DREAM11: A FAN­TAS­TIC STORY

With a re­cent in­vest­ment of US$100 mil­lion, this fan­tasy gam­ing com­pany has hit the big league.

The Brand Reporter - - FRONT PAGE - By Abid Hus­sain Bar­laskar

While re­search­ing this story idea, we did a lit­tle in­for­mal poll in of­fice to check how many peo­ple had sam­pled home­grown fan­tasy gam­ing plat­form Dream11, and were sur­prised to find out that our most crit­i­cal em­ployee – the 20-some­thing pantry boy – is a reg­u­lar player, the kind that knows hacks and such. In In­dia, you know you’ve ar­rived when you pen­e­trate the pop­u­la­tion. And when there are stats to prove it: The Dream11 team claims that the plat­form has over 45 mil­lion users. In an ‘An­droid coun­try’ like In­dia, for an app to reach this count de­spite its ab­sence on the Google Play Store is in­cred­i­ble.

Dream11, the brain­child of fan­tasy gamers, foot­ball fans and child­hood bud­dies Harsh Jain (33, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer and co-founder) and Bhavit Sheth (33, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer and co-founder), was launched a decade back and is head­quar­tered in Mumbai. Dream11 em­ploys around 185 peo­ple. Both Jain and Seth have a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing and busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion. Jain was mar­ket­ing man­ager at Jai Corp (steel, plas­tic man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany); Sheth was a fi­nan­cial re­search in­tern at an IT com­pany, be­fore found­ing Dream11.

Here’s how it works: Fan­tasy games are run on dig­i­tal plat­forms that al­low sports fans to, vir­tu­ally, cre­ate and ‘own’ a team, prior to an ac­tual match, and make mone­tary bets in that match/season. These vir­tual play­ers earn points ba­sis the ac­tual on-field per­for­mance of the real play­ers. The to­tal points earned de­ter­mine the over­all rank­ing of one’s vir­tual team, and, con­se­quently, the re­turn on one’s money. Some plat­forms also al­low free par­tic­i­pa­tion.

A pop­u­lar phe­nom­e­non in the West, it is rel­a­tively new in In­dia. The idea of fan­tasy gam­ing is old and pre-dates the in­ter­net. As the of­fi­cial web­site of the US-based FSTA (Fan­tasy Sports Trade As­so­ci­a­tion) puts it: ‘The con­cept of pick­ing play­ers and run­ning a con­test based on their year-to-date stats has been around since shortly af­ter World War II (1939-1945)’. Over years, this for­mat has come to in­clude sev­eral sports, in­clud­ing golf and hockey. Fan­tasy gam­ing is par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar in the USA, Aus­tralia, EU, Ja­pan, and now In­dia.

Dream11 of­fers fan­tasy games in modes of cricket, foot­ball, bas­ket­ball and hockey. Among the plat­form’s in­vestors are names like Kalaari Cap­i­tal, Think In­vest­ments, Mul­ti­ples Eq­uity and Ten­cent. As per in­for­ma­tion avail­able on busi­ness in­for­ma­tion web­site Crunch­base, the com­pany has raised $100 mil­lion in a Se­ries D fund­ing round led by Chi­nese in­vestor Ten­cent in Septem­ber this year. Re­ports say that the com­pany has been val­ued up­wards of half a bil­lion dol­lar.

At a re­cent IFSG (In­dian Fed­er­a­tion of Sports Gam­ing) event in Mumbai, we caught up with Dream11’s CEO Harsh Jain and his re­cently ap­pointed chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer Vikrant Mu­daliar, to bet­ter un­der­stand the chal­lenges that come with this fas­ci­nat­ing ter­ri­tory. The fan­tasy gam­ing seg­ment in In­dia

com­prises around 70 play­ers. Some prom­i­nent names in­clude Fan­tain, BalleBaazi.com, FanMojo, Jiyo11 and Spar­tans11.

“I had al­ready tried my hand at fan­tasy foot­ball and was look­ing for op­tions for cricket in In­dia. It didn’t ex­ist, so I de­cided to start it,” says Jain, talk­ing about the in­cep­tion. The most fea­si­ble ‘part­ner op­tions’ for the project were friends and fam­ily. “I have known Bhavit since I was seven. He opted in while I was ask­ing around and that’s how I got a part­ner to start out with,” he re­calls.

There was one hard fail­ure be­fore they found suc­cess. In­cor­po­rated in 2008 and launched a year later, Dream11 was, in its early avatar, an ad-based plat­form, that in­cluded facets like a so­cial cricket com­mu­nity, chat op­tions, dis­cus­sion fo­rums/ blogs and free-to-play, season-long fan­tasy gam­ing.

How­ever, the ad-based, freeto-play, season-long game for­mat soon ran into a hur­dle as the sea­sons stretched on for too long. Around 2010-11, the team re­alised the for­mat wasn’t work­ing. The plat­form was then re-launched in 2012 as ‘freemium fan­tasy sports for sin­gle matches’. By then the team was down to 10 peo­ple. Freemium, espe­cially in the on­line world, is when ba­sic ser­vices are pro­vided free of cost while more ad­vanced/pre­mium fea­tures are paid for.

IN­STANT GRAT­I­FI­CA­TION

In Jain’s ex­pe­ri­ence, the typ­i­cal app user to­day needs in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion, runs low on com­mit­ment and has a short at­ten­tion span. “Sea­son­long gam­ing re­quired man­age­ment of a vir­tual team for months. The con­sumer side wasn’t work­ing… and since we didn’t have users, ad­ver­tis­ers didn’t come,” he says.

The plat­form then moved from an ad­ver­tis­ing model to a pay model, which means, the new Dream11 would earn di­rectly from the users. To­day, about 85 per cent of the plat­form’s to­tal user base plays for free and the av­er­age in­vest­ment made by pay­ing play­ers is `25. While the bets go as low as `11 (small bets help re­tain users), they also soar as high as sev­eral thou­sands of ru­pees. The com­bined prize pot of all win­nings can amount to over a crore. How­ever, the val­ues vary from match to match and sport to sport.

Af­ter the ini­tial cap­i­tal (“sin­gle digit crores on the higher side” is all we could get Jain to re­veal) ran out be­tween 2009-12, the duo re­al­lo­cated 40 out of their 50 em­ploy­ees and launched a so­cial me­dia agency in mid-2010, Red Dig­i­tal, to stay afloat: “I didn’t want to go back to my fam­ily for more money.” The dig­i­tal shop did well – “we learned how to make some money” – and the duo put their earn­ings back into the fan­tasy gam­ing plat­form, which was “fi­nally fit for the mar­ket”. In mid2013, Red Dig­i­tal was ac­quired by Go­zoop, a Mumbai-based dig­i­tal agency. Jain’s “big­gest, 24 by 7, un­paid ad­vi­sor” is none other than his busi­ness­man fa­ther Anand Jain, who is chair­man of the afore­men­tioned Jai Corp and also hap­pens to be a close friend of busi­ness ty­coon Mukesh Am­bani.

The next chal­lenge was – how to scale? “And for that we needed real money,” Jain says. Though they had al­ready bro­ken even, the duo spent the next three years pitch­ing to ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists; af­ter 150 pitches, they fi­nally found their first in­vestor and went on to raise funds in three rounds, over the years. Their user base grew from three lakh in 2014 to 17 mil­lion in 2017 (as claimed). Ac­cord­ing to data with the Reg­is­trar of Com­pa­nies, the com­pany hit rev­enue of `61 crore from op­er­a­tions in 2016-17, the last year for which fig­ures are avail­able. In­ter­est­ingly, nearly half the present day team of 185 was hired in the last year.

Jain tells us that Dream11, “like, say, What­sApp,” has lit­tle off­line cost such as sales, B2B, in­ven­tory, lo­gis­tics, etc. “There is a small team that’s man­ag­ing a plat­form, which is the prod­uct,” he says, adding, “This prod­uct is be­ing man­aged and sold and bought and the cir­cle ends there. We want to achieve what plat­forms like Flip­kart and Ola are achiev­ing but at one-tenth the man­power…”

Around 2014, the com­pany tried en­ter­ing the US and Aus­tralia mar­kets, but had to “sus­pend” op­er­a­tions in 2016. “The idea was to ex­per­i­ment,” says Jain, “We re­alised that those ini­tia­tives were gen­er­at­ing only one per cent rev­enue for 10-20 per cent more work. We didn’t see our­selves as for­mi­da­ble com­pe­ti­tion against ex­ist­ing lo­cal play­ers (Draftk­ings, Fan­tasy Foot­ball, Fan­tasy Premier League)…”

While Dream11 has cricket, kabaddi, NBA (bas­ket­ball), foot­ball and hockey op­tions, the largest chunk of users (85 per cent) ‘play’ cricket on the plat­form. Three years back the share of cricket on the plat­form was 95 per cent. “We hope it comes down to 75 per cent in the com­ing years,” he says.

THE GROWTH FAC­TOR

Ac­cord­ing to the FSTA (Fan­tasy Sports Trade As­so­ci­a­tion), the US-Canada mar­ket is mostly dom­i­nated by soc­cer, baseball, ice hockey, col­lege foot­ball, rac­ing and bas­ket­ball. The fan­tasy gam­ing user base in the US-Canada mar­ket has grown from 500,000 in 1988 to 59.3 mil­lion in 2017.

As per a March 2018 re­port by the IFSG and AC Nielsen, 89 per cent of the peo­ple who sam­ple fan­tasy sports once, con­tinue play­ing. Most users are young (18-35 years), in­de­pen­dent in­di­vid­u­als with high dis­pos­able in­comes, from met­ros and non-met­ros alike.

Com­ment­ing on the po­ten­tial for growth, Jain says, “The pie of sports lovers in In­dia is big enough for sev­eral (fan­tasy gam­ing) com­pa­nies to be suc­cess­ful. Our fo­cus is on creat­ing on a lo­cally-adapted prod­uct. In­dia is dif­fer­ent mar­ket and cut­copy-paste won’t work. For now, we want more en­ti­ties to come into the in­dus­try...”

Jain’s goal: to touch 200 mil­lion users in the next two years. “But growth is eas­ier at a smaller level, he con­cedes, adding: “Our prod­uct must in­crease the en­gage­ment level…”

Be­sides im­prov­ing the prod­uct, grow­ing the cat­e­gory and work­ing to­wards es­tab­lish­ing “stan­dard­ised best prac­tices” in the app-based gam­ing space, team Dream11 has other as­pects to keep it busy. Re­cently, one of the road­blocks Jain and part­ner faced was le­gal in nature. A Chandi­garh res­i­dent ap­proached the Pun­jab and Haryana high court claim­ing that he had been a vic­tim of gam­bling on Dream11. In April this year, the court ruled that such games can’t be con­sid­ered gam­bling as they re­quired skill, judge­ment and dis­cre­tion. The mat­ter had also es­ca­lated to the Supreme Court of In­dia. A chal­lenge to this judge­ment was also dis­missed by the Supreme Court of In­dia.

Dream11 brought Mu­daliar on board as CMO in Fe­bru­ary this year. Mu­daliar, a for­mer Ya­tra.com hand, has over 17 years of work ex­pe­ri­ence, dur­ing which time he has worked at com­pa­nies like Tata Sky, Len­skart, Gen­eral Mo­tors and Pepsi Foods, among oth­ers.

Mu­daliar, in-charge of brand build­ing for Dream11, has his own chal­lenges. “We will soon face a sit­u­a­tion where the early adopters of the plat­form – ones who have a nat­u­ral affin­ity to fan­tasy sports – have al­ready be­come our reg­u­lar users. Con­vert­ing the next 50 mil­lion sports fans into fan­tasy sports gamers, is the big chal­lenge. They will need to be ed­u­cated.” Ac­tive fan­tasy gamers’ con­sump­tion of sports on me­dia chan­nels is, as ex­pected, very high.

The of­fi­cial Dream11 app is un­avail­able on Google’s Play Store due to Google’s poli­cies on daily fan­tasy sports (DFS) apps. While the iOS ver­sion can be down­loaded from the Ap­ple App Store, the an­droid app has to be down­loaded off the Dream11 web­site. De­spite that, the Google Play Store al­ready has 250+ un­of­fi­cial fan-cre­ated apps. There are thou­sands of ad­vi­sory videos on YouTube too. These un­of­fi­cial plat­forms give users gam­ing tips and largely rely on ads for in­come.

The beta ver­sion of the brand’s of­fi­cial fan en­gage­ment arm Sports Guru was launched ear­lier this year.

"We will soon face a sit­u­a­tion where the early adopters of the plat­form – ones who have a nat­u­ral affin­ity to fan­tasy sports – have al­ready be­come our reg­u­lar users." Vikrant Mu­daliar

“We are aware of this (re­fer­ring to the fan-based con­tent) and are happy about it. There is an en­tire ecosys­tem out there, and in fact, we have re­ceived im­ages of bill­boards about ac­tual tuition classes on Dream11. This proves our point that it’s a game of skill. No one’s ever heard of ‘lot­tery coach­ing classes’, right?” Jain asks rhetor­i­cally, ref­er­enc­ing the im­age-dam­ag­ing ar­gu­ment that plat­forms like his, mir­ror the gam­bling world. “Kh­elo Di­maag Se” says MS Dhoni in Dream11’s TVCs (cre­ated by Leo Bur­nett Or­chard) – to re­it­er­ate that this is a game of skill, not just chance. “It’s like cham­pi­oning the cause of fan­tasy sports… mak­ing it more main­stream. Dhoni, and ad­ver­tis­ing on IPL, did that. Our cur­rent mar­ket­ing in­vest­ments are aimed pri­mar­ily at driving growth,” Mu­daliar says.

In gam­bling, the ten­dency to chase one’s losses is what makes peo­ple spend be­yond their means. Mu­daliar in­sists that his users don’t stick to the plat­form be­cause of the money they win, but be­cause they love sports. “There is no point be­ing on the plat­form if the user is not ready to delve into sports and go through the up­hill task of analysing it,” he says. He is open to tools like re­fer­ral bonuses and in­cen­tives, to keep the user hooked.

Mu­daliar’s mar­ket­ing chal­lenges in­clude: driving ac­qui­si­tions, mar­ket share and growth. For a cat­e­gory leader, that some­times comes down to “evan­gel­i­cal mar­ket­ing” or help­ing build pos­i­tive word of mouth around the fan­tasy sports in­dus­try at large.

Af­ter part­ner­ing with the In­ter­na­tional Coun­cil of Cricket (ICC), Dream11 also signed up with Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), In­dian Su­per League (ISL) for foot­ball, Fédéra­tion In­ter­na­tionale de Hockey (FIH) and the Aus­tralian Big Bash League (BBL) for cricket. In case of the NBA, Dream11 is the of­fi­cial fan­tasy game part­ner for In­dia only. “League part­ners un­der­stand that Dream11 is not just an­other spon­sor which is out just to put its logo…” Mu­daliar says, “The more they play on our plat­form, the more they will watch the game. It’s a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship that drives mar­ket­ing for our part­ners as well.”

Dream11 has worked with Ogilvy (dig­i­tal ads with cricket com­men­ta­tor Har­sha Bhogle) and Happy mc­gar­ry­bowen (re-brand­ing ex­er­cise) in the past. “We be­lieve agen­cies have a cer­tain core ex­per­tise. They’d like us to be­lieve they are equally good at a num­ber of tasks, of course,” smiles Mu­daliar.

Be­ing a dig­i­tal-first brand, the bulk of Dream11’s ad­ver­tis­ing be­gan on dig­i­tal chan­nels like Face­book, Cricbuzz and Hot­star. Now, TV is a sig­nif­i­cant part of the me­dia mix, for ex­am­ple, dur­ing the IPL this year. Be­sides Dhoni, we’ve also spot­ted crick­eter Shikhar Dhawan’s face on Dream11’s dig­i­tal posters. While en­dorse­ments are cricket-cen­tric for now, and will con­tinue to be in the near fu­ture (with good rea­son; Dhoni’s pres­ence helped take the user base from 20 to 45 mil­lion in a mat­ter of nine months), Mu­daliar hopes to ex­plore as­so­ci­a­tions with non-cricket sportsper­sons in the long run.

At the cat­e­gory level, the big­gest chal­lenge on the busi­ness-fac­ing side is es­tab­lish­ing a sel­f­reg­u­lat­ing uni­form code of con­duct for all brands, and, on the con­sumer-fac­ing side, con­vert­ing pas­sive sports fans into ac­tive fan­tasy sports users. “Pas­sive” sports fans might not be aware of or in­ter­ested in fan­tasy games. Mu­daliar’s job in­cludes giv­ing them a rea­son or “trig­ger” to not just watch but par­tic­i­pate.

Harsh Jain (L) and Bhavit Sheth, co-founders of Dream11

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