Niche to mainstream: Mobile gaming surges in popularity


After years of catering to niche audiences with limited return, India’s mobile gaming industry, comprising developers, streamers, esports platforms, and more, is gaining wider popularity. This shift is fuelled by mainstream broadcast deals and growing user willingness to pay for games.

Consequently, leading gaming firms are now looking at India not only as a hotspot for download numbers, but as a more significant player.

On 19 May, Korean gaming major Krafton had relaunched Battlegrounds Mobile India (BGMI), following a clearance by the ministry of electronics and information technology (Meity). The game, which was launched as an India-specific title after the erstwhile PUBG Mobile was banned, was suspended in July 2022.

Soon after, Free Fire, which also has a significant active gamer base in India, was relaunched. Developed and published by Singapore’s Garena Free Fire, along with Krafton’s BGMI, have also given competitive gamers a tool to professionally stream their gameplay to audiences, and compete with international teams at global esports tournaments.

“A lot of excitement was seen as part of our esports tournaments, where eight teams from India faced off against eight teams from Korea. With overall gaming skill between gamers in India and those abroad now being at a similar level, the level of competitiveness was great to see from India,” said Sean Hyunil Sohn, chief executive of Krafton India, in an interview with Mint.

A large part of it, Sohn said, is being driven by the amateur gamers entering professional tournaments to gain exposure, transforming the industry from having a a select few professional gamers to a more democratized industry.

“This maturity of the esports ecosystem is coming through even as overall download figures and popularity of esports remained stable in India… coupled with the overall gamer base and improving monetization, India is definitely one of the top five markets globally right now for Krafton,” said Sohn.

The maturing sector now presents more robust business use cases. Piyush Kumar, chief executive officer of game streaming platform Rooter, said monetization across the industry is witnessing an upward curve. “The industry is making a consolidated effort towards monetizing user bases, for which we are focusing on increasing our original creator base. An increasing number of brands are also in the process of signing partnerships with us, a lot of which will convert into deals starting next year.”

Kumar said that Rooter is generating higher revenue than before. While he did not reveal the target, the company he said, was on track to reach profitability soon. On 18 May, Rooter raised $16 million, and announced annual recurring revenue of $7 million at the time of funding. The platform also signed an exclusive digital streaming deal for an esports tournament, BGMI Masters Series (BGMS), which incidentally was the first to be broadcast live on traditional television through Star Sports.

Free Fire, meanwhile, is making inroads through a memorandum of understanding with the Uttar Pradesh government, to bring global esports teams for a tournament. These big-ticket global names and tournaments, said industry experts are leading to large brand endorsements for teams and platforms.

Akshat Rathee, co-founder and managing director of esports firm Nodwin Gaming, said the phenomenal reach of esports and access to online payments via Unified Payments Interface will aid gaming firms in India boost revenue. Nodwin led the BGMS in India, featuring a net prize pool of 2.1 crore.

According to industry estimates Free Fire and BGMI will account for nearly 200 million active gamers in India by next year, which is fuelling the monetization potential of the businesses.

However, there are challenges to the overall growth saga. For instance, the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup grabbed eyeballs away from online gaming and does not have as solid a fan following as cricket. A senior official of a leading global esports firm, seeking anonymity, said the monetization of games in India remains low while influential personalities in esports and mobile gaming are not ubiquitous as yet. “While some competitive tournaments changed perceptions to an extent, we, as well as others, still see a very slow and gradual trajectory of improving monetization among Indian gamers. While the good part is we’ve drawn and retained a large base of gamers, viewing esports—a heavily monetizable sub-industry globally—is limited in its outreach,” he added.

This could be challenging for gaming firms to address, but 2024 could be the biggest year ever, experts said.

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