The curious case of Indian Fantasy League(s)
By Adarsh Sharma
the faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things.
“his online sports researches had moved into the realms of fantasy”
It would have been better if this term had been understood in the true sense of Oxford Dictionary viz the faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things by millions of fantasy league players.
When a common man testifies before the camera on how he won lakhs of rupees by participating in a fantasy league and how it changed his life completely, it incites a reaction which only adds up to the ever-growing number of downloads, subscriptions, and revenues of Indian Mobile Fantasy Game Apps.
This “common man” unaware of the multiple brainstorming sessions which go behind the scenes of these “paid testimonial ads” often falls prey to the narrative and finds himself praying to win at least the “participation amount” put on the bet before the start of every match/online competition.
While most people have heard of fantasy sports, and millions play them. But let’s be honest: odds are someone in the room with you right now has no idea what it really is or how it works (my real brother for instance).
The phenomenon of fantasy sports could be very surprising for non-consumers of such an activity, but have you ever been caught in the middle of a conversation like this?
“Aaj CSK agar Jadeja na bhi khilaye to chalega, pitch spinner friendly nahi hai, who do you think is going to win today.” (if CSK decides to exclude Jadeja from playing XI today since the pitch isn’t going to favour spinners, who do you think is going to win today?)
“CSK haare jeete pata nahi lekin Jadeja surely is a match-winner! Apni team mai zarur rakhna.” (Can’t say whether CSK is going to win or lose but Jadeja surely is a match winner do include him in your side today)
This reply clearly reflects the mindset of fantasy sports participants. They often do not care about the outcome of the game, their focus is solely on the individual performance of several players from one or both teams. What matters to them is no longer the name of the winning team, but rather the spreads, the individual performance of their chosen players and other details. Depending on their forecasts and team structure, their interest can differ greatly and players see the games with different eyes. With no die-hard affiliation towards any particular team or franchise, the ultimate objective of participating in any of the fantasy formats is to win money by putting your money at stake.
“It is out and out betting and nothing else but yes you need to apply your knowledge to finalise your team, but even that doesn’t guarantee your chances of winning”, says Saransh Oze, a postgraduate student in Noida.
“The reason FCT (Fixed Commercial Time) across sports channels and their OTT (Over The Top) avatars (Hotstar, etc) is filled with fantasy league advertorials is because of the court rulings in their favour,” opines Saransh Gupta, owner of a leading digital marketing agency in Gurugram. “The only difference between alcohol companies promoting their brands through surrogate marketing and Fantasy Sports Apps advertorials is the latter ones are pretty direct albeit both products being addictive in nature and consumption,” Saransh further adds.
While betting on cricket is nothing new in India but it was managed quite clandestinely by bookies within their closely-knit social networks. Unable to bet legally lakhs of sports enthusiasts in our country thus now prefer to test their in-depth understanding of the sport through Fantasy Sports Apps like Dream11, mycircle11, et al. In anticipation of winning big bucks, followed by their small screen debut in one of those testimonial ads someday, the participants across these fantasy platforms keep trying their luck with multiple permutations combinations only to get addicted to this world of “skill-testing”. The participation fee across all these platforms ranges from zero to lakhs of rupees depending upon one’s skill and risk-taking capabilities. Unlike bookies, these “legal” online “skill-testing platforms” allow their users to win big through multiple format challenges or so do they claim.
“Forget about winning big, I’m yet to decode the skill and performance algorithm required to win just double the amount of my participation fee,” says Sanchit Jain, Noida’s leading personal fitness trainer.
When tools and hardware business owner Obaid Malik started playing Dream11’s fantasy cricket games, he wasn’t even aware of the kind of addiction that comes with it. “I just can’t hold myself back from it anymore and would have lost not less than 20-25,000 till now,” says the 35-year-old.
The story is no different for millions of other users addicted to these “skill-testing games” including yours truly.
The origins of the game are based in North America where the first fantasy sports games in basketball, American football, ice hockey and baseball were offered by Yahoo back in 1999. Other portals like ESPN or CBS followed shortly. Nowadays, there are millions of people around the globe who are playing some modality of a fantasy sports game.
According to Nielsen, overall participation in the US has grown significantly in recent years. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of fantasy sports games players went from 8 million to 15.5 million.
The fantasy sports market is big business. In the US, it was a $7.8 billion market in 2020. In India, a FICCI-EY report said the online gaming segment was worth Rs 6,500 crore in 2019 and would touch Rs 18,700 crore in 2022. The IPL fantasy league will be worth $1 billion, says KPMG.
Bolstered by foreign investments Indian firms have invested heavily into these “fantasy cash cow apps” with no fear of government regulations post favourable verdict in the famous case of “Varun Gumber v. Union Territory of Chandigarh” and later before the Bombay High Court in the case of “Gurdeep Singh Sachar v. Union of India” which have clarified that fantasy sports are games of “skill” rather than “chance” and, therefore, do not amount to gambling. These verdicts have further encouraged participation in such sports and led to its growth in India.
According to a recent report ‘Business of Fantasy Sports’ published by the Federation of Indian Fantasy Sports (FIFS) and KPMG, gross revenue of fantasy sports operators stood at Rs. ~2,400 crores (US$ 340.47 million) for FY20 compared with Rs. ~920 crores (US$ 131.64 million) in FY19—~3X YoY increase. The Indian fantasy sports industry is expected to be worth US$ 3.7 billion by 2024, creating a huge opportunity for new entrants. The market has witnessed a 700% increase in the past decade in the number of fantasy sports operators and a 2,500% spike in the number of fantasy sports users.
Currently, the fantasy sports industry is at a nascent stage, with numerous start-ups competing to attract the country’s 800 million sports viewers. This trend is likely to persist as these companies thrust into various sports leagues to attract advertisers, customers and investors.
Apart from Indians’ unending love for sports, especially cricket, low-cost data plans and high penetration of mobile phones have made these start-ups a lucrative bet for investors. Over the past five years, investors have pumped US$ ~112 million into India’s sports fantasy platforms.
The numbers look promising and so does the prospects for all the FIFS (Federation of Indian Fantasy Sports – a self-regulated body formed n 2017) members (32 in total) but the federation needs to monitor and put together a stringent framework in place to oust non-conforming players and rule out any chances of corruption viz player settings and spot-fixing et al or for that matter some formats which further entice and encourage gambling. The need of the hour is to back it up with a sought after policy framework and legitimate regulations.
With the threat of Covid-19 looming large over IPL 2021 and all the forthcoming matches already under siege, the governing bodies including BCCI, ICC and Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (if need be) must step in to put together a robust regulatory framework in place. To leave it to self-regulation by the industry is allowing the platforms to design the rules of the game where only they themselves will be the winners.
A prohibitive disclaimer, warning its users of the element of risk and addiction associated with these games, at the end of fantasy league app advertisements wouldn’t serve the purpose either for its as good as embedding “smoking is injurious to health” message in smoking scenes of the Bollywood movies.
The fantasy leagues are certainly here to stay and with kids being encouraged to learn the coding language, even before they can speak proper indigenous languages, the sector is only headed upwards both in terms of new entrants entering the arena and existing ones maximising revenues. The prospects of fantasy gaming look promising and this could well be the next big if not the biggest revenue churner for all the stakeholders provided they follow the tagline of their own advertorial voiced by MS Dhoni himself “bas dimaag laga ke khel” (sirf dil laga ke nahi is probably what he means).
(The author is an advertising and marketing professional with over 15+ years of experience in offering customised media solutions to brands and political parties across India. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Email: [email protected])
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