Ashwini Gangal

Fantasy sports in 2021: Challenges, trends, gaps…

In conversation with executives from Mobile Premier League, MyTeam11, Junglee Games, 11Sixes and Akamai.

The last 10 months turned many of us into indoor enthusiasts; besides binge-watching webseries and movies, streaming music and patronising e-commerce sites, a lot of Indians took to online gaming. A thriving sub-segment within online gaming is fantasy sports, that, by design and definition is tied to live sports. The real-time performance of sportspersons is linked to the points one scores on fantasy gaming platforms, and these points then morph into real money.

The fantasy sports segment in India is presently caught in a ‘regulatory grey zone’ – between the white of skill and the black of chance – and is being scrutinised by state governments, courts of law, the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, the Niti Aayog, the Department of Consumer Affairs and the Advertising Standards Council of India. Even so, it is a promising industry that currently boasts well over 100 million users, a number that’s poised to grow.

What’s in store for the fantasy sports segment in 2021? What are the heads of fantasy sports platforms challenged by? To find out, I interviewed a panel of professionals from the segment. The discussion was part of Gaming Week, a conference organised by afaqs!.

Watch the full video here or below. Read on for highlights of the discussion.

To start with, I asked the panel whether 2021 will be the year fantasy sports platforms manage to monetise their growing popularity in terms of advertiser revenue, that is, get ads on their mobile apps. Currently, revenue streams include pay-to-play, platform fees and such, but the advertiser-facing floodgates are yet to open in earnest.

Brand marketers want a slice of the consumer’s attention, and fantasy gaming platforms have it all – the eyeballs and the fingertips. Moreover, it’s a highly involved, sharply defined, captive audience, that’s inclined to spend a lot of time on the app. Are concerns around brand safety a deterrent for marketers?

Naman Jhawar, senior vice president, strategy and operations, Mobile Premier League (MPL), said, “User perception (of the fantasy segment) is good… so I don’t see a big challenge around finding different monetisation models, including advertising.” MPL’s fantasy sports vertical has between 20-25 million users, at present.

Nitish Bugalia, head of product and strategy, MyTeam11, said marketers have been attracted to fantasy sports for a while now and that his team is frequently approached by brands, especially around the IPL, regarding the possibility of placing ads on the platform. The "session time" on fantasy sports apps is comparable to OTT apps, after all. MyTeam11 has about 18-20 million users, and saw revenue growth of 30-40 per cent in the last IPL.

The challenge, Bugalia pointed out, is coping with the idea of hindering the customer experience with obtrusive advertising, especially when players have paid to participate. It’s akin to being subject to ads on an OTT app one has subscribed to.

Less intrusive models like brand integrations (example, ‘league sponsored by’), private contests, and other engagement opportunities are good options. “Fantasy sports has created a shadow industry around influencers, which has contributed to (getting) advertisers, quite a lot. So even if they (advertisers) are not getting traction directly on the fantasy sports platform, they’re getting the eyeballs on social media. But yes, 2021 may open up pandora’s box for more cohesive brand integrations and we’re not opposed to it,” he added.

Aman Satija, head of revenue and growth, Junglee Games (of which fantasy sports platform Howzat is a part) pointed out that casual gaming platforms have been earning revenue either via ads or in-app purchases, for years. But fantasy sports platforms, in contrast, do have other monetisation options. “Because these (fantasy sports) are real money games, monetisation is not a challenge as such. The question is – do you want to supplement it with ad revenue?”

Junglee Games has an overall gaming base of over 30 million, of which fantasy is about three to four million. Satija said the question around advertising is something his team has pondered for many years and added that customer experience, undiluted by distractions and clicks that might take them away from the platform, is paramount.

Mitesh Jain, country manager - media and carriers division, Akamai Technologies, spoke about the security infrastructure around fantasy sports apps. According to him, CTOs of these apps ought to worry about threats like credential stuffing attacks, account takeovers, leaderboard manipulation, socket hijack, and of course, bots.

Cautioning against hackers and cyber-criminals, he said, “Gamers are a niche demographic, known for spending money, so they’re a tempting target.”

The panelists also fielded questions about the overdependence of the segment on cricket, the kind of users who will fuel growth for their platforms in the months ahead, geographic skews in the adoption of fantasy gaming, and other directional trends for 2021. More local leagues, female users and the possibility of e-sports fantasy leagues came up as potential growth drivers.

In conclusion, Yogendra Singh, CEO and founder, 11Sixes, said, “The most important thing is user retention. People play on multiple platforms at the same time…” His fantasy sports platform was launched just before the recently held IPL, and has over a lakh users so far.

This panel discussion is part of Gaming Week, a webinar series hosted by afaqs!. The week-long conference is powered by Akamai Technologies.

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This panel discussion is part of Gaming Week, a webinar series hosted by afaqs!. The week-long conference is powered by Akamai Technologies.