NODWIN Gaming’s Akshat Rathee on the Power of Mobile Esports in India, Thriving in a Pandemic

In a recent interview, NODWIN Gaming Managing Director Akshat Rathee went into great detail about PUBG Mobile’s ban in India and the potential ramifications of the popular mobile battle royale game not returning from its government-imposed exile (you can read the first part of TEO’s interview here). 

But the top executive of one of India’s biggest tournament organizers had a lot more to say about a number of important topics including the power of mobile in India, why Twitch isn’t a popular platform in the region, how the company has performed during the COVID-19 pandemic, why 50M PC gamers sounds more impressive on paper than it really is, and his plans to operate tournaments in new regions in 2021. 

Mobile is King of Gaming and Esports in India

The real action in India is in mobile gaming, particularly esports. Yes, a majority of that was, prior to the ban, focused on PUBG Mobile, but there are other options waiting in the wings, and though the game lit the fire for the industry in India, a great proliferation of mobile devices makes finding another game along the similar vein probable. For the high-end phone user in the country there are games like Call of Duty: Mobile, and at the lower end of the spectrum is Garena’s Free Fire, which can be played on a variety of devices. Other games such as WCC Cricket (which has 40M monthly active users) and Ludo King (75M monthly active users) are also showing potential in India.

Supporting these and other games is a mobile broadband infrastructure in the country that has seen amazing growth over the last several years. This advancement in broadband mobile infrastructure, which is available at a relatively lower price to consumers, makes whatever direction the industry wants to go into, particularly when online competition is a must, fairly easy.

“I’m talking to you right now on a gigabit internet service at my house; my office has 5GB internet, we have several studios there… it cost 9 – 10 cents for a gigabyte download on a mobile phone. I can download 30 – 50GB a month. India is not infrastructurally challenged anymore. That was in question four years ago,” Akshat said.

 

Currently, there are more than 700M smartphone users in India, according to market research firm Statista, and a report by the Indian Cellular and Electronics Association and research firm KPMG projects that number to surpass 820M by 2022

NODWIN Gaming Sees Gains Despite Pandemic

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge for most companies, NODWIN has seen a measure of success, divesting of live in-person events in favor of online-only affairs. Rathee says that while other sectors have struggled with mandatory stay at home orders and safety procedures related to the pandemic, NODWIN has seen substantial gains in a number of areas.

“Net positive is the easiest way to describe it. Our revenues are up, our viewership is up, our tournaments are up, our sponsorships are up. We’ve added more partners during this time than before. The reason we’ve been a little more successful than some Western tournament organizers is because fundamentally we are poor. I often say, think of esports as this beach, and companies like ESL and DreamHack have these real nice towers beside the beach and everything, and we built this beach shack on the site — this is India — and nobody cares about India because there’s no money here, but that’s all we could afford.

“Then came this Tsunami called COVID and we just surfed it on our beach shack we call online-only studios.”

Rathee goes on to say that the cost associated with events is high in India, and in the early days of doing business in the country, sometimes there wasn’t a quantifiable return on investment.

“Physical events in my country are very expensive and we could never afford sponsorships or endorsements that could cover the costs. And the reason for that, again comes between the value of, say a German, Swedish, or American consumer. Versus an Indian consumer, the Indian consumer’s value is the cheapest just in the way that business works. So [with] 20K people in Europe, the brands will be willing to pay an arm and a leg to drive traffic to them, versus 20K people in India, you won’t get as much money. And since we weren’t getting a lot of money from physical events, they were cool marketing tools to showcase to our partners and sponsors.

“And so when we took away those really expensive marketing tools and we segued into content generation and something that would give us 4M views gave us 10M views, every one of our partners liked it and said ‘do more of that’ and our partnerships increased.”

Why YouTube and Other Streaming Platforms Beat Twitch in India

Rathee also explained why Twitch isn’t a leader in streaming and viewership in the country. The growth of mobile broadband and the proliferation of mobile devices explains why streaming services such as Twitch don’t do very well in India; part of this is because Apple and Google want a piece of everything, and Twitch is mostly used on PCs and not mobile devices. This is why YouTube, Disney+ hotstar, and other services are the platforms of choice for India.

“As a market, you’ll have to go in and destroy certain notions. First, India doesn’t watch Twitch, because 92% of the people who watch Twitch are from desktop. India doesn’t watch on desktop, we watch on mobile. On mobile, YouTube’s experience is much better than Twitch’s experience. Twitch doesn’t want a mobile app because it’s too much of a headache to go and do something for a customer base that doesn’t care about it. Nobody watches Twitch on mobile and India doesn’t watch anything on desktop.”

When Having 50M Users Isn’t That Impressive 

The PC bangs (Internet cafes) that were once popular throughout the country have declined thanks to a growing middle class who can now afford personal computers of their own or a mobile device and can connect to broadband that is more affordable. There are 50M PC gamers in the country but only a small fraction of them are actually involved in esports related-endeavors, according to Rathee.

“So the basic means internet connectivity for us is this [he holds up his phone]. Mobile gaming has done well for us. We have 50M PC gamers. 50M. If I told you we have 50M PC gamers you’d be super excited if it were any other country, but a country like India and you’re like “eh, why should I even bother; its not worth the effort because it has no relevance or scale. Maybe 35M will play a single player game like GTA or Minecraft, but [the number of] Valorant, Counter-Strike, or Dota 2 players are much smaller, right? And it’s not because their connectivity is bad, it’s just not social enough. Esports and gaming are social constructs.”

NODWIN Gaming’s Expansion Plans in 2021

Finally, Rathee said that the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t holding back the company’s expansion plans. NODWIN will carefully expand into the Middle East and Africa in 2021, with a focus on Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya.

“The reason is, Nigeria is one of the most evolved technology and Internet markets in Africa. South Africa is the gateway for aspirations for most Africans, which are not in North Africa. Kenya is another place which is very stable and they can have cultural content that is theirs alone.” 

And While NODWIN is keen to enter into the Middle East, Rathee wants to do so with caution.

“The Middle East is very confusing for us. So there is money there, right? And everyone talks about stupid money there, but to me, stupid money is always dangerous money. Esports in the Middle East brings one fundamental challenge, which is religion and sensitivity to local traditions.”

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