Covid is fast turning cricket virtual, and by that, we do not just mean the artificial cheers and claps that eerily follow the sound of willow thwacking a ball into empty spectator stands. The ascendance of Dream11, a fantasy gaming platform, into the game’s spotlight in India marks the coming of age of virtual cricket. The Mumbai-based company that owns this brand has put down big money, a reported ₹222 crore, for the privilege of playing the title sponsor of this year’s Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament to be held in the United Arab Emirates next month. After bigger names like Tata Sons, Reliance Jio and Patanjali dropped out of the reckoning, it outbid e-learning start-ups Byju’s and Unacademy. Dream11 replaces Vivo, the Chinese phone maker that had acquired title rights for five years until 2022 for an annual fee of ₹440 crore but had to retire hurt from the IPL arena after India-China ties came apart. Covid jitters and fewer bidders explain the cheaper sponsorship rights this year. Yet, ₹222 crore is a jaw-dropping sum for the 2008-founded Dream11. By one calculation, its revenues this year would have to be triple its 2018-19 estimate for the IPL outlay to be under one-tenth of its topline, the ad spend proportion that big advertisers try not to overshoot, globally. But then, this is an internet unicorn, valued above $1 billion, and is clearly betting on explosive growth.
It may turn out to be a worthy bet. This is because a larger than suspected part of the sport’s appeal might lie beyond its physical thrills. Virtual cricket has beaten sceptics to succeed. At one time, only simple games were deemed suitable for online play, the sort that involve each side trying to go one-up on the other’s score of goals. In time, what had seemed like a disadvantage, the complexity of cricket’s format, emerged as a key attraction. Of course, its high popularity in India has helped, but we can attribute some of its success to its unique blend of target-orientation and strategy, all of it enhanced by its “glorious uncertainties”. The virtual version of the game leaves even more to chance. Throw in financial rewards, as Dream11 has done, and it offers a heady buzz of adrenaline without anyone having to move more than a finger or thumb. The platform that is hoping to lure millions of IPL fans does let its users make such decisions as team selection, a captaincy skill. But the game itself appears to go by random outcomes. To spice it up, the app allows one to predict how a player will perform and awards points for accuracy. Those who play for cash can win a pot of money—minus a service fee—filled by other participants.
Gaming is booming in India not just for the fun of playing, it seems, but for the thrill of playing for money. With covid keeping people indoors, market revenues could soar. Dream11 is not alone. Start-ups such as Nazara, Paytm First Games and Games24*7 are in the field too. All appear to have expanded their user bases vastly since the corona outbreak. Lofty profit projections are being made. Global investors are moving in. It is not a riskless business, though. Its tax and regulatory burden could tighten if it gets adjudged as a game of chance, rather than skill, someday. So far, Dream11’s skill claims have legally been upheld. On this count, it has 222 on the board without loss.