EXCLUSIVE: Games24x7’s Bhavin Pandya on India’s online gaming industry, laws and future strategy

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When the rise of India’s online gaming industry is documented, Games24x7, co-founded by Trivikraman Thampy and Bhavin Pandya will probably have a chapter dedicated to them and their adventures. A pioneering company of India’s much-talked about online gaming business, Games24x7 is bound to a play a significant role in shaping the future of online gaming in India.

Games24x7 is a leading online gaming brand established in 2006, with a portfolio that spans skill games (RummyCircle and My11Circle) and casual games (Ultimate Games). RummyCircle is the largest online rummy platform in India, while My11Circle is one of the country’s top fantasy sports platforms. Games 24×7 has amassed quite a following over the years with 50 to 60 million players having engaged with its products.

Hence it was only apt that Bhavin and Games24x7 featured as the first guest in G2G News’ flagship video series Game On With Jay Sayta, which aims to aggregate India’s online gaming community and bring together its most important stakeholders to discuss key aspects of real money gaming in India, legal and regulatory frameworks.

In the first episode of Game On, Bhavin touched upon several key themes that are shaping online gaming in India – from the aftermath of the pandemic to the legal hurdles and perception battles. Here are some excerpts from the conversation between Bhavin and Jay.

The Impact Of Pandemic On Online Gaming

While the online gaming sector witnessed immense growth during the outbreak, the concept of working from home hasn’t been the most pleasant prospect for Bhavin. “I am a big fan of going to the office and interacting with people in person and having discussions and so I have personally not liked it but obviously, it is the need of the hour and there is no other way to do things right now,” he said with a smile.

The Games24x7 boss also informed that the work-from-home norm has led to a productivity loss. Touching upon its detrimental effect on work-life balance, he shared, “It is unfortunate because people have been at home. The boundary between work and home life has become very thin so people are working a lot more. So people are working a lot more but ironically in my view, the efficiency and productivity have still gone down.”

Reflecting on the impact Covid-19 has had on Gaming24x7, he asserted, “The whole space went into 6th gear. In our case, once the lockdown hit, we did see that through the months of April and June, there was significantly more activity on the platform because the advertisements drew a lot of fringe players who had perhaps dithered initially due to lack of time. But now once the lockdown came in June 2020, they had all the time now, so they took to online gaming.

However, the general information about the growth of gaming space is not applicable to all. Bhavin informed that with the easing of lockdown, fringe players who had started playing games were also quick to go away. The hype created about the boom story led people to focus on the growth rather than the fall after.

Detailing the experience of the following months, he shared, “They were fringe players, not serious players. We also saw a steady decline in activity and engagement on our platform all the way through December, January and February. Then it started stabilizing as the second wave came in. In the second wave, we again saw a slight bump but now even the second wave has subsided. The first wave was interesting in the sense that no one knew what to expect. The initial months saw a spike but later things started dropping off.”

Games 24×7 Journey

New York University trained economists Bhavin Pandya and Trivikraman Thampy were getting their PhDs when they had a realization about the potential of skill gaming in India. Speaking about their journey, he noted, “Games24x7’s journey has been nothing short of exciting. We figured that Indian economy is growing fast. This was back in 2003, (3,4,5,6) when the economy was growing 8-9 percent year on year; really golden years in some sense. We thought that there could be an opportunity that internet would take off in a big way.”

After factoring that his PhD was not going anywhere, Bhavin dropped out, packed his bags and came to India. He narrated, “Coming to Indian on a vacation and coming to India to live are two very different things. So reality sank and I started understanding that this is going to be very hard.”

Having studied the market and understood the distinction between games of skill and games of chance, he shared that he was naive to think that things will be smooth in India. He added, “Games of skill you can play for money and that is not gambling and it is legal to do that. As we thought we want to do rummy for money and it is legal, we were very naive to think that just because it is legal and just because there are supreme court judgements, we’ll have no issues. We were also very young at the time.”

The Problem Of Perception

Their plans were initially met with disdain and disapproval from various forces. Speaking about the challenges faced by them, he shared, “So I came down to Indian and I would go to different banks and payment gateways, advertisers, Google and Facebook and ask them to open it up for us. And they would say this is gambling. And we would counter that this is not gambling. So the perception was the problem and that still continues.”

Explaining why such problems arise in India, he reflected, “India is a very complex country with complex sensibilities and there are ways in which that perception should be and can be changed over time and that’s been a major learning. We’re working towards that and we’ve come a long way.”

While Bhavin understands that the battle of changing perception is a long drawn one, he’s confident that the future will hold better news on this front. “Before rulings in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, people were not willing to even meet us. Today they are more open, and that’s progress,” he said.

Bhavin strongly believes that changing the perception of skill games needs the industry to speak in one voice. He recalled a conversation he had with former Disney APAC boss Uday Shankar who narrated instances of stakeholders undercutting players within the same industry on key issues. Thankfully that isn’t the case in online gaming, said Bhavin as he wholeheartedly praised his competitors Dream11 and MPL for helping change their industry’s perception.

Investment and Growth

India as a market has become an investor-friendly destination. While investments have been flowing in various ways, Bhavin noted that the same can’t be said for online gaming, although he is bullish about the growth in the coming years. Elaborating his views on what the future has in store for online gaming, he shared, “I think this is a great space and a great opportunity for investors and entrepreneurs alike to make a splash here and I think the interest will stay.”

Lauding other market players for galvanizing the public interest in a meaningful way, he shared, “I personally think there is a lot of potential to see a lot more investment in gaming. I must thank my colleagues Harsh (Jain) and Sai (Srinivas Kiran G) who really opened the floodgates if I may say so. They really established themselves as companies that are making a very compelling case for online gaming in a very, very big way in India. When there is investor interest in large gaming companies like MPL and Dream11, it is bound to create more interest.”

The Perils Of Banning Approach

While Covid has led to a surge in the online gaming interest, some states have taken decisions that have certainly been detrimental to the skill gaming space.

Voicing his disgruntlement against the bans that have been enforced on the games of skill, he shared, “Our view is that those bans that have come are unconstitutional. They are knee-jerk reactions. And if the states were to actually sit down with us, they would see that as an industry we really care about our players. Skill-gaming industry overall really cares about making sure that the players are playing responsibly.”

Stating what he thinks would be the best possible solution to this long-drawn issue, he shared, “We are a complex group of people and a complex country. I think maybe the single-pronged approach of going to courts and getting clarity there and then going to the Supreme Court is technically the right thing to do. But practically more needs to happen. When I say more , I mean the perception change needs to come about.”

Bhavin seemed optimistic about the situation with regards to the ongoing bans imposed by certain states. Citing that there is no single company in the skill gaming space that has lost in High Courts or the Supreme Court, he indicated that lifting of bans is an eventuality. However until that happens, he hopes that perception about the games of skill changes too.

Future Strategy of Games24x7

Bhavin is extremely clear about the direction he wants to steer his company in. It is a similar to the philosophy he’s adopted when starting out – Games24x7 will play within the rules of the game and abide by the laws of the land. Hence, he’s keen on adding products and games that are truly in line with that mantra. The latest skill game added to the Games24x7 portfolio in Carrom. “We are only going to add games that are 100% games of skill. That’s how we did rummy and went into the fantasy space. That’s why carrom makes complete sense. So, we will add select games and not multiple games. That’s our short to medium term goal,” he concluded.