One would have thought that Dream 11 was having a dream run; and would continue to dream the dream of not just having become a unicorn in just a few years, but also taking a near 100% stranglehold of the fantasy gaming business. It splurged perhaps INR 500 crore on advertising in the last IPL and the recently concluded Cricket World Cup. Its ads were all over cricket, with Mahendra Singh Dhoni as the brand ambassador. Earlier it had used Harsha Bhogle too, but its big league status perhaps now warranted a bigger star-ambassador. Hence, Dhoni. In fact, in the Indian Institute of Human Brands survey on recall of celebrity ads on cricket, Dream 11 came in third after Byju’s and Uber in recall, and scored a creditable 67 on the Celebar index.
But all so suddenly, Dream 11 seems to have competition. MyTeamXI.com and Mycircle11.com seem to have emerged as two major competitors. While MyTeamXI has hired Virender Sehwag as its anchor, Mycircle11 has sought out the services of former skipper Saurav Ganguly to push its franchise. Both brands are very active and very visible on the broadcast of the current West Indies series.
Dream 11 strangely though is noticeably absent. Earlier, though not as visible, the Mobile Premier League had roped in Captain Virat Kohli to challenge Dream 11, and claims to have got in 10 million customers onboard and had spent not-so-insignificant monies on Hotstar to promote its game. In fact, the likes of HalaPlay too were seen sporadically advertising on Hotstar, though with frequencies well below threshold. So, it is no longer a one-horse race anymore. Dream 11 claimed 1 million registered users in 2014, reported 2 million in 2016, a number which catapulted to 45 million in 2018 and finally to 70 million in 2019. There have been claims as far fetched as 300 million users too but that figure seems highly exaggerated. Anycase, the field has proliferated with as many as 35 fantasy leagues vying for the cricket fan today : Dream11, BalleBaazi, Fantain, Howzat, PlayerzPot, My11Circle, HalaPlay, Fantasy Power11, Gamezy, Play11, BackBoardKing, MPL, My11VIP, LeagueX, RotoBash, LivePool, Nostra Pro, Dotball, Dolostar, FanMojo, MyTeam11, Faboom, GamePind, Rooter, LeaguesX, KhelChamp, Funtasy11, CricketPlusPlus, Prosports11, Fanfight11, Wickets Indus, Game Cricking, Duels DuggOut and CricMoney! There could be more.
Many of these leagues seem to have heavy-artillery investor support. Dream11 is a Series D funded company with Tencent leading the latest round in April 2019 with USD 100 million; Steadview Capital completed a secondary investment in Dream11 with an investment of USD 60 million. Apart from Steadview, Dream11’s investors included Kalaari Capital, Think Investments and Multiples Equity. Market estimates put Dream 11 at a USD 1-1.5 billion valuation. Mobile Premier League (MPL) has raised USD35.5 Mn in a Series A funding round led by Sequoia India, Times Internet, and GoVentures. Other investors including RTP Global, BEENEXT, Base Ventures, and Venture Highway who also participated in the round. So this is becoming a game of deep pockets and indiscriminate spending.
My mind goes back to 2008. On a whim one day, I decided to launch a fantasy league to coincide with the Indian Premier League that the BCCI was then planning to launch. There was no such gaming product in the market at that time; so I kind of became the pioneer of the category. PR releases from Dream 11 do claim that they too started in 2008 when founders Harsh Jain and Bhavit Sheth first got into gaming, but honestly I had never ever heard of them back then, nor had anyone else. Any case, I called my fantasy game the Indian Fantasy League (IFL). A chance meeting with Karthik Reddy (now one of the founders of Blume Ventures) who was then with the Times group led to Bennet Coleman picking up 50% stake in the venture (for a song, but for unlimited advertising in return). I had my in-house digital team (we had over 200 developers working with us those days) get to work on a deadline that seemed almost impossible. In less than 15 days, we had the fantasy league portal up and running. A day before IPL 1 opened, we went live, with Airtel as title sponsor, 10 Innovas as first prizes, 20 Yamaha bikes as the next best prizes, and 100 Canon cameras to those that scored next best. IFL was a super-duper hit. Our servers crashed within the first 90 minutes. We were registering over 100 teams a minute. The number shot up five times by the first evening. We were just not engineered to take on that kind of traffic. I had to deploy tens more of coders and multiple servers to keep the game running.
We climbed to a world No. 43 rank on Alexa in Week 1. Mobile usage those days because of primarily 2G phones was minimal. So the game was played primarily on PCs and laptops. With mobile the numbers would have been stratospheric.
Then bad luck hit us. IFL’s visible success did not escape the notice of Lalit Modi, the czar of the IPL. He tried to scare me through some of his minions. I refused to be cowed down. The BCCI dragged us to Madras High Court. And a ten-years long battle commenced, only to end in 2018 after the kind intervention of Rahul Johri, the current CEO of the BCCI.
IFL by then was not just doing cricket, but running fantasy games on football, Formula 1, the Olympics, the elections, the stock exchange (we were the official mock game of The Economic Times, powered by the BSE) and more. Business was booming. We were doing 30-40 million registered users. And about 21 minutes of daily time spent on the game per user. More importantly, without any investor monies (but yes tonnes of advertising including many full pages courtesy The Times of India) we were very very popular, and decently profitable. But legal pressures, constant threats to my sponsors from the BCCI and the stress of running a product that had a sword of Damocles constantly hanging over it, finally got me to shutter up IFL in 2012. I wish I hadn’t succumbed so early, so easily. IFL would have been worth many Dream 11s today.
Dream 11 did a few things I never managed to do with IFL. They bought legitimacy rather than fight the BCCI, like I ended up doing. In March 2019, Dream 11signed on as the Official Partner of the IPL with BCCI. They also started to ‘power’ the official fantasy game of the BCCI. Dream 11 also signed up a partnership with the ICC. Basically, they bought insurance. And ensured they rather paid than litigate. Wise. Dream 11 also survived writ petitions in the courts which allowed it a slew of concessions like using real names of players, being classified as ‘a game of skill’ rather than a game of chance which ensured it stayed on the right side of the law. Ultimately, the entire category will benefit from these generic gains.
But whatever be the valuations, all of the current fantasy leagues are just burning cash on acquiring customers and re-acquiring them. Real revenues seem a distant dream. At IFL, we made money every single year of operations. But we were stupidly into building a P&L; the real name of the game is ensnaring investors and talking-up valuations based on erratic fan loyalty and games that restart with every new series or championship and end with a thud if India loses. The fantasy leagues, everyone says are doing well, but what ‘well’ translates into is still a big question mark. Nevertheless, good to just dream on! That too billions in valuations.
(Dr Sandeep Goyal is an advertising and media veteran.)