Sports fever! As IPL 2020 goes virtual, you become key selector

Updated: 18 October, 2020 08:03 IST | Jane Borges |

If you can't bet, you predict. Millions of Indians are turning into virtual selectors, putting their money and minds into creating their dream team in the IPL. Here's why

Royal Challengers Bangalore captain Virat Kohli plays a shot during the IPL match against Kings XI Punjab. Pic /PTI
Royal Challengers Bangalore captain Virat Kohli plays a shot during the IPL match against Kings XI Punjab. Pic /PTI

If not for the lockdown, being at work during the Indian Premier League season would have had its own charm, says Prince Duggal, a Mumbai-based creative director. There was a time when office gossip, a staple during lunch and chai breaks, would suddenly be replaced with serious strategising and planning. "Kaunsa player?" "Kohli ya Dhoni?" "Strong batting order today or bowling attack?" The volley of questions, and endless discussions that followed, would culminate with everyone poring over their phones to create that perfect winning combination—their dream team for the day's IPL match. Sometimes, it even brought a whole lot of money. This obsession for fantasy gaming led Duggal to download Dream11 in 2018. The Indian platform allows users to play fantasy sports—a skill-based game, mistaken for betting, where you can create an imaginary team with real players just before the match begins, and earn cash based on their actual performance in the game.

Last year, Mumbai-based Prince Duggal downloaded the app on two of phones and a tab, so that he could make three different teams for every game that was being played;
Last year, Mumbai-based Prince Duggal downloaded the app on two of phones and a tab, so that he could make three different teams for every game that was being played

Though fantasy gaming has existed since time immemorial—the first event resembling it involved Wilfred 'Bill' Winkenbach and a few others from the Oakland Raiders Organisation drawing up basic rules for fantasy football in 1962—its newest online avatar is the all new rage in the country. According to a report by consulting major KPMG and the Indian Federation of Sports Gaming (IFSG) from last year, the number of fantasy sports operators increased by seven times over 2016-2018, whereas the number of users had grown by over 25 times from June 2016 to February 2019. The estimated number of users was pegged at over 20 million. The mass penetration of mobile connectivity was a major driving force behind the success story. "This could imply that fantasy sports platforms could potentially be considered as a means for earning incremental or supplementary income by comparatively lower income groups, leading to an increased engagement with the platform," the KPMG-IFSG report stated. The pandemic-induced lockdown this year that caused severe job losses and also made time an affordable luxury available in excess, became the perfect lure for more gamers to join these platforms, say industry experts.

When Duggal first started playing fantasy cricket on Dream11, he enlisted the help of his peers, some of whom were so invested in the game that they even kept Excel sheets handy to keep track of performances. Playing the game required minimum investment—sometimes as trifling as R15—and so, if there were losses it didn't hurt much, he shares. However, the game barely managed to hook him. "I had a hectic shooting schedule, and I'd not get time to follow IPL closely, which is really the most basic requirement if you want to play fantasy sports," he says. It was only last year, when the crew was shooting out of town that he got addicted to Dream11. "Our shoots were in the morning, and once I'd return to the hotel room, I would have a lot of time to kill." Duggal downloaded the app on two phones, and a tab, and made three different teams for every game that was being played. "The first team was a no-brainer. You knew such a combination was bound to win. The second team would be thoroughly researched, based on the performances of the individual players. The third team had the poorest performers of the season. I called them the loser team. I never made any money on them, but if that team won, I could have struck gold," he says. Last year, Duggal made R8,500, which is nearly double of what he put in, and ranked among the top 100. "But I played for pure fun, and not for the money. I suck at gambling, and I wouldn't take that risk. So, if I made profits, I'd use the same money to play more, and if I made a loss, I'd take a break to strategise better."

Sakshi Wadhwa, 27, likes the high of seeing players from her dream team perform
Sakshi Wadhwa, 27, likes the high of seeing players from her dream team perform

Like Duggal, Delhi-based Sakshi Wadhwa, 27, joined Dream11 after noticing colleagues at work, spend their free-time discussing their fantasy teams. Having followed IPL since its launch 12 years ago, Wadhwa says she instinctively knew, which player would perform or not. She generally created her team early in the morning, and then right after the toss, just few minutes before the app stopped taking entries, lock her final set. "Having players from your dream team perform, is a huge validation," says Wadhwa, who secured a top ranking of 40, two years ago. Her investment has always been a maximum of R49. "You need to select your players wisely. For instance, if [MS] Dhoni is playing that particular day, you know he is not only a good scorer, but also great behind the wickets, so he is someone you could risk including. Similarly, Sam Curran is not just a bowler, but a brilliant batsmen and fielder. Predicting this winning combination is not just a matter of luck, but also takes strategy. And, when your team scores, the high is of another kind."

Bengaluru-based HR professional Rahul Krishnan says that in India people have very strong opinions about cricket, and assume they have even better knowledge about the game. Fantasy sports gives them a chance to put their knowledge to test
Bengaluru-based HR professional Rahul Krishnan says that in India people have very strong opinions about cricket, and assume they have even better knowledge about the game. Fantasy sports gives them a chance to put their knowledge to test

Bengaluru-based HR professional Rahul Krishnan agrees. Krishnan joined My11Circle—another popular platform—this year, after noticing the aggressive advertising and marketing between IPL matches and cricketing news sites. "I joined because I wanted to know what the hype was all about. I soon realised, why so many of us were getting addicted to it," he says, adding, "Firstly, people in India have very strong opinions about cricket, and many assume, they have even better knowledge about the game [than the experts]. This could be true, or maybe not, but fantasy sport gives them a chance to put their knowledge to test."

Secondly, says Krishnan, a lot of these games have low cost investments and returns. On Dream11, for instance, the minimum you need to put in to play a game is R15, while My11Circle it's R16, and on Ballebaazi and Gamezy, as low as R2 and R3 respectively. "Some of these apps even give you promotional cash to start off with. And then, of course, they have a significant number of winners. Even if you rank among the top 2,000, you stand to win a few rupees. Small wins are celebrated in a big way. That's the biggest draw for users. You feel like a winner, even if you've won just won R5 or R10." That IPL, unlike football, hockey, kabaddi, basketball, which are also part of these fantasy apps, have players whose performances and records most Indians are familiar with, makes it a cakewalk to play. "I reserve all my research for other sports and leagues," says Krishnan.

PR professional Lovina Menezes, a Mumbai Indians fan, prefers playing team contests on the fantasy platforms, over winning cash prizes
PR professional Lovina Menezes, a Mumbai Indians fan, prefers playing team contests on the fantasy platforms, over winning cash prizes

Not everyone enjoys risking money, even if the investment is tiny. Mumbai-based PR professional Lovina Menezes is among them. Menezes's family is crazy about the game. "My dad, brothers and I don't miss a single match. And that's why I thought of joining Dream11." But, when she lost a few rupees, the disappointment also came as a warning bell. "While I was lured by the cash prize, I feared risking more, so I decided to play free tournaments with friends." Menezes and 10 of her friends have joined a free group contest—an option available on the app—where you create a code, invite other friends, and have each one of them create a team. "So, we are constantly challenging each other, and that's a lot of fun, too."

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With Dream 11—a leader in this segment with 90 per cent of the total market share and currently, the official title sponsor of IPL 2020—catapulting into the Unicorn Club (privately held companies valued greater than $1 billion) last year, other sport operators also received a shot in the arm. From a handful of companies until a few years ago, there were an estimated 60 fantasy sports platforms in India in 2019, according to a YourStory report.

Saurabh Jha, founder of Playing11, which got 3,00,000 downloads when it was launched in 2019;
Saurabh Jha, founder of Playing11, which got 3,00,000 downloads when it was launched in 2019

Saurabh Jha's Playing11 and Nitin Nachnani's Fan Super League (FSL) are two such platforms that experienced a sort of beginner's luck, securing 3,00,000 and 50,000 users respectively, right after they launched last year. "Even in our wildest dreams, we hadn't anticipated this kind of audience for the platform," says Mumbai-based Nachnani, who is the director of FSL. While FSL follows the same model as other fantasy platforms, Nachnani and his team, are now working double the hours to launch a new revenue model, so that users don't have to invest a single pie. "With more users, comes great responsibility," says Nachnani. "We are going to come up with a premium model, where we make our money from ad revenue on Google, and all users need to do is log in and download the app." They hope to target users in Tier-II and Tier-III cities and towns, when incomes are lower.

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Jha, 27, who played professional cricket, and represented Assam briefly, had to give up his cricketing dreams, following a ligament injury, which kept him away from the sport for nearly two years. Having observed the fascination for fantasy gaming among friends, he decided to use this break for research and development of his app. "It took around six months to create the app, before we launched it in the beginning of 2019." Playing11 is a standout winner among the smaller players in this growing fantasy sports eco-system. Jha says he tapped most of his early audience, with the help of influencers. Playing11 also roped in India cricketer Yuzvendra Chahal as brand ambassador to improve visibility. Indians by nature love betting, says Jha. But in India, sports betting is illegal. "This is why people prefer to play on apps like ours. Most of our engagement comes from users who are between 18 to 24. They are mostly students, with little pocket money, so they don't mind putting in that amount. We also have set a cap on the amount you can lose. So say, if someone loses, R25,000, we send them a message, asking them to take a break, and come back when they are ready. We are engaging in responsible gaming."

Nitin Nachnani, director of Fan Super League, is working on a premium model, where players wouldn’t need to invest money to play
Nitin Nachnani, director of Fan Super League, is working on a premium model, where players wouldn’t need to invest money to play

At present, the All India Gaming Federation (AIGF) and Federation of Indian Fantasy Sports (FIFS), are two key industry bodies formed for the purpose of self-regulation of online gaming and fantasy sports. Most fantasy platforms in India are part of these organisations. "One of the key objectives of the AIGF is focused on bringing recognition to the online skill gaming Industry in India. Since its inception [in 2016], AIGF has been at the forefront, working with relevant legislative, judiciary and executive at the state and the Centre to demonstrate the importance of its self-regulation mechanism as well as highlight the economic and social benefits of this sector," said Roland Landers, CEO of AIGF in an email interview.

The AIGF also released a charter in 2018, to ensure that the best global practices are being adhered to in India. "The charter focusses on player protection, responsible gaming, including guidelines for advertising and emphasises on responsible gaming to build a robust self-regulatory community and facilitative ecosystem for the offer of online games of skill in a transparent and fair manner, with due regard for consumer and stakeholder interests."

Roland Landers, CEO, AIGF
Roland Landers, CEO, AIGF

Landers says that fantasy gaming, must not be confused with betting, because this one is skill-based. "A game of skill can be defined as any game in which the element of the outcome is based on the judgment, skill or adroitness of a player, rather than pure chance. All skill games encourage a player to understand, experience and analyse different aspects related to the game. Fantasy sports formats require users to select teams on the basis of their knowledge and understanding of a sport including analysing player performances. The outcomes are entirely based on the understanding and knowledge possessed by players and their judgments."

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First Published: 18 October, 2020 07:32 IST

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