Mobile gaming is emerging as the prime pastime as record numbers of consumers practice social distancing and use their downtime to discover new games or binge on favorites. Players are also congregating on esports platforms, digital safe spaces where they can compete on skill, and win big on prize money. It’s an irresistible combination at a time when the increase in our collective leisure time is matched only by our heightened anxiety about the spread of the coronavirus.
This dynamic has prompted Newzoo, a company providing games and esports analytics and market research, to update its revenue model and forecasts. Globally, the company says, the total esports audience will be just shy of 500 million players in 2020. Global esports revenues will cross the $1 billion mark for the first time.
Mobile is the main driver, accelerating the advance of esports in high-growth markets and regions. More importantly, mobile has also unleashed monetization methods, content formats, revenue streams (such as streaming and digital goods) and a new lineup of players to watch.
One company leading the pack is Mobile Premier League (MPL), India’s fastest growing esports platform. Backed by marquee investors, including Sequoia Capital, Go Ventures, and Times Internet, MPL has hit some impressive milestones since it launched in September 2018. Today, over 40 million registered users engage with nearly 40 games on the platform. The growing assortment includes chess, quiz, carrom, fantasy sports and rummy—all available on a single mobile app. (Users pay a registration fee to participate in games and tournaments on the MPL app.)
Better than the real thing
The platform got a massive boost in February when MPL announced the integration of the World Cricket Championship Rivals game from Nextwave Multimedia, a title that claims over 11 million downloads. The move was a smart one. It was also perfectly timed to cash in on the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket games, the richest and most popular T20 franchise league in the world. The tournament was originally set to be played from March 29-May 24. However, the games, like so many other sporting events, were canceled to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Fortunately, fans unable to attend the event in the physical world (which typically attracts an audience of over a billion people and pumps more than $11 billion into the Indian economy) don’t have to miss out on all the excitement.Sai Srinivas Kiran G, MPL Co-Founder and CEO, tells me in an interview that users are flocking to the MPL platform for the opportunity to experience the action and monetize their skills across the five cricket games currently offered on the MPL platform. In fact, from March 2 to March 18, MPL reports, the number of daily gameplays for the World Cricket Championship games rocketed 4x. [Disclosure: I interviewed Sai as the host of Reimagine Growth, a bi-weekly series on Mobile Presence, sponsored by CleverTap.]
Cricket fever around this time of the year was a big bonus for MPL last year as well. Sai (as he prefers to be called) tells me that cricket games as a group “beat seasonality” pulling in crowds before, during, and after the tournaments. One title in the winner’s circle is Cricket Clash, a real-time multiplayer cricket game created by indie game studio YesGnome. It drove nearly $15,000 (10lakhs INR) in entry fees when it was launched on the platform last November. That amount has increased more than 5x in three months to reach $75,000 (52lakhs INR). The game has since clocked over 7.25 million total gameplays.
But cricket isn’t the only crowd-pleaser. MPL has been quick to sign on more titles, providing people more ways to pass the time and earn some money. The company recently introduced quiz games on its platform, a gaming app subcategory that counts 2 million gameplays in just 3 weeks since launch.
Expansion plans and engagement lessons
The deals—and the gains—are coming fast and furious for MPL, allowing it to dominate as India’s fastest-growing platform. But MPL has its eye on a much bigger prize: expansion. Outside of India, MPL has established operations in Indonesia, dubbed the “fastest-growing market,” according to global app trends data from mobile measurement company Adjust. Since launching there in June 2019 MPL just crossed 3 million registered users, up from 2 million at the start of the year.
MPL Indonesia may have started out “burning money” to acquire users. However, it’s now making money thanks to an approach that inspires users to play to win, supported by a voucher system that sets a limit on withdrawals of the virtual in-app currency called Diamonds. If players choose to withdraw 1,000 Diamonds or more from their winnings, it comes with a 10% cut—which translates into 6% for taxes and 4% for MPL. The more users withdraw their winnings, the more money MPL makes. It’s the main reason why Joe Wadakethalakal, MPL Indonesia CEO, says business there exceeds expectations and forecasts. “We smashed our target for the quarter,” he said in a statement.
MPL is also expanding its platform offer, preparing to develop and distribute content and, ultimately, offer live streaming and chat. It’s an ambitious plan–but it’s also well within reach for Sai, who recently made the Entrepreneur 35under35, a list of the “35 most remarkable entrepreneurs of India who’ve aspired to greatness and are well on the way to achieving their goals.”
The first step in this direction is the addition of audio content, allowing users with limited data plans to connect with their favorite players. “It’s an experiment that worked, and now it’s a full-blown feature with a massive audience,” Sai says. The next weeks will be busy ones as MPL gears up to launch live streaming across the platform, giving pro-gamers another channel to reach and engage their followers and help enthusiasts improve their gaming skills.
It’s all part of a wider strategy to engage users spoilt for choice—and keep them coming back. “Games, like any form of content, come with an expiration date. People play for a while and then move on to the next game,” Sai explains.”We use CleverTap to see the early warning signs of when a user is starting to get bored and respond quickly with communications, at a very personalized level, to recommend other games or content to stop them from churning.”
It’s the same data-driven model that saves MPL investments the other direction, pinpointing player segments they need to let go, not pay to keep. “There’s always a risk of churn, but if a user is going to churn a month or so after they start playing, and after you pump all the money into enticing them to stay, then you’re much better off letting go of them sooner,” Sai explains.
He also advises marketers to segment users early on and build customer journeys to give users what they came to see in the first place. “It’s the simple things that have the biggest impact on conversion rates,” Sai says. “Making sure the ad you show and the game they see when they come onto the platform are the same, or knowing the channels that bring you your best users and optimizing for them, before you start a campaign and open the flood gates.”
A disconnect here could be a disaster, especially now when MPL, like many, is seeing a tidal wave of interest and new users, he adds. “Even if users are coming through in large numbers, they expect to be treated as individuals.” This approach will become even more critical when MPL—which recently signed Virat Kohli, Captain of the India Cricket Team—flips the switch on a massive media and branding campaign that will tap creative agencies Taproot Dentsu and Prime Focus Technologies to produce videos and commercials for digital platforms and TV.
Growth through optimization
Mobile gaming is breaking records. The past week saw users download a whopping 1.2 billion mobile games globally—amounting to the biggest week ever for app installs, according to app store intelligence provider App Annie. Its data for Q1 2020 is a string of superlatives: highest ever quarter for consumer spend ($23.4 billion in total), significant increase in app engagement (20% rise in daily time spent in-app in Q1 2020 compared to Q1 2019), and a phenomenal rise in downloads. In total consumers downloaded over 13 billion games in Q1 2020, accounting for 40% of the 31 billion apps downloaded over the period. Consumers also spent over $16.7 billion on mobile games in Q1 2020.
While Sai sees the opportunity to acquire record numbers of players for his platform, he is also cautious. “If you aren’t smart about who you get, and the user journey you plan for, it could cost you a lot in the long run.” His focus on retention dovetails with warnings from app industry and marketing experts that winning big at a time when users are bored is an edge that could shrink when social-distancing rules are less stringent. Mobile Dev Memo posits that, while the performance metrics may be rising into the stratosphere, marketers should think twice before doubling down on user acquisition. “Many of these users will not monetize like previous cohorts,” the blog concludes.
The path to growth may not be a walk in the park for games publishers. But gaming platforms have a sustainable edge, observes Karol Severin, an analyst with MIDiA Research, a boutique analysis, data and consulting firm focused on the business of entertainment, digital media and tech. In the face of a global pandemic, he places his bets on gaming to weather the storm. Gaming platforms have “the infrastructure to host all other forms of content and entertainment and become a prominent facilitator of cross-entertainment partnerships in our new era,” he writes in a research note.
Unlike many TV and entertainment companies that have had to put production on-hold, gaming platforms are running on all cylinders. They can harness the talent and reach of games studios to meet increased user demand for games and gaming content, a supply that will skyrocket as more publishers join platforms to reach and engage new audiences. Distribution is also a breeze. Self-isolation doesn’t pose an issue to gaming platforms. It presents an incredible opportunity for gaming platforms like MPL to be a major media platform and content provider in one.