Indian esports continues to resemble a gold-rush. If we break up esports in to major markets, The West (North America and Europe), East Asia, China, and South-East Asia have all had their respective esports booms and are now headed in to a mature phase. Latin America, led by Brazil, joined the party as well. Now, it’s India’s time to shine. Built on a foundation of Population, Youth and Mobile – India could be gaming’s promised land.
At last count, there were over 365 million gamers in India. That’s more than 1 in 3 people in a country of 1.4 billion people! India’s esports ecosystem surged on the popularity of PUBG Mobile from 2018 until the middle of the CoVid19 pandemic. Upon the PUBG ban, it seemed India’s esports ecosystem was almost wiped out; Garena’s Free Fire and Activision’s Call of Duty Mobile (CODM) rushed in to occupy this void and sustained the market to a big extent. It seems Indian gamers have a love affair with the mobile platform and the Battle Royale genre. The oft-heard phrase, “India is a PUBG ecosystem”, aptly captured this sentiment. As Free Fire and CODM continue to grow, and with the forthcoming relaunch of PUBG, team owners and investors are gearing up for an exciting 2021.
Does it then make sense to invest in a non-PUBG (or Non-Battle Royale) squad in India? Clearly, amongst a gaming population so huge, prospective team owners could identify niche pockets or early-move advantages in other games and genres to stand out and build their esports IP. As a community-first esports company, we understand the value that going niche can create for teams, owners and marketers. Let’s look at some titles that might make interesting propositions for this case.
League of Legends: Wild Rift
There are, obviously, traditional favorites. League of Legends (LOL) is a global phenomenon that has sustained its fan base for over a decade now. Often cited as the world’s largest esport, LOL does have a dedicated fan base in India as well. The niche, PC-based gaming community takes the game very seriously. [Interestingly, the game even plays an important part in the storyline of the Netflix India Original series – Mismatched].
With the lack of big successes for Indian teams on the global arena, and presumably due to the lack of viewership, the game’s publisher – Riot Games – has so far not made huge investments in the region.
To break out from the sidelines, however, Riot Games is now gearing up a mobile rendition of LOL. Titled League of Legends: Wild Rift, the game is expected to launch in India in Q2 2021. This has already started generating a lot of conversation among Indian audiences. Upon opening up registrations for its Beta-Program in November, interest peaked in the game. Indian gamers are eager to join in on a global phenomenon, with top teams already beginning their investment plans for the Wild Rift arena. For esports audiences as well, Wild Rift offers a fresh flavor of non-Battle Royale titles in the form of a new MOBA game.
Riot Games has historically done a fabulous job with developing the esports ecosystem around its titles. With Wild Rift and the focus on mobile, there seems to be a clear intention to tap in to the Indian (and other developing markets’) esports scene.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
Another old school title, and certainly one of the most popular in India, is Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO). The fourth rendition in the Counter Strike franchise, the multiplayer First Person Shooter title continues to remain popular among PC gamers in India, especially in college dorm rooms. CS:GO has a steady stream of talent entering the fray, which has consequently led to the rising number of its esports teams.
Then, there’s Rocket League – an Epic Games title that is a favorite in the West (especially among traditional sports teams) as a point of entry in to esports. The gameplay is simple but fun – A team (of usually three players) drives rocket-powered vehicles with the goal of hitting a ball into the opponent's goal. The team with most goals over the course of a match wins. With no depiction of violence (unlike Battle Royale or MOBA titles), Rocket League is age-agnostic, easy to understand and fun to watch yet competitive, which makes it attractive to brands, sports teams and investors looking to build esports communities. The game lacks a mobile version, though, which might be a put-off for those looking at a wide esports spread in India, but is an ideal candidate for those looking to develop niche esports audiences in the country.
Clash Royale and Brawl Stars are two other games that may be considered brand-safe, as well as fun to watch for audiences. Published by Supercell, the games are pure-play mobile titles and have pulled in investments from major esports teams including Nova, PSG Esports, AC Milan QLASH and AK Gaming.
Rainbow Six Siege
The title lacks a mobile version, which explains why it doesn’t feature among the 10 titles in India, but it still commands a loyal fan base that is still growing. To add to this, Ubisoft – the publisher of the game – has opened up an invitational slot for a South Asian team in its 2021 Rainbow Six World Cup qualifiers. With time, increasing quality of squads and sponsor partnerships in tournaments, the game has exciting growth prospects in the country.
Some Other Option to Consider
To complete this list of titles, it’s only fair to talk about two much ignored genres from an investment perspective. The first is the fighting games genre that includes titles such as Mortal Kombat and Tekken. The games require highly skilled players, and cater to very small communities. However, these titles offer great prospects for celebrities or athletes looking to extend their brand with an incredibly fun genre and engaging their fans. The second genre includes sports simulations titles such as the FIFA franchise by Electronic Arts, Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) by Konami and NBA by 2k Games. Again, squads in the genre require highly skilled gamers considering the global competition involves players who may have spent years improving their game.
Finally, it would be unfair to leave this discussion without talking about one of the fastest rising games in the esports fraternity today – Chess! The game has seen a sudden rise in popularity during the pandemic, both in terms of players picking it up as well as viewership on streaming platforms. And while India was an early leader in online Chess, the game has begun to see a global resurgence thanks to the release of Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. Chess, of course, is perhaps the most credibility safe game in the world today. With a legacy of over two millennia, standardized global rules and interest from both Grandmasters as well as amateurs, it seems Chess is poised for unstoppable growth online.
None of this is to take away anything from what PUBG, Free Fire or CODM have managed to achieve. Each of them deserves their success in India, having helped create the esports industry of the country. However, brands, celebrities or financial investors can explore the niches in the ecosystem and exploit the opportunity these offer. One, clearly, is to stand out in a crowded market and own a space with a dedicated audience. Another, is to take the lead in taking an Indian squad to the global arena – with a potential to inspire millions of Indian esports lovers to become a part of the fan community. And finally, partnering with niche, smaller titles helps develop the games’ ecosystems in the country. Needless to say, this does not go unappreciated by the publishers, who are happy to extend a helping hand in any way possible to grow the community.
The opportunities then, are endless.