Unable to bet legally, tens of millions of Indian cricket fans have turned to fantasy games based on the Indian Premier League (IPL), which have exploited a loophole to create a billion-dollar industry.
Bolstered by foreign investment, Indian firms have invested heavily in the cash-for-points online games, despite fears that government regulation could put the new industry at risk.
Dream11 — now the main sponsor for the IPL, the final of which was played in Dubai last night — said that it has more than 100 million users for its cricket, soccer and NBA platforms.
Users pay a fee, often less than US$0.50, to join a contest that escapes India’s ban on gambling because it is considered a game of skill. They register a team of favorite players and win points for their performances in IPL games, which can be turned into cash.
The number of fantasy games has mushroomed for this year’s IPL, which is being held in the United Arab Emirates as India struggles with the world’s second biggest COVID-19 outbreak.
Despite the possibility of new regulations, the cash is rolling in, and industry players say that the sector could grow to be worth billions of dollars.
When software engineer Amit Bhandari started playing Dream11’s fantasy cricket two years ago, he never expected to get hooked on its promise of easy money.
“I am still awaiting my big-money day,” said the 38-year-old, who called the habit “harmless,” even though he hides it from his family, fearing disapproval.
The stigma is familiar to Vinit Godara, cofounder of MyTeam11, a fantasy platform launched in 2016.
In its early years, the company could not get a digital payment platform or a corporate bank account, due to worries about even a hint of betting in India.
Match-fixing scandals regularly hit cricket, and Godara has struggled to explain the difference between fantasy sports and illegal betting to customers.
However this year, Indian fans have seized on fantasy gaming, eager to escape the boredom of being in lockdown and encouraged by a marketing blitz featuring top stars such as India captain Virat Kohli.
“The IPL has come as a boon for the fantasy gaming industry, and we have observed a significant jump in user engagement,” Godara said.
Other platforms have also seen a surge in business.
“We are looking at crossing 80 million users by the end of the IPL,” said Sai Srinivas, cofounder of the Mobile Premier League app.
The Games24x7 platform is predicting a 900 percent growth in paid users from last year to this year because of “pent-up demand in the lockdown,” cofounder Bhavin Pandya said.
Foreign investors are also eager to join in.
Indian fantasy platforms have attracted more than US$200 million in foreign investment since 2018, including from US hedge funds such as Tiger Global and Chinese online giant Tencent Holdings, think tank IndiaTech.org said.
Only 20 percent of an estimated 100 million Indian gamers pay to play on fantasy platforms, while the others stick to free games.
The firms predict major growth, but worries dog the industry.
“There is no regulation… and five or six states have banned different forms of online gaming including fantasy sports,” IndiaTech.org chief executive officer Rameesh Kailasam said.
For now, India’s government seems content to play the game. The sector contributed more than US$60 million in taxes in the past tax year, but the situation remains unpredictable.
Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.