Founder, Unilazer Ventures
Every year, in September, Electronic Arts (EA) launches FIFA, the most widely played computer/ console sports game of the world. Last year, the gaming giant launched a new edition introducing the virtual athlete 'Hunter'. This year, Coca-Cola announced Hunter as the brand ambassador of Coke Zero Sugar. That is just one indicator of the power of e-sports.
That growth has resulted in the emergence of several leagues across the globe. Some of the bigger ones have prize money worth over $20 million up for grabs. The recently-concluded TI7 (The International 2017) event saw a record prize of $24 million. EU's Team Liquid defeated Newbee - the Chinese group, to win the championship and walk away with $10.8 million.
TI7 is a DOTA 2 (the fantasy strategy game hosted by Valve Corp) championship that is closely followed by League of Legends (created by Riot Games), the second-largest e-sports league in the world with a prize money of just under $23 million. The other major e-sports leagues are Halo World Championship (Halo5: Guardians), ELEAGUE (Counter-Strike) and EA Champions Cup (FIFA). China, America and the Republic of Korea are the three top countries in the e-sports circuit.
An e-sports league has multiple teams that fight it out for the big prize. Participating teams select, buy or draft players depending on their performances and rankings. The leagues are held in an arena where spectators come in large numbers and watch the games on giant screens. The games are also streamed online and broadcast on TV. Viewership is huge. For example, the 2015-16 NBA finals were watched by 31 million people, an 18-year record. The 2015 League of Legends final garnered 36 million unique viewers.
E-sports has now caught the fancy of Indians. Check out some of the ad commercials for various gaming laptop makers here -
the communication has changed from slim, lightweight and long battery backup to high powered graphics cards, easy cooling, VR-enabled functionality and so on.
Ronnie Screwvala is a person who hates missing an opportunity. Judging the popularity of e-sports to a nicety, he is ready to roll out India's biggest e-gaming league, UCypher, in January 2018. The top 84 gamers selected on the basis of their performance in tournaments and leagues held in India will participate in the league which will air on MTV and stream on YouTube, VOOT and Twitch.
Screwvala sees immense sponsorship opportunities in a sport where brands can be integrated seamlessly. afaqs! spoke to the founder of Unilazer Ventures to know more about his 'gameplan'. Also present was Supratik Sen, CEO, Usports, the sports marketing division of Unilazer.
At this stage in your career, what drove your attention to e-sports?
E-sports as a trend is just taking off. We are not far behind from the top countries in the sport - Japan, Korea or the US - like we are in football or motorsports. The e-sports leagues have started taking off in the last two to three years globally. When it comes to the quality of players too, we are not that far behind. So we were clear, let's be the early bird and be one of the first movers in this space.
Now that you are a league owner, what are the primary aspects you need to focus on?
For any league owner it is important to get a couple of things done: - One, you need to find key franchisee owners, then you need the player ecosystem and finally, you need the platform or broadcaster. You are not a league until you get team owners, the team and a broadcaster.
Do you have franchise owners?
This is a very new sport where the benchmarks are yet to be set. So we decided that for the first two seasons, we are going to own all the teams and all the players. We will own the entire ecosystem for the first two seasons because today, when there is no benchmark, I am not sure if I should charge X, Y or Z for a team. The best way to go ahead is to put in the full investment and take all the risks. This is where we are different from any of the new leagues launched in recent times.
What about the players?
We have cherry-picked the top 84 players from the top 50 tournaments in the country. There is a tournament in every engineering college in India and there are a few leagues from which we selected the top players as well. In two years' time we will have foreign players coming in and participating in the league too.
Coming to the broadcaster bit, why are you associated with a youth-and-music channel like MTV instead of a sports channel?
We have debated this and yes, normally a sport should come on a sports channel; the outcome of the debate was that this is going to be slightly different. Most games last for as short as kabaddi does (40 minutes). Then there is football, which lasts for 90 minutes, T20, 50-50, and Test match cricket which lasts for five days.
E-sports can go on for four to six hours a day for a certain number of days, where the same teams and same players are playing the same games. They don't necessarily get sticky in terms of viewership for hardcore gamers, but for newcomers, it might.
We want to get more people into gaming. Therefore, for us, television was an important platform and it was important to pick a right partner - but not a sports channel at this stage - which is why we approached MTV and said we want to do this and sold them the concept. Outside of MTV, it will be on YouTube, VOOT and Twitch. On the digital platforms we will have the full version, on MTV it will be a one-hour action-packed episode.
You are streaming this property on so many platforms where e-sports is really popular and has an existing audience. Football and kabaddi get good viewership online. Why do you need a broadcaster?
That's true. Football and kabaddi are watched online a lot more than on TV and it is quite possible that in three years' time, this too will be more popular online. But in India, even today, you cannot launch a sport without television. I think Korea and China are the only markets in the world where you can launch a league without TV.
Has MTV commissioned you? Will they own the media rights to the league? What is the nature of the association?
We have bought slots from MTV. We will produce it ourselves and hand over a one-hour episode to MTV, which they will air. We have an agreement of 37 episodes which can go up to 45. It will air seven days a week including Saturdays and Sundays and there will be a repeat telecast the next day.
Do you have sponsors on board already? You own all the franchises, you have set aside a handsome amount as prize money and you have bought slots; how much are you spending?
Our experience in the first year of kabaddi was that most people did not go hungrily after monetising. Star took four years to get Vivo on. To be honest, this season we are not going all out to monetise because we do not have a rate card and whatever we accept it could be 'under'. Instead, we decided we would spend our own money for this project.
This season, the outlay is going to be Rs 30-35 crore. There is no point getting a crore or two in sponsorship - it won't move the needle either way. We did not want to lock our rate but decided to wait it out. This could be an error, but that's what we decided.
Where do you see the money coming in from in the long run?
I think the major chunk of money will come in from sponsorship. From Amazon to Puma to mobile companies this is the absolute core target audience. The sport is sticky, unlike other game formats - in cricket, there is one over; in football, you don't even have a gap for a commercial; with kabaddi it's even worse where you need to get an official time-out. Here, the ability for us to integrate brands and have commercial breaks while the game is on is very high.
Do you see ticketing revenue coming in?
This is an arena sport and by the time we reach the third season, it needs to go to an arena. If it is 3000 people in an arena, 300 people in an arena or 8000 (beyond which we cannot go), only time will tell. This is a multi-city sport, so we will go to different cities and yes, I do see ticketing revenue coming in.
Who do you think will watch this league on TV? Are you looking to develop this as a niche sport or are you targeting the masses?
We need to build the TV viewership for this sport and it is very important that it does not sound like an elitist sport, but is very 'massy' and very Indian. The games are not Indian, so between us, our sports casters and commentators, we are figuring out how we can make this a 'massy' sport. It cannot be western guys with massive headphones. We will make it a quintessential Indian experience while we are running a league with global games.
Why do you need to make it a mass sport? Golf and tennis are niche sports and they are doing well...
Tennis and golf are two sports which are viewed as niche and prestigious so they get a premium. You cannot take e-gaming to that level, then you would be fighting a wrong battle. This is beer and not malt whiskey - it might be the elitist of beer, but it's still not malt whiskey. Also, India is a market with 1.25 billion people, I don't see any reason why we should concentrate on only 30 million people while building a property.
How do you plan to promote the league? Will you roll out a marketing campaign?
In Season 1 we will learn, we will align and we will do whatever we need to do. After two seasons we will have a very good idea where the sport lands, what the viability is for it along with the sponsor interest, viewership and player interest. So instead of going and doing a marketing campaign to promote the league, we are treating the first season itself as a marketing campaign.
The league will have DOTA and Counter-Strike on PC, Real Cricket on mobile and Tekken on console; how did you decide on these?
Counter-Strike and DOTA are two of the largest selling PC games. League of Legends is still arriving in India. The people who distribute Counter-Strike in India gave us a number i.e. around 20 million people play the game in the country. These two PC choices were pretty easy for us.
Then we moved to console, for which we wanted an exciting action-packed game and that's where Tekken came in. In the mobile space, we wanted to have a massy game and we got Real Cricket. This year we will have these four games in UCypher, but we are open for more in the coming years.
Why did you decide to keep the prize money at Rs 50 lakh?
There are enough of small leagues and tournaments in India. We wanted to have a clear segregation and hence decided to be at least 5x of the largest existing one. We are not paying the players anything in Season 1. For them, prize money is the biggest attraction and that's why we decided to keep it at Rs 50 lakh.
In kabaddi, for instance, we keep telling Mashal (the STAR subsidiary that owns pro-kabaddi) to take the prize money higher... I think that makes a big difference in creating a benchmark for the sport.
What is your biggest challenge?
We have to get people to say, "Wow, this is exhilarating! Wow, this is very exciting!" and open up to the people who are not gamers, but will enjoy watching this because they are seeing a sport, they are seeing combat.
It is passive yet active; it is very aggressive on the screen yet passive when it comes to the player's approach. Even if five people are fighting with each other you only see their eyebrows and fingers moving. The critical point is to take that and make an appeal to those who are interested in gaming but are not hardcore gamers. If we manage to do that it will fly - if not, it's going to remain niche.
Is there an e-gaming experience that you would like to share; one that inspired you?
Recently, in Frankfurt, we saw 70,000 people come in every day to watch e-sports. There was League of Legends, DOTA and Counter-Strike - 30,000 were inside the stadium while the rest watched it outside on big screens. It was a massive affair.
Rohinton Soli Screwvala or 'Ronnie' Screwvala, as he is popularly known, has big plans in the offing. The media and entertainment entrepreneur is betting big on e-sports. The head of Unilazer Ventures has quite a few sporting aces up his sleeve.
Unilazer's sports marketing division, USports, besides gearing itself to launch Cypher, the e-sports league, in January, also owns the kabaddi franchise - Umumba and promotes football and motorsports. There are plans to launch a movie on kabaddi, which Screwvala believes will take the sport to a different level and also help UMumba emerge as a brand.
USports - under the Udream Football banner - also scouts for football players from across the country and trains them in Germany. At the moment, there are 50 under-15 players training and playing shoulder to shoulder with European and South American players. Screwvala wants to take that number up to 250 and the organisation is working towards that direction.
Ask him why kids have to be sent to Germany and Screwvala is emphatic in his support of that decision which was dictated by cultural differences and the role of parents in India. "If the child gets bruised four days in a row, his parents will say 'no, my kid is not coming - he is hurt'. The culture and the discipline level is different - bruised or not, it is the physio who will decide what time you hit the ground and then you follow it."
At this stage, Screwvala is obsessed with only one thing when it comes to football - in the next five years, 20 boys from India have to play in Europe for top European clubs. With e-sports, he smiles, we are exploring a very nascent sport which is doing well everywhere else.
(This interview was first published in our magazine afaqs! Reporter on October 16, 2017.)
A Note From the Editor
Why did it take this long for us to put Ronnie Screwvala on the cover of our magazine? The reporter who interviewed him had suggested doing a piece on him several times, but we decided to green-light it only now.
That's because Ronnie, like most high achieving, multi-faceted, multi-hyphenates out there, has his finger in so many (delicious) pies... a situation that makes it hard for a specialised publication like ours to fine tune the reason for doing the story at any particular point in time.
Then, we got it! Ronnie foresaw the explosion in e-sports, invested in the space and is all set to roll out India's biggest e-sports league 'UCypher' in January 2018. The games will be streamed on digital platforms like YouTube, Voot, Twitch and YouTube Gaming and will be broadcast on television, on MTV. For brands, sponsorship and integration opportunities are immense.
We specifically asked Ronnie about the prize money of Rs.50 lakh. His logic is simple and clear. The scale and size of the league, and the buzz around it, is directly proportionate to the prize money attached to it... and ensuring scale is especially important when the basic theme is not new; college level tech-fests and smaller e-sports tournaments are part of an ongoing gaming wave in India.
The cult-ish passion for e-sports is really something else. It's an in-group created on the back of a shared obsession. Why else would hundreds of spectators go to an indoor arena to watch expert gamers sit still, stare at screens and move nothing but their thumbs, as the action on their devices is streamed on giant screens? Just try insinuating to one of these fans that this is not really a sport... at your own risk.
As gaming enthusiasts in India gear up for the country's largest e-sports league yet, we bring you an interview with Rohinton Soli Screwvala, fondly -and now officially- known as Ronnie.ASHWINI GANGAL