a match. “One an average, two to three matches are there on the platforms, so there is no seasonality impact.”

Losses

While the high court recognises such online platforms as the game of skill, Indian states have separate laws that do not work in the favour of fantasy sport firms. For instance, Telangana, Odisha and Assam have strict anti-gambling laws and don’t allow paid versions of these apps to operate.

And one bad apple can give the entire industry a terrible time. Sheth of Dream 11, who is also part of Indian Federation of Sports Gaming, a self-regulatory body, said there are platforms that operate as fantasy apps but in reality are not. “We are trying to regulate by following the recommendations of the Punjab and Haryana government,” he said. It has 29 platforms as members. “We are working very aggressively.”

Also, only 15-20 percent of the total users pay, said techARC’s Kawoosa. “It is more a trickle-down effect,” said Sanjit Sihag, founder of MyTeam11, which has about 15 million users on the platform. “While Dream 11 led the awareness and drove the users, smaller players are able to get a higher-quality users and hence the paid user base is also high.”

Profits are also hard to get. Dream11’s revenue jumped nearly fourfold to Rs 228 crore in the year ended March 2018, according to filings made with the Registrar of Companies. But its losses also quadrupled to Rs 65 crore. It hasn’t disclosed the FY19 numbers yet.

Still, users like Roy will continue to play. While he lost Rs 5,000 on one of his bets, he still made an overall profit of Rs 4,000. “Once I lost Rs 50,000 in a day,” he said. “The game is 70 percent skill and 30 percent luck.”