A gaming ecosystem including gamers, influencers, creators, e-sports leagues, etc., has developed around PUBG Mobile ever since its launch in 2018.
Teenager Armaan Khan is busy looking for options to fill the gap left by the ban on PUBG Mobile. For the last several months, this school-goer from a town in Assam has been spending most of his day in front of screens. A third of it on TV, and the rest on his mother’s mobile phone. On the phone, one half was spent on online classes, and the other was spent on playing PUBG Mobile.
As the COVID threat kept Khan away from his classroom and the playground, this online multiplayer game also became a way of socialising with his mates. For the first few weeks, Khan’s mother Farida wondered who her son was actually speaking with while wildly tapping away on her phone. The air was cleared in a chat on the school parents’ WhatsApp group. Farida’s son wasn’t the only one.
While mobile-based multiplayers like Clash of Clans always existed, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (or PUBG) exposed Indians to the heavy battle royale action format of mobile games. It paved the way for the likes of Fortnite, Call of Duty Mobile, etc. The game was launched in February 2018 and it flourished on the back of inexpensive Jio data and Indians’ growing appetite for smartphones.
It grew so popular that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned it during an event to strike a chord with the young audience. PUBG Mobile’s numbers are under wraps, but given its pan-India penetration, it won’t be incorrect to assume the user base to be in tens of millions. The game was also being used by tech gurus as a benchmark for gaming performance for newly released smartphones.
It is owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent and earns from in-app purchases and pay to play competitions. As per app intelligence company Sensor Tower, PUBG Mobile was the top grossing mobile game by worldwide revenue for May 2020, with over $226 million in user spending. Reportedly, the game earned $80 million to $100 million a year from Indian gamers.
As Akshat Rathee, co-founder and MD, NODWIN Gaming, puts it, “It's the most played online game in the country, with a total daily active user base bigger than that of platforms like Netflix, VOOT and Hotstar.”
Rathee did see the ban (on Chinese apps) coming. “It's a simple geopolitical problem. India doesn't like China, and China doesn't like India. When India and Pakistan had the Kargil War (in 1999), we stopped playing cricket against each other. As of right now, when something like this happens, it's not about PUBG Mobile, it is India versus China, it's an economic sanction.”
With PUBG Mobile gone, who will fill the void? And, how will it impact the overall gaming ecosystem in the country?
Competitive gaming and eSports league IGL (Indian Gaming League) had started capitalising on the demand for other games soon after the ban was announced. Yash Pariani, CEO of IGL, says, “Games such as Call of Duty (COD) Mobile, Free Fire and Fortnite may see a surge in users in India. While we may see some players move to other platforms, such as PUBG PC, the majority, who prefer the mobile version, will be sticking to similar games on the same platform which would be COD Mobile."
Pariani says that the impact will be just like what happened when video app TikTok was banned for the influencers that had made a living from the platform. “For the time being, we will see PUBG influencers and players switching to other games to make a living. It may be a setback for them, but eventually, their audiences will also respond to the change. With this ban in effect, we may even see a version of the game that the audiences have grown to know and love, be developed here in India."
Right after the TikTok ban, several Indian video apps like HotShots and Moj tried to capitalise on the vacuum left behind. Similarly, a day after the PUBG ban, nCORE Games, a Bengaluru-based game development company announced the launch of FAU-G, a multiplayer action game about the sacrifices of Indian soldiers.
NODWIN’s Rathee elaborates that the gaming industry comprises players and the publishers who make money from it. “People will choose other similar games, such as Call of Duty mobile or a game like Free Fire. People will find replacements for games that are very close to what they're already using. Will there be people who stop playing shooter games and play, say, online cricket? Of course, there is going to be a knock-on effect on the industry, but gaming won't go down. It’s like banning one show on Netflix. People will go to other shows on the platform.”
“There are influencers who make money creating content on YouTube. They make money through ads, or sponsors on YouTube. Will their money become lesser? It depends on how good a content they make with other games that their millions of followers will watch.”
“There are gamers who compete in tournaments to make a livelihood. Gamers are not reliant on the game for income. The money comes in from teams. It's like Rohit Sharma for Mumbai Indians (MI). When Sharma is dependent on MI for paying his salary, MI can walk out of this deal and say we're firing a lot of players because we don't see hope in this situation. I don't think that will happen. I honestly believe PUBG Mobile and the government of India will figure out a solution.”
Speaking on the possible impact on in-game advertising, Vaibhav Odhekar, co-founder and COO of POKKT (a mobile video advertising platform), says that advertisers/marketers will most likely tweak their targeting strategy to either try and capture a larger/broader set of apps (which is currently fragmented), or surgically approach the top competitors of PUBG Mobile to ensure cumulative audience reach.
“In either case, in due course, audiences are bound to move towards alternatives that will create stickiness. This will also provide budding app developers with the opportunity to innovate and evolve,” Odhekar signs off.
(With inputs from Aishwarya Ramesh.)