If the IPL was a game-changer for sports consumption in India catapulting fan engagement to unprecedented heights, we now have augmented businesses propelling fan engagement to new limits. The popularity of any sport is inextricably bound to its spectators and fan base, and we in India have witnessed in the past few years, the phenomenon of Indian sports fans experiencing sports in ways we could not imagine before. Fans are no longer merely watching and applauding; they fully engage, participate, play and earn rewards, just as the players do, and in real-time.
Welcome to the world of Online Fantasy Sports (OFS) — which has enhanced and enriched the sports-viewing experience by providing a new level of immersion for fans.
OFS platforms enable sports viewers to be personally invested in every ball, pass or point, making their experience far more intimate than before. Fans experience a level of control they never did before. So powerful has the OFS revolution been, that in a world where alternate avenues of entertainment are hijacking viewer attention by the day, online fantasy sports have helped not only to retain, but have incredibly increased viewership of sports.
What’s The Difference Between Online Gaming & Online Fantasy Sports?
That OFS platforms are being endorsed by cricket icons like MS Dhoni, Rohit Sharma and Saurav Ganguly says enough for the rapidly growing OFS story. And when we add the ever-growing number of sports leagues who are partnering with OFS platforms to increase their fans’ engagement, we can gauge the true picture — online fantasy sports are here to stay.
There is a fundamental difference between OFS platforms and online gaming.
While online gaming is primarily about playing games in the puzzle, adventure genres through role-play, OFS platforms enable you to use your knowledge of the game to select, manage and strategise with real players and teams, based on the player or team’s real performance. Your knowledge of the sport, ability to research and pick the right team like a real-life selector literally pays off. So rapidly have cricket fans in India caught on to OFS platforms that from a mere 10 operators in 2016 we have 140 plus OFS operators today.
What Explains Rapid Growth Of Online Fantasy Sports Market In India?
In the US, the OFS industry is worth 7.8 bn USD (ET). In India, the OFS industry is still in a nascent phase but has shown promising trends. A report by the Federation of Indian Fantasy Sports (FIFS)-Kantar has shown that 60 percent of OFS users watch and follow more sports than before, 59 percent users have started watching new types of sports primarily because of their interest in Fantasy Sports, 87 percent browse more information to research for their participation and 48 percent have watched new sports thanks to OFS.
With newer audiences viewing sports in the country, the possibility of resources becoming available for non-mainstream sports such as football, hockey, kabaddi, handball and volleyball, sports which have been starved for attention and money in India, could soon become a reality.
Currently, cricket leads the OFS field in terms of popularity by some distance, followed by football, kabaddi, hockey and others.
The growth of India’s fantasy sports market over the past few years is owed to increased internet connectivity and the proliferation of smartphones. Mobile phones are the favoured device for OFS users. As per a KPMG report, Online Fantasy Sports industry has already generated a user base of 90 million, Rs 2,400 crore in annual revenue and can generate Rs 10,000 crore in the form of foreign direct investments in the next few years. A 2019 PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report states that the sector is likely to generate nearly 12,000 additional jobs through direct and indirect employment in the next few years.
And at the rate at which it is growing, OFS has the potential to serve as a catalyst for the overall growth of the digital ecosystem.
Does The Category Of ‘Online Fantasy Sports’ Deserve Its Own Niche In Indian Economy?
Its market augmenting potential aside, OFS is subtly transforming the sports ecosystem in India. While cricket has enjoyed a central role in sports, the OFS sector, due to its presence and nature of its engagement, is promoting viewership for sports that until now were largely enjoyed by a niche audience. An increased user base translates to higher demand for more sporting events, and thereby for promotion of local talent. Additional opportunities present themselves in ancillary industries such as player management, sponsorship, entertainment, nutrition, food & beverage, to name a few.
It is an acknowledgement of this potential that the NITI Aayog recently published the Draft ‘Guiding Principles for National-Level Regulation of Online Fantasy Sports’.
In light of the above, it is perhaps time that the OFS industry deserves its own niche within the economic landscape of India.
Are Online Fantasy Sports Akin To Gambling Or Betting?
There is a line of thought amongst some critics who feel that OFS is a form of betting or gambling.
On this matter, there have been High Court rulings from the states of Punjab and Haryana, Mumbai and Rajasthan which state that OFS as a format is predominantly skill-based and is not betting and gambling since it involves deployment of strategy and analysis of real-world players in real-world sporting events. Due in part to its relative infancy in India’s digital ecosystem, it is clubbed under the broader umbrella of online gaming. However, OFS holds a unique value proposition as a sports engagement platform and must be recognised as a separate, distinct industry from gaming.
How Recognition Of Online Fantasy Sports Industry Can Help India Grow
The compounding growth of the OFS user base is a demonstration of its distinction as a sports engagement platform as opposed to online gaming. The sector’s symbiotic relationship with sports backed by strong tech innovations is making sports far more engaging and enjoyable for all sports fans.
The timely recognition of the OFS industry could boost its contribution to India’s larger goals in terms of economy and employment.
Today, India is well poised to be a global hub for Fantasy Sports, a position which would allow it to have a far greater say in international sports developments and commerce. An intersection of our national obsessions - cricket, entertainment, and technology - has created this unique economic opportunity. With the right guidelines and framework, there could be a whole new meaning to sports engagement as a billion people start leveraging fantasy sports as a non-addictive, transparent form of sport engagement.
(Mr Harimohan Paruvu is a former Hyderabad Ranji Trophy player and selector, author of cricket books ‘The Men Within’, ‘50 Not Out’ and ‘The Renaissance Man’. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)