Inside BGMI’s battle royale in India

India’s gaming and esports industry is celebrating the return of the popular mobile game after a 10-month suspension. But since it’s back only on a three-month trial period, stakeholders are proceeding cautiously

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A quick programming note: There won’t be an edition of The Playbook next Friday, June 9, as I’m going on leave for 10 days. The next edition of the newsletter will be published on Friday, June 16.

Earlier this week, I was served a cruel reminder of how much of a fossil I am. For the purpose of writing this edition, I downloaded Battlegrounds Mobile India, popularly known as BGMI. For the uninitiated, it’s the Indian version of the hugely popular online battle royale game PUBG Mobile, in which up to 100 players are parachuted onto an island and have to kill each other until there’s only one individual or team standing.

BGMI, published by South Korean developer KRAFTON, is back in app stores in India after a 10-month suspension. The Indian government forced KRAFTON to take it down in July 2022 after it was reported that the game was exchanging data with Chinese servers. It was the second time the game, either in the form of BGMI or PUBG Mobile, was banned in India since mid-2020, ​​when Indian and Chinese soldiers had a skirmish in the Himalayas. India has since banned several Chinese apps citing national security concerns.

On May 19, KRAFTON announced that the Indian government had allowed it to resume operations. India’s Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, then tweeted that the government had approved a three-month trial period for BGMI after it complied with issues of server locations and data security. The government would monitor the game closely and take a final decision on its reinstatement after three months, he added.

The return of BGMI is a big deal for India’s esports industry, which was worth ₹1,100 crore ($133 million) in 2022, according to a report by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) and consultancy Ernst & Young. The game crossed 100 million users just a year after its launch in mid-2021, per KRAFTON. In June 2022, it became the first game to be shown on Indian television, when esports and gaming major NODWIN Gaming signed a broadcast deal with Star Sports for its tournament, the BGMI Masters Series. The event attracted 24 million peak concurrent viewers and a total of 200 million viewers.

To understand how the industry is reacting to the return of the game, even if on a temporary basis, I spoke to various stakeholders. This was after I failed rather spectacularly at playing the game myself. After being dropped on the island, I just couldn’t find any guns and walked around aimlessly until another player shot me down and put me out of my misery.

But there are several great BGMI players in India who have made a successful career out of playing the game, and who are all hoping there are no more bans. Like Yogesh Yadav, aka Roxx.

‘The Taylor Swift of games’ is back in India. For now

Photo credit: Amanz/Unsplash

Yogesh Yadav was first introduced to PUBG Mobile in late 2019. He was 18 at the time and studying for the Common Law Admission Test, a national-level entrance examination for Indian law schools. He used to be buried in books for 12-14 hours a day and needed something to take his mind off academics during his free time. A friend suggested he try out the latest game that was making waves all over the world.

Launched in March 2018, PUBG Mobile had crossed 100 million downloads in record time: four months. It was the mobile version of the popular PC and console game PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds, popularly known as PUBG, launched by Chinese internet giant Tencent in late 2017.

With India being a mobile-first market, it was no surprise that PUBG Mobile did well. The game was easy to understand, unlike some strategy-heavy PC titles such as Dota, and was optimised for low-end smartphones. It wasn’t long before Yadav was hooked. “Soon, it became a daily habit,” he says. “But I also got detached from my friends. That’s one of the negative aspects of gaming.”

Within a few months, Yadav started acing the game and climbed up the ranks in India. Professional gamers from the Indian esports industry began noticing him and he got invited to tournaments. “Then, I met a guy who was studying at the Vellore Institute of Technology and was also a professional gamer. He and I started practising together. Eventually, we decided to form a PUBG team called Celtz.”

Team Celtz soon entered PUBG Mobile Club Open (PMCO), an open qualifier tournament to get into the professional circuit. Celtz reached the final and finished in ninth place, which was enough to earn it a spot in the PUBG Mobile Pro League (PMPL) South Asia, held in Gurugram. The tournament had a prize pool of $200,000.

“At the time, we didn’t have any sponsors unlike other teams, which were equipped with high-end iPhones. We did pretty badly in the league stage but somehow made it to the final. There, we built an early lead, shocked everyone, and won the tournament. My parents watched that tournament on YouTube. That was when they realised I was good at it,” says Yadav, whose family hails from Etawah, a small town on the banks of the Yamuna in western Uttar Pradesh. “That’s when my life changed,” he adds.

Celtz was eventually acquired by Galaxy Racer, a Dubai-based esports company. Yadav, who was 19 at the time, and his teammates were all given the latest iPhones, along with a monthly salary. Winning PMPL South Asia got them an entry into the PUBG Mobile World League East. It was an online tournament because it was held in August 2020, a time when the world was just learning to grapple with a global pandemic.

“Playing from home in India was a disadvantage because the internet is slower,” says Yadav. “Galaxy Racer also couldn’t organise a bootcamp (esports lingo for a training camp, usually at a house, where teammates live and play together) for us because of Covid restrictions. We also had to deal with problems like power cuts in the middle of matches. There were so many instances where I got killed in the game after getting disconnected because of a power cut.” Celtz finished 14th out of 16 teams in the finals.

Almost immediately after the PMPL World League East ended, PUBG Mobile was among several apps the Indian government banned because of their links with China. In PUBG Mobile’s case, it was because the game was published and distributed in India by Tencent. It had more than 40 million monthly active users in the country at the time, per TechCrunch. India also accounted for more than a quarter of the game’s lifetime installs, the report said.

“I somehow managed with my savings for three-four months, but I know players who had their roofs snatched from over their heads,” says Yadav. “Sponsors or organisations supporting you can pay your salary for at most a couple of months without anything to play for, but the game didn’t return for almost a year. The players were all aged between 16 and 24. Many of them had left their studies to become professional gamers.”

Luckily for Celtz, Galaxy Racer managed to move them to Dubai, where they played a couple of PUBG Mobile events. The team returned to India only after the mid-2021 launch of BGMI, a rebranded version of PUBG Mobile that’s only available in India. This time, the game would be published by South Korea’s KRAFTON, which was backed by Tencent. However, it seemed KRAFTON had managed to convince the Indian government that there were no data security concerns.

“...KRAFTON will be working with partners to ensure data protection and security at each stage. This will ensure privacy rights are respected, and all data collection and storage will be in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations in India and for players here.”

A year later, though, the concerns returned for some reason. There was no publicly available order from the government, but BGMI disappeared from app stores in India in July 2022. Reuters reported an unnamed government source saying it was again because of concerns about data sharing and mining in China.

This was despite KRAFTON saying that it had cut ties with Tencent. The South Korean developer had also invested over $100 million in Indian startups such as NODWIN Gaming, game-streaming platform Loco, online self-publishing platform Pratilipi, and audio content platform Kuku FM. BGMI had 16.5 million monthly active users in India at the time, according to data from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower.

Yadav says he was more prepared this time around. He had invested in a couple of businesses and had also launched his own smart gadgets brand called Roarx, which sells white-labelled chargers for smartphones. “I’m quite conservative with my spending, so I had a lot of savings. One of my relatives owns a factory that makes chargers for brands like Oppo and Vivo, so I got them to make for us too. When the game was banned for the second time, I focused on Roarx.” India’s top esports athletes earn anywhere between ₹1 lakh-2 lakh ($1,200-2,400) per month.

Some BGMI players pivoted to other games such as New State, Valorant, and Grand Theft Auto or GTA, but it takes three to four months to learn a new game, says Yadav. Also, there is no other game in India that can match BGMI in terms of viewership. “BGMI to the game-streaming ecosystem is like what cricket is to video-streaming platforms,” says Anirudh Pandita, founder of Loco. “Prior to the ban, BGMI would account for 50-70% of watch time on Loco.”

So, if a gamer was getting 20,000-30,000 concurrent viewers for BGMI, they would get 3,000-5,000 at most for other games. “It’s like watching MS Dhoni playing golf. You might watch it once, but after a point you’ll be like, ‘Yeah bro, but you’re not a golfer,’” adds Pandita.

During the ban, gamers could still stream BGMI, but most of them were hesitant to do so because the government’s order wasn’t out in the public. Also, BGMI as a game is more aligned with competitive e-sports than streaming. For instance, broadcasters of an officially licensed BGMI tournament get access to a “god view”, where they get to pick between different camera angles.

“In a battle royale game, where players land in different locations on a map, showing different points of view to the audience is important. When you stream scrims (esports lingo for practice matches), you only get the POV of the person who’s playing,” says Pandita.

Games such as Valorant, GTA, Clash of Clans, and GTFO helped Loco and Rooter cover up a part of the hole left behind by BGMI. “GTA really picked up a lot of the load,” says Pandita. “Our watch hours per monthly active user almost doubled during this last year, which is pretty crazy.” Piyush Kumar, founder and CEO of Rooter, also claims that the platform has grown in the absence of BGMI. “Our users are up 1.3-1.4x, and our revenue has grown 4x.”

The biggest impact of the suspension was perhaps felt by tournament organisers such as NODWIN Gaming, Skyesports, and Penta Esports. The PUBG Mobile ban in 2020 occurred bang in the middle of the Skyesports Championship 2.0, which had prize money of ₹11 lakh ($13,000). “The game was banned after the quarterfinals,” says Shiva Nandy, founder and CEO of Skyesports. “But the tournament also had other games like Clash of Clans, Brawl Stars, and World Cricket Championship, so we managed to pull it off.”

During the second ban, the problem was that BGMI and another popular battle royale mobile game with Tencent links, Free Fire, were both pulled just months apart from each other. And no other mobile games were good enough to fill in their shoes. “There were some like New State and Pokemon Unite that did well, but not anywhere close to BGMI,” says Anurag Khurana, founder and CEO of Newgen Gaming, the parent company of Penta Esports.

PC and console games didn’t stand much of a chance because the devices’ penetration in India is nowhere near that of mobile phones. Around three million PCs, including desktops, notebooks, and workstations, were sold in India in the quarter ended March 2023, compared with 31 million smartphones, per market research firm IDC.

That’s what Tencent picked up on when it first brought PUBG Mobile to India in 2018. It had a firm belief in the Indian market and decided to organise as many PUBG Mobile events as possible. As Yadav’s story shows, the competitive landscape had a tiered and structured professional circuit, which allowed organisations to create a sustainable revenue plan around an annual calendar.

“Tencent started giving licences to every tournament organiser in the market,” says Sharang Naicker, CEO and managing director of Mumbai-based Yuvin Esports. “Every week, there would be a new company coming in and organising PUBG Mobile events. The prize pools used to range from a lakh to tens of lakhs. Slowly, PUBG Mobile caused the demise of the PC gaming industry in India. We also shut down our PC division and focused on PUBG Mobile.”

Photo credit: Screen Post/Unsplash

So, when the game got banned, tournament organisers had no choice but to focus on other titles. Penta, for instance, held tournaments for 14 other games across mobile, PC, and console during the second ban. Skyesports, which launched in 2018 as a tournament organiser solely for PUBG Mobile, also diversified its offerings to include other games.

The big companies weren’t impacted much, but smaller organisers that had built their entire operation around PUBG Mobile and BGMI bore the brunt. According to Naicker, only a handful of the 100-150 tournament organisers in India in 2020 survived the first ban.

Even without BGMI, India’s overall esports ecosystem continues to grow in revenue on the back of games such as Valorant and GTA, says a senior executive from the gaming industry who requested anonymity. But nothing really compares with the size of the whale.

BGMI is like the Taylor Swift of games. People are playing other games only because there’s no choice and not because they’ve voluntarily picked another title. If you assume the benchmark is 100 million users, other titles might get 30-40 million at most,” the executive adds.

The overall sponsorship money in India’s esports industry is currently just about a third of what it was a year ago, says Khurana. This is despite the number of brands investing in esports growing from 72 in 2021 to 80 in 2022, according to a survey by NODWIN Gaming. As a result, the total prize money in Indian esports events also dropped from ₹22 crore ($2.6 million) in 2021 to ₹15 crore ($1.8 million) last year. “BGMI is the only game that can pull non-endemic sponsors to the industry,” adds Khurana. “During the ban, most of the sponsors were like, ‘Please talk to us when BGMI is back.’”

Now that BGMI is back, even if temporarily, the industry is optimistic there won’t be any more hiccups. Some companies are going gung-ho and are back to business as usual. Skyesports, for instance, has already announced that one of its BGMI tournaments, the Skyesports Champions Series, is “coming soon”. KRAFTON’s own tournament, called BGMI: Rising, has already started on June 1.

BGMI streaming has also begun on Loco and Rooter. Kumar from Rooter says the platform is expecting good traffic. But since the game is on a three-month trial period, he isn’t sure about how aggressive the growth will be on the esports side. A lot of organisations would have dismantled their teams during the ban, so they’ll take time to get things back up and running. “Teams have been struggling for a long time, so they will be over-cautious [before jumping into BGMI tournaments],” he says.

Yuvin Esports, for instance, has hired a BGMI team on a three-month probation period with lower-than-usual salaries. “We have signed a contract which says that if the game is still online after three months, we will raise your salaries to a pre-decided amount. If it gets banned again, we’ll exit the BGMI ecosystem,” says Naicker.

Naicker is hopeful that KRAFTON gets things right this time with respect to the government’s concerns. “Having invested so much in India, it’ll be foolish of them to neglect the government guidelines. They’re being extremely careful and aware, based on what I’ve heard,” he adds. KRAFTON India CEO Sean Hyunil Sohn did not respond to my request to participate in this story.

Professional BGMI players are also slowly getting back on the circuit. Yadav, who turns 22 next month, is positive the game won’t be banned again and has already started playing scrims seriously. “I’ll start streaming by the end of this week. Most of the streamers have already started.”

However, he doesn’t expect international esports companies that had invested in India previously to be in any rush to return to the country. After investing so much in properties, production, equipment, and player salaries, they were left hanging due to two bans in the last three years.

“What if the game is banned again after three months?” says Yadav. “Organisations are in wait-and-see mode. Things are slowly starting up again, but the ban has pushed us back by 10 months. We can only hope there are no more bans and things return to normal soon.”

- With reporting inputs from Soumya Gupta.

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