All set to un­leash In­dia’s big­gest e-gam­ing league UCypher in Jan­uary 2018, Screw­vala be­lieves that the event will speak for it­self.


Ev­ery year in Septem­ber Elec­tronic Arts launches FIFA the most widely played com­puter sports game of the world. Last year, the gam­ing gi­ant launched a new one in­tro­duc­ing vir­tual ath­lete ‘Hunter’. This year, Co­caCola an­nounced Hunter as the brand am­bas­sador of Coke Zero Sugar. That is just an in­di­ca­tor of the power of e-sports.

That growth has re­sulted in the emer­gence of sev­eral leagues across the globe. Some of the big­ger ones have prize monies worth over $20 mil­lion up for grabs. The re­cently-con­cluded TI7 (The In­ter­na­tional 2017) had a record prize of $24 mil­lion. Euro­pean team Liq­uid de­feated Chi­nese group New­bie to lift the cham­pi­onship and take away $10.8 mil­lion.

TI is a DOTA 2 (the fan­tasy strat­egy game hosted by Valve Corp) cham­pi­onship that is closely fol­lowed by League of Leg­ends (cre­ated by Riot Games), the se­cond big­gest e-sports league in the world with a prize money of just un­der $23 mil­lion. The other ma­jor e-sports leagues are Halo World Cham­pi­onship (Halo5: Guardians), Eleague (Counter Strike), EA Cham­pi­ons Cup (FIFA). China, Amer­ica and Repub­lic of Korea are the three top coun­tries in the e-sports cir­cuit.

An e-sports league has mul­ti­ple teams in it, and the teams fight it out for the big prize. Par­tic­i­pat­ing teams se­lect, buy or draft play­ers de­pend­ing on their per­for­mances and rank­ings. The leagues are held in an arena, where spec­ta­tors come in large num­bers and watch the games on gi­ant screens. The games are also streamed on­line and broad­cast on TV. View­er­ship is huge. For ex­am­ple, the 2015-16 NBA fi­nals were watched by 31 mil­lion peo­ple, an 18-year record. The 2015 League of Leg­ends fi­nal gar­nered 36 mil­lion unique view­ers!

E-sports has caught the fancy of In­dia and In­di­ans too. Check out the ad com­mer­cials of lap­top mak­ers here - the com­mu­ni­ca­tion has changed from slim, light­weight and long bat­tery backup to high power graph­ics card, easy cool­ing, VR-en­abled and so on.

Ron­nie Screw­vala is a per­son who hates miss­ing an op­por­tu­nity. Judg­ing the pop­u­lar­ity of e-sports to a nicety, he is ready to roll out In­dia’s big­gest e-gam­ing league UCypher in Jan­uary 2018. The top 84 gamers se­lected on the ba­sis of their per­for­mance in tour­na­ments and leagues held in In­dia will par­tic­i­pate in the league, which will air on MTV and stream on YouTube, VOOT and Twitch.

Screw­vala sees im­mense spon­sor­ship op­por­tu­ni­ties in a sport where brands can be in­te­grated seam­lessly. afaqs! Reporter spoke to the founder of Unilazer Ven­tures to know more about his game­plan. Also present was Supratik Sen, CEO, US­ports, the sports mar­ket­ing divi­sion of Unilazer. Edited Ex­cerpts from an in­ter­view with Anir­ban Roy Choud­hury:

At this stage of your ca­reer what drove your at­ten­tion to e-sports?

E-sports as a trend is just tak­ing off. We are not far be­hind from the top coun­tries in the sport - Ja­pan, Korea or the US - like we are in foot­ball or mo­tor­sports. The e-sports leagues have started tak­ing off in last two to three years glob­ally. When it comes to the qual­ity of play­ers, too, we are not that far be­hind, so we were clear, let’s catch the bird early and be one of the first movers at this space.

Now that you are a league owner, what are the pri­mary as­pects you need to fo­cus on?

For any league owner it is im­por­tant to get a cou­ple of things done. One, you need to find key fran­chisee own­ers, then you need the player ecosys­tem and then you need the plat­form or broad­caster. You are not a league un­til you get team own­ers, team and broad­caster.

Do you have fran­chisee own­ers?

This is a very new sport where the bench­marks are yet to be set. So, we de­cided that for the first two sea­sons we are go­ing to own all the teams, and all the play­ers.

We will own the en­tire ecosys­tem for the first two sea­sons be­cause today, when there is no bench­mark, I am not sure if I should charge X, Y or Z for a team. The best way to go ahead is put the full in­vest­ment and take full risks.

“In In­dia, even today, you can­not launch a sport with­out tele­vi­sion.”

This is where we are dif­fer­ent from any of the new leagues launched in re­cent times.

What about the play­ers?

We have cherry-picked the top 84 play­ers from the top 50 tour­na­ments in the coun­try. There is a tour­na­ment in ev­ery engi­neer­ing col­lege in In­dia and there are a few leagues too from which we se­lected the top play­ers. In two years’ time we will have for­eign play­ers too com­ing in and par­tic­i­pat­ing in the league.

Com­ing to the broad­caster bit, why - in­stead of a sports chan­nel - are you associated with a yout­hand-mu­sic chan­nel like MTV?

We have de­bated about it, and yes, nor­mally a sport should come on a sports chan­nel and out­come of the de­bate was that this is go­ing to be slightly dif­fer­ent. Most games last for as short as kabaddi does (which is 40 min­utes). Then there is foot­ball, which lasts for 90 min­utes, T20, 50-50, and then Test match cricket which lasts for five days.

E-sports can go on for four to six hours a day for a cer­tain num­ber of days, where the same teams and same play­ers are play­ing the same games. They don’t nec­es­sar­ily get sticky in terms of view­er­ship. For hard­core gamers there will be but for new­com­ers it won’t.

We want to get more peo­ple into gam­ing. There­fore, for us, tele­vi­sion was an im­por­tant plat­form and it was im­por­tant to pick a right part­ner – but not a sports chan­nel at this stage which is why we ap­proached MTV and said, we want to do this and sold them the con­cept. Out­side of MTV it will be on YouTube, VOOT, Twitch. On the digital plat­forms we will have the full ver­sion, on MTV it will be a one-hour ac­tion packed episode.

You are stream­ing this prop­erty on so many plat­forms where e-sports is re­ally pop­u­lar and has an ex­ist­ing au­di­ence. Foot­ball and kabaddi get good view­er­ship on­line. Why do you need a broad­caster?

That’s true. Foot­ball and kabaddi are lot more watched on­line than TV and it is quite pos­si­ble that in three years’ time this too will be more pop­u­lar on­line. But in In­dia, even today, you can­not launch a sport with­out tele­vi­sion. I think Korea and China are the only mar­kets in the world where you can launch a league with­out TV.

Has MTV com­mis­sioned you? Will they own the me­dia rights of the league? What is the na­ture of the as­so­ci­a­tion?

We have bought slots from MTV. We will pro­duce it our­selves and hand over a one-hour episode to MTV, which they will air. We have an agree­ment of 37 episodes which can go up till 45. It will air seven days a week in­clud­ing Satur­days and Sun­days and there will be a re­peat tele­cast the next day.

Do you have spon­sors on board al­ready? You own all the fran­chises, you have set aside a hand­some amount as prize money and you have bought slots. How much are you spend­ing?

Our ex­pe­ri­ence in the first year of kabaddi was that most peo­ple did not go hun­grily af­ter mon­etis­ing. Star took four years to get Vivo on. To be hon­est, this sea­son we are not go­ing all out to mon­e­tise be­cause we do not have a rate card and what­ever we ac­cept it could be ‘un­der’. In­stead, we de­cided we would spend our own money for this pro­ject.

This sea­son the out­lay is go­ing to be `30-35 crore. There is no point get­ting a crore or two in spon­sor­ship - it won’t move the nee­dle ei­ther way. We did not want to lock our rate but de­cided to wait it out. This could be an er­ror, but that’s what we de­cided.

Where do you see the money com­ing in in the long run?

I think the ma­jor chunk of money will come in from spon­sor­ship. From Ama­zon to Puma to mo­bile com­pa­nies this is the ab­so­lute core tar­get au­di­ence. The sport is sticky, un­like other game for­mats - in cricket there is one over, in foot­ball you don’t even have a gap for com­mer­cial, in kabaddi it is even worse where you need to get an of­fi­cial time-out. Here the abil­ity for us, to in­te­grate brands and go in for com­mer­cial breaks while the game is on, is very high.

Do you see tick­et­ing rev­enue com­ing in?

This is an arena sport and by the time we reach the third sea­son it needs to go to an arena. Now, if it is 3,000 peo­ple an arena, 300 peo­ple an arena or 8,000 (be­yond which we can­not go), only time will tell. This is a multi-city sport too, so we will go to dif­fer­ent cities, and yes, I do see tick­et­ing rev­enue com­ing in.

Who do you think will watch this league on TV? Are you look­ing to de­velop this as a niche sport or are you tar­get­ing the mass?

We need to build the TV view­er­ship of this sport and it is very im­por­tant that it does not sound like an elit­ist sport but is very ‘massy’ and

very In­dian. The games are not In­dian so be­tween us and our sportscast­ers and com­men­ta­tors we are fig­ur­ing out how we can make this a ‘massy’ sport. It can­not be western guys with mas­sive head­phones. We will make it a quin­tes­sen­tial In­dian ex­pe­ri­ence while we are run­ning a league with global games.

Why do you need to make it a mass sport? Golf and ten­nis are niche sports and they are do­ing well…

Ten­nis and golf are two sports which are viewed as a niche and pres­ti­gious sport so they get a pre­mium. Now you can­not take e-gam­ing to that level and then you would be fight­ing a wrong bat­tle. This is a beer and not a malt whiskey - it might be the elit­ist of beer but still it’s not malt whiskey. Also, In­dia is a mar­ket with 1.25 bil­lion peo­ple I don’t see any rea­son why should we con­cen­trate on only 30 mil­lion peo­ple while build­ing a prop­erty.

How do you plan to pro­mote the league? Will you roll out a mar­ket­ing cam­paign?

In Sea­son 1 we will learn, we will align and we will do what­ever we need to do. Af­ter two sea­sons we will have a very good idea where the sport lands, what’s the vi­a­bil­ity for it, what’s the spon­sor in­ter­est, what’s the view­er­ship like and what’s the player in­ter­est. So, in­stead of go­ing and do­ing a mar­ket­ing cam­paign to pro­mote the league, we are treat­ing the first sea­son it­self as a mar­ket­ing cam­paign.

The league will have DOTA and Counter Strike on PC, Real Cricket on mo­bile phone and Tekken on con­sole, how did you de­cide on these?

Counter Strike and DOTA are two largest PC games. League of Leg­ends is still ar­riv­ing in In­dia. The peo­ple who dis­trib­ute Counter Strike in In­dia gave us a num­ber (around 20 mil­lion peo­ple play the game in the coun­try). These two PC choices were pretty easy for us.

Then we moved to con­sole, for which we wanted an ex­cit­ing ac­tion-packed game and that’s where Tekken came in. In the mo­bile space we wanted to have a massy game and we got Real Cricket. This year we will have these four games in UCypher, but we are open for more in com­ing years.

Why did you de­cide to keep the prize money at `50 lakh?

There are enough of small leagues and tour­na­ments in In­dia. We wanted to have a clear seg­re­ga­tion and hence de­cided to be at least 5X of the largest ex­ist­ing one. We are not pay­ing any­thing to the play­ers in Sea­son 1. For them, prize money is the big­gest at­trac­tion and that’s why we de­cided to keep it at `50 lakh.

In kabaddi, for in­stance, we keep telling Mashal (the STAR sub­sidiary that owns pro-kabaddi) to take the prize money higher… I think that makes a big dif­fer­ence in cre­at­ing a bench­mark for the sport.

What is your big­gest chal­lenge?

We have to get peo­ple say, “Wow, this is ex­hil­a­rat­ing, wow this is very ex­cit­ing,” and open up to the peo­ple who are not gamers but will en­joy watch­ing this be­cause they are see­ing a sport, they are see­ing a com­bat.

It is pas­sive yet ac­tive, it is very ag­gres­sive on the screen yet pas­sive when it comes to the player’s ap­proach. Even if five peo­ple are fight­ing with each other you only see the eye­brows and fin­gers mov­ing. The crit­i­cal point is to take that and make an ap­peal to those who are in­ter­ested in gam­ing but are not hard­core gamers. If we man­age to do that it will fly - if not, it’s go­ing to re­main niche.

Is there an e-gam­ing ex­pe­ri­ence that you would like to share, which in­spired you?

Re­cently, in Frank­furt, we saw 70,000 peo­ple come in ev­ery day to watch e-sports. There was League of Leg­ends, DOTA and Counter Strike 30,000 were inside the sta­dium while rest watched it out­side on big screens. It was a mas­sive af­fair.

Screw­vala (left) and Sen: cypher­heroes

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