Tremors of PUBG Mobile ban shake up India's entire gaming ecosystem

Topics PUBG | TikTok | chinese companies

Big games like PUBG, Call of Duty and Free Fire need $100 million budgets and take years of development with thousand-person teams
Last Wednesday, the government banned 118 games and apps to “safeguard the interests of crores of Indian users”. The decision, it said, was a “targeted move to ensure safety, security and sovereignty of Indian cyberspace”. The ban follows on the heels of an earlier ban that blocked 59 apps, including TikTok.

The Indian gaming community is hit because PUBG (pronounced “pub-jee”) is on the list. Justin Shriram Keeling, a partner at Lumikai, a fund focussed on gaming and interactive media, says, “India is the world’s biggest PUBG Mobile market, with 24 per cent of global users. I highly doubt that’s going to just go away overnight. PUBG’s parent company is South Korean, and it’ll be exploring options to bring the game back.”  

Indeed, the ban is puzzling until you look deeper. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was published by a subsidiary of Korean company, Bluehole. The mobile version, however, was developed by Tencent.

PUBG is a team game. Gamers fight in teams (or alone) after parachuting down weaponless to four different locales. They grab weapons, vehicles, armour et cetera from concealed dumps, and fight. The fight zone shrinks, ensuring more conflict until only one person is left. In-game currency is awarded depending on how long players last. That currency can be used to buy costume and weapon customisations.

By January 2020, India had over 115 million PUBG Mobile downloads. Players and engagement grew explosively after lockdown. Rishi Alwani, co-founder of The Mako Reactor, an esports review site, says, “PUBG made a big marketing push. Tencent paid gamers to stream live on YouTube. (Other social media like Instagram and TikTok were also flooded). I doubt they’ve recovered investments but PUBG had 50 million monthly actives (players who play at least once a month).”

Apart from the marketing blitz, Tencent also optimised PUBG Lite to let gamers team up with others speaking the same regional language. It held local tournaments — and global tournaments where Indian winners played. The PUBG Mobile Global Championship has a prize pool of $2 million.  

Anand Ramachandran, founder of Big Fat Phoenix, a games’ creator, says, “A combination of factors led to PUBG’s success. You have a huge, young population, cheap data, and entry-level smartphones. You have a big global brand. You have a very polished game, played by teams, and that also led to social bonding. This was why it became the breakout game.”

An entire ecosystem rode on PUBG, and that is now in turmoil. As Alwani says, “People don’t just play. There are content creators, marketing guys, tournament organisers — all these people have now lost their livelihoods.”

Ishaan Arya, founder of The Esports Club, adds, “Esports and video-gaming is a fast growth industry. But there is no denying the ban will cause a speed bump as most investments in India were built around the game and its esports ecosystem.”

The vacuum also creates opportunity. But insiders say domestic industry lacks the capacity to immediately exploit that, partly due to lack of funding. Big games like PUBG, Call of Duty and Free Fire need $100 million budgets and take years of development with thousand-person teams. (The latter two games are now frontrunners to grab marketshare.)

A few Indian games may make the grade. With amazingly felicitous timing, nCore announced Fau-G within 24 hours of the ban. Fau-G is backed by Akshay Kumar. It’s due to launch by October, with a commitment to donate 20 per cent of earnings to the Bharat Ke Veer fund, which Kumar launched in conjunction with Rajnath Singh. The nationalistic branding neatly complements Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent pronouncements on Indian games.

Then there’s Raji: An Ancient Epic from Nodding Heads. Raji is a female gymnast, who must, with the blessings of Durga, navigate a stunning landscape populated by gods and asuras. While Indian myths and legends could be a rich source of material for games like this, mythological themes can also cause offence. SMITE: Battleground of the Gods, an US multiplayer that features deities drawn from multiple (living and dead) religions, has attracted outraged screams for its use of Hindu deities.

Keeling says, “Personally, I’m a fan of BornMonkie’s Auto Raja Tuk Tuk Battlegrounds — a hilarious spin on the genre but with autorickshaws from a tiny self-funded Hyderabad studio, with a lot of fun, creative ideas.”  

Globally, esports and video-gaming is a bigger industry than music and movies combined, and India’s gaming market is at a once-in-a-generation inflection point. Keeling claims, “There’s simply no gaming market in the world with the same combination of massive scale of demand — over 300 million young mobile gamers — and the world’s deepest bench of creative and software talent.”

Arya concurs, “Esports provides an unparalleled platform to reach and engage with an active young demographic. Sadly, marketing people and media planners in India above a certain age — the actual decision makers — don’t realise how big esports is and the tight level of engagement it has with that demographic. Nothing matches that, not even conventional sport.”

The pandemic has at the least led to parents becoming aware of their children’s attraction to esports. Maybe that will translate into decision-makers taking a harder look at this nascent phenomenon.  

Country at play

> Apart from international studios like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Rockstar and Zynga, which have an Indian presence, there are quite a few Indian studios like nCore Games, Moonfrog Labs, Nodding Heads Games, Ogre Head Studio, Holy Cow Entertainment, BornMonkie, and so on

>  And there are organisers like Nodwin Gaming, GamingMonk, The Esports Club, Villager Esports and Tesseract. Teams like Fnatic (which is an offshoot of a British team), Team SouL, 8bit, TSM Entity and Orange Rock had fanatical 
fan followings among PUBG Mobile players    

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