Last fortnight, Mobile Premier League (MPL) raised a $95 million series-D round to reach a near unicorn status with valuation touching $945 million.
Sai Srinivas Kiran G had the entrepreneurial itch even from the early days of his college life.
After graduating in 2009, Sai decided to start a company instead of going through formal campus recruiting. The company was called Base9, and the idea was to conduct live events and host them online.
While Base9’s timing may have been too early for wider adoption, Sai learnt valuable lessons. He moved on to work with Zynga, which over a decade later would turn out to be his stepping stone into the world of gaming.
Around 2013, Sai was working in Bangalore and met Shubham Malhotra, who was a software engineer at a startup at the time.
With a shared desire to create something new, Sai and Shubham were instantly ideating, bouncing ideas off each other, and ready to start their first venture – CREO.
For a year, Shubham and Sai worked with Hike in product and technology functions. Sai, who has worked with Zynga earlier, could sense an opportunity in the gaming space and could find a whitespace in real money gaming.
Discussions with his ex-co-founder became more serious.By 2018, the entrepreneurial bug bit them again and an idea began to form for a new company.
Mobile Premier League was born.
What’s the Game?
The idea was to have a platform that involved real money gaming and fantasy sports.
The Gaming side would be a platform that had casual games like Fruit Chop or Temple Run. Fantasy would involve creating your own teams that scored based on how players performed.
A player could choose to either play in a ‘Tournament’ mode or ‘Battle’ mode.
Tournaments involved many players who would play to get a high rank on a leaderboard, often involving checkpoints or mini-goals. Battles would be the old-age ‘duel’ format where two players play against each other for both pride and a monetary reward.
What would MPL’s model be?
It turned out that it worked on the principle of a casino. For example, two players could put in Rs. 6 to battle against in a game of Temple Run, testing their motor cells and showcasing their gaming talent. After a grueling match of dexterity, wits, and strategy, the winner makes Rs. 10 and the loser walks away empty handed.
As they say – “the house always wins”, and Rs. 2 is made by MPL in this transaction as a “Platform fee or Take rate”.
The take rate or platform fee is the commission that is charged by the platform on the pool of entry fees collected before passing on the winner rewards.
This is a simplified model with just two players, but it worked similarly for a much complicated multiplayer tournament involving lakhs of players.
With the dopamine rush of playing a game and beating your friends, users were hooked. In the hyper-growth phase that MPL was in, they passed most of the take rate onto users in the form of discounts and rewards.
This short-term sacrifice of take-rate for growth-rate is a common practice seen in consumer startups. Think Ola’s discounts or Flipkart’s sales.
In MPL’s case, the lower take-rate subsidised entry fees and rewarded more winners, leading to higher customer satisfaction and higher engagement. These ‘sticky’ players in their early cohorts helped to build scale for the platform.
Both parts of their offering – Gaming & Fantasy, being games of skill and not of chance, received legal clearance by 2018.
Any game of chance is considered as gambling based on pure luck (like lottery), while a game of skill is one that depends on more factors, that a person or player can influence through his/her knowledge or skills.
With two game modes in play and regulatory concerns behind them, MPL was ready to soar.
Two’s Company, Three’s a Crowd
With a name like Mobile Premier League, it was evident ambitions were large.
The name appealed to millions of cricket lovers following the Indian Premier League in India, it was clear that MPL was going after masses in tier 2,3 cities of India from the start.
To get an idea of MPL’s possible market size, think about this – the IPL in 2018 garnered 731 million impressions on TV and led to 300 billion minutes of viewership.
A common refrain among startup enthusiasts is that there are no bad ideas, just bad timing. In this case, MPL’s timing could not have been better.
There were three things that they would need for mass adoption in India — easy access to gaming devices, cheap data or cost of playing games, and a safe payment facility.
By 2018, everything was in place.
Affordable mobile phones which were powerful enough to run these games were in everyone’s hand and Jio was offering data almost free.
The icing on the cake was an evolved payment infrastructure, with UPI making micro payments and withdrawal instant and highly accessible for everyone.
The stage was set for the gaming industry to take off in India and a gaming boom was already happening. This was also seen in the growth of gamers and gaming companies from 2010 to 2018.
MPL was ready to make a high score. It just needed a few powerups to move faster.
PowerUp 1.0 – Going Viral
Sai and Shubham, had a track record of building successful ventures in the past.
The promise to build on such a massive opportunity in the gaming space, within a few months of launch raised their first round of venture funding with a 5 million USD cheque.
It was still 2018, MPL was live, funding raised and business was growing like wildfire.
There are multiple reasons why MPL was growing at a pace that it felt as if their only problem was scaling the tech infra and hiring of DevOps engineers.
Apart from tailwinds of infra being in place, MPL played its cards really well that propelled them to an exponential growth of 0 to 30 million users within 1 year of launch.
Google Play had strict policies around real money gaming. MPL needed it to reach its audience which was primarily in smaller towns and used Android phones, but had to find a hack to be on Google Play Store.
Initially it had two avatars of MPL app – MPL and MPL Pro. MPL Pro was not on Google Play store and was available directly on MPL website and Apple’s App store.
MPL was a free to play app and there was no option to put in money though users can play and win cash if they win. This was monetized with ads, though it may have been a loss leader to build scale as monetary gratification was significant enough to keep players hooked.
This would help with the viral growth that MPL experienced early on. Once the initial traction was built, MPL took the app off Play store for technical reasons and it was never revived.
Well played, MPL.
MPL Pro, the real money gaming app, the current avatar remains available on the Google Play Store and MPL’s website.
As it continued to scale, its appetite for variety continued to grow.
PowerUp 2.0 – Variety of Engagement
Becoming the Miniclip of the mobile phone arena, if we may be so bold, was a path MPL was almost destined to go down.
Fantasy cricket? Pool? Chess? Indian Fruit Ninja? Indian QuizUp? MPL had it all. The onus of being this have-it-all deity is something no single platform should have to bear alone.
Being fully aware of this, MPL went down the aggregator road. Like how most social media apps provide platforms to creators instead of churning out their own content, MPL lets game developers host games and gather an audience using the platform they provide.
It was a win-win situation which has let MPL broaden their catalogue, and game developers take home a part of the revenue earned by the platform.
MPL become a developer platform, reminiscent of powerhouses like Shopify. A similar strategy has also been leveraged by Roblox, with their “Roblox Studio” offering that allows developers to build their own games.
Adopting this idea has worked wonderfully for MPL – their range of offerings has now grown to 60+ games loved by 4+ crore customers.
While there is a presence of a competitor in each vertical, what makes MPL unique is the fact that its very wide range of offerings end up appealing to a much wider audience. The platform’s structure allows for more organic advertising – and subsequent discovery – of alternative games once boredom sets in.
One moment you’re playing ‘casual’ games like Bubble Shooter, and in the next, you discover quizzing games!
The co-founders added quizzing games to their boutique not only to increase their platform’s variety, but also in the interest of getting youngsters interested and actively involved in the art of quizzing.
Typically, gaming is considered an activity that does not bring any value to one’s life and is bucketed under the term “timepass”, by many Indian households.
MPL looked to fight this stigma by attaching some tangible value to this activity.
With a nominal entry fee of about Rs. 2 or 3, one stood a chance to win Rs. 70 by outsmarting the others on Quiz, a game Qunami hosted on MPL. Qunami’s website came crashing down on the day the game was launched in Hindi due to the insane amount of traffic.
The quiz was launched as a two player battle, and MPL’s founders are keen to increase the number of participants to five for a wholesome and thrilling experience.
Quizzing and video games may have their stark differences, but at the end of the day, they are both competitive games.
The gaming community, enabled by MPL, was building.
PowerUp 3.0 – Dopamine and Heroes
2018 was an interesting time to be a part of the Indian gaming community.
When public figures and popular comics began tapping into the potential of live-streaming content, the e-sport fraternity came together like never before. Gaming was finally viewed as something more than just “fun”, and Indian gamers and game developers were ready to be put on the world map.
The appeal of platforms such as MPL surged, as more and more people were convinced that being successful in the mobile gaming arena took a certain amount of skill – or at least something more than just luck.
While gaming is fun, the thrill of playing and winning is multiplied when money is at stake. MPL was making this nearly frictionless, with games that start as low as a Rs. 1 entry fee.
This made it accessible to everyone and the dopamine hit on winning became multifold.
MPL was targeting the gamer who had an unending appetite for risk, and a thirst to emerge victorious, no matter what the odds. It was going to be a platform ruled by The Winner.
And who better than one of the most persevering and relentless modern day legends to represent them?
Virat Kohli was roped in as the brand ambassador for MPL, in 2019. Very soon, the entire nation wanted to “Become a Hero” on MPL.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that MPL’s expenses had soared over the course of the fiscal year 2019-2020.
Their total expenses had gone up from 110.6 Cr in the previous year to 296.3 Cr, with increase across the board – up roughly 60% in operating revenue and roughly 70% in employee benefits, and shooting up around 350% in other expenses such as rent, fuel and as one can guess, advertising.
But while the expenses increased 2x, revenues increased 4x and showed no signs of stopping. MPL’s total revenue increased from 4.27 Cr in the previous year to 18.31 Cr.
Investors saw MPL’s financials on the trajectory to turn EBITDA positive and acknowledged that fiscal year 20’s performance was not fully indicative of the gaming boom seen post covid.
MPL bagged a giant $90 mm in Series B funding, as it accelerated even faster. Seeing its incredible scale, competitors followed in all shapes and sizes.
Its biggest competitor had been around for 10 years before it.
Know Your Competition
Having set up base way back in 2008, before the fantasy sports boom in India, Dream 11 has a significant early mover advantage.
Dream 11 led the fray with over 10 crore users contributing to over 90% market share in the Indian fantasy sports segment. The Indian fantasy sports industry had over 60 startups, with others such as My Team 11, Hala Play, Rooter, Fanfight, Gaming Monk and Fantain sports.
Acknowledging Dream11’s dominance in fantasy, MPL positioned itself cleverly.
Dream11 targeted hardcore cricket lovers, but MPL’s target audience was anyone who was looking to play mobile games and earn money from it.
While Dream 11 focused primarily on cricket, kabaddi, NBA, hockey and football, MPL provides a much broader gamut of both content and games cutting across categories allowing users to choose from options such as esports, casual, fantasy and arcade games.
Being a platform, none of the games on the MPL platform were developed by the company itself, developers can join and create games based on MPL’s ideation. This approach helped the company to grow faster because it reduced the amount of effort and time needed to build the portfolio of games.
Since developers were able to monetise their games from day 1, MPL was able to add over 70 games on its platform, working with over 28 game developers and studios.
Being a content provider as well, MPL targets to capture the attention of just about any Indian with a smartphone.
This meant that they are not just in competition with the other fantasy gaming companies but slowly biting into the larger horizontal pool of attention hoarding players like Youtube, Facebook and Netflix.
Another significant difference was in their marketing strategies, while Dream 11 captured sports fans by forging partnerships with official national sports leagues (such as the IPL, ISL, PKL), MPL goes a step beyond and uses a broader strategy to capture any smartphone user in Tier 2 and 3 towns.
Apart from sponsoring top teams KKR, RCB in the IPL and serving as an official merchandise sponsor for Team India, MPL also sponsored the reality TV show Bigg Boss 2020, significantly improving brand recall among their target audience.
With the aggressive marketing and rapid user acquisition, MPL managed to become India’s fastest mobile gaming platform.
MPL was now ready for it’s next innings, overseas.
Win in India, Win International
MPL decided to enter Indonesia in 2019; dubbed the “fastest-growing market for fantasy sports”, the country served as the perfect market to expand their user base.
Although MPL started by burning money to acquire users, through an innovative system of incentives like vouchers and in app currency, it was able to score about 3 million new Indonesian users in a short span.
However, MPL realised that Games, like any form of content, come with an expiration date. People play for a while and then move on to the next game.
By using deep data driven models, they were quickly able to notice when users were feeling bored and quickly intervene with personalised communication, preventing churn.
MPL did not stop there as it expanded its platform offer, preparing to develop and distribute content and, ultimately, offer live streaming and chat.
This opened up new social pathways to build communities that keep people engaged and ultimately reduce churn. 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 continued to deep dive into making the gaming experience social.
With their stellar performance, it was no surprise when MPL raised $90M in Series C and $95M in Series D in quick succession, putting it at a post-money valuation of $945M.
The freshly infused capital was fuel to the fire for MPL as they looked to exploit the growing esports community and take Indian gamers onto the global stage.
Selling Shovels in a Gold Rush
With a global pandemic looming, people were forced to stay indoors and most sports matches were cancelled, users looked to other forms of entertainment.
Unlike many TV and entertainment companies that had to put production on-hold, gaming platforms fired on all cylinders.
The time spent on gaming apps increased by 21% during the initial national lockdown, with the total customer base crossed 300 million users. Riding this wave of increased user adoption, MPL was able to increase their user base 4x during the lockdown.
The online gaming industry is self-regulated, it is important that the industry’s self-regulation practices are recognized by the relevant ministries. This will boost investments leading to technological advancements as well as additional revenues.
The online gaming industry can generate massive employment, through direct and indirect jobs from adjacent sectors such as telco, marketing, financial services and banking, technology, events, and real estate.
Gaming platforms have the infrastructure to host other forms of content and entertainment and become a prominent facilitator of cross-entertainment partnerships in the post pandemic era.
They can harness the talent and reach of games studios to meet increased user demand for games and gaming content, a supply that will only increase as more publishers join platforms to reach and engage new audiences.
With over 63 million users in a short span of 2.5 years, there exists an incredible opportunity for gaming platform MPL to be a global media platform and content provider in one.
With Indian gaming still in its early years, MPL has exciting avenues to foray into.
A potentially large avenue would be training and skilling gamers to create power users, who could then livestream using MPL’s content pipes enabling community powered playing and winning, now made possible by the Jiofication of data in India.
As India’s large and growing online population surveys the wide variety of entertainment options in front of them, giants like Hotstar or Instagram might be the first that come to mind.
But the rapidly growing world of skill-based fantasy gaming presents a compelling alternative, and MPL could be the dark horse in the race for India’s attention.
By Abhinay, Bhoomika, Chetan, Omkar and Shiraz.
Disclaimer: MPL is a portfolio company of the fund an AJVC member works for.
Audio Version: Behind the Scenes with AJVC
We bring to you, AJVC behind the scenes podcast with the writers of the piece Shiraz, Abhinay and Chetan.
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