Sreeram Reddy Vanga on Nazara’s acquisition of OpenPlay, online gaming bans and regulation, recasting Classic Rummy into a super app

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Sreeram Reddy Vanga has donned many hats in his illustrious career – from managing operations at PartyGaming, which went public on the London Stock Exchange in 2005, founding Cozy Games and nurturing it into the UK’s finest online bingo and casino platform, bootstrapping OpenPlay Technologies into one of India’s most noted online skill gaming brands to now investing via Hustle Partners, his venture capital fund, into brand and technologies of the future.

He was in the news most recently after gaming giant Nazara Technologies acquired a 100% stake in his venture OpenPlay Technologies, which operates Classic Rummy, for Rs 186.4 crore, one of the largest deals in India’s online gaming industry.

In his first detailed interview post the mega acquisition, Sreeram appeared on G2G News’ flagship video series Game on with Jay Sayta, wherein he touched upon his entrepreneurial journey, his overseas experience vis-a-vis real money gaming, his views on online gaming regulation in India, and future plans.

“I should acknowledge PartyGaming, the place where I cut my teeth back in 2002 to 2005. It was one of the first largest and legendary companies,” he says paying homage to his roots and the place where it all began.

Classic Rummy’s acquisition by Nazara Technologies

OpenPlay Technologies was launched in 2012. Sreeram notes that in the initial days, they were conservative about reinvesting profits, raising money and debt. “We wanted to build it organically year after year,” he shares.

Speaking about the early days of his venture, he recounts, “We started off with a standard 13 card rummy. It was a company that we built organically on the back of the product strength, so we didn’t raise any money. It was a 100 percent owned company and we never raised any debt.”

With the company scaling fast, Sreeram and team were able to diversify its offerings, thus positioning the brand as a super app.

“As part of that journey, we’ve added fantasy sports in 2019 and very recently we’ve added poker as well. We’re in the process of integrating a few other casual games so that should be done by the end of this month of the mid of next month. So we should be a full-fledged super app in a few weeks to come.”

Moreover, he also announced that they will be rebranding the Classic Rummy app as ‘Classic Games’ with the integration of other genres, taking their offerings’ count to over double digits. Although Classic Games is largely focusing on the Indian market, it is interesting to note that Sreeram’s previous company CozyGames is the only Indian-origin company to be licensed by the UK Gaming Commission.

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Online gaming regulation in the UK

Indian online gaming sector’s upward trajectory hasn’t been a smooth-sailing one. While India’s fast-moving real money gaming segment is wading out of a raft of litigations, bans, ambiguity and arbitrary court cases, UK is one of the world’s best regulated markets, with mature jurisprudence, and a country with stringent licensing policy along with set codes of conduct when it comes to the online gaming sector.

Describing the strictness of licensing procedures in the UK, Sreeram informs, “They first identify the company and to apply for a license.. you may get it but even the principles of the company have their own license so you have to make sure that pretty much all these licenses are in good standing.”

In addition to the need to comply with online gaming regulations which prescribe detailed terms with respect to underage gaming, one also has to adhere to the processes and procedures which determine that players are over 18 years of age.

Not only that, Sreeram informs that UK laws also include income verification. “Anybody who is gaming needs to have enough evidence to show that whatever limits you gave them to play every month or every rolling 30 days is within their affordability and then you have to understand and run a lot of algorithms around problem gaming because typically when they lose money, they may chase money or they may be spending money which they borrowed so you have do all those algorithms to ensure that they are not chasing money that they don’t have,” he explains.

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It is incumbent upon companies to give players self-exclusion or a cool-off period so they realize they have a real problem. Apart from prerequisites like KYC and strident conditions, gaming standards that are certified and tested, companies in the UK are expected to comply with the entire EU regulation around anti-money laundering.

Speaking about the regulations that are also imposed on advertising, he shares, “Most importantly, the UK advertising standards in terms of how you advertise; for example saying ‘you could win up to’ or you may win up to’. All those things are not allowed. You have to be very very specific in terms of what the offer is that you have and nothing should be of a tempting or alluring nature.”

Online gaming bans and regulation in India

With all the uncertainties haunting the Indian online gaming landscape, the negatives are offset by the recent rays of sunshine brightening the prospects on the fledging digital playgrounds.

After a flurry of prohibitions imposed by southern states that were dubbed as knee-jerk reactions by industry experts, Madras High court’s recent ruling that struck down the law banning online games for stakes instilled a renewed sense of confidence and vigour in the real money gaming community.

Speaking about the regulatory concerns that have arisen over the past year, he opines, “I have been a very strong advocate of the industry being strong and responsible. So in 2012, organizations started to understand and different consortiums started to understand how we can represent our industry in good light. Being a strong advocate of regulations, I would say, ‘Look, guys, let’s not play for the short term. Let’s play for the long term and let’s ensure that everything that we do is extremely responsible.”

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Except for a few bad apples, Sreeram shares that most of the operators have so far been responsible in their approach. Speaking about the wild and almost draconian reactions from some parts of the country, he shares, “I think the repercussion of those few bad apples is what we are facing right now. Because governments will always overreact. This industry in India is at a very early nascent stage. I think operators themselves are trying to comprehend this industry, leave alone, the external forces to the industry and especially the government.”

According to him, the way the community carries itself plays an important role in determining how it is perceived. “I think all the bans that we’ve been seeing starting from 2017 have been extremely strong knee-jerk reactions. This is something new. It’s going big. We don’t understand it. We can’t comprehend it right now. So let’s just go ahead and ban it. So I think that has been the strong approach,” he adds.

However, all is not lost as he feels that the governments are steadily becoming cognisant of the scenario and ‘some degree of introspection is taking place as well.’

“Governments also have started to realise that we can’t actually throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Madras High Court ruling is is very, very progressive and a great relief for us. With industry carrying itself in a very responsible manner, I think we can have a good future,” he explains.

Addressing the caveats in self-regulatory approach considering that players in their aggressive growth strategies, might be tempted to flout the norms, he shares, “There is no repercussion so you will always have these guys who want to exploit the opportunity and try to take advantage of the fact that the other operators are being responsible. ‘let me just cross the line and see if I can get ahead of them.’ So, I think, from that perspective, see I’ve always been a strong advocate regulations in this business.’’

Highlighting the positive outcomes of regulating the business, he shares, “If you regulate this business, then you will have extremely strong, prim and proper operators.”

In today’s scenario in India, Sreeram points out that ‘anybody and everybody who can get a payment gateway can try to build a poker or rummy and is able to operate as there are no barriers.’

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While he is not a proponent of barriers, he expresses the need for a mechanism to evaluate those applying for a license.

Citing the examples of the UK, he elaborates, “So when you apply for a license in UK, they actually run your file to Interpol and Europol. They check your educational background. Then there’s a check at your resume. You have to appear in front of the gaming committee. And you have to basically talk about what your credentials are and then they decide whether you are prim and proper on the basis of the paperwork and of how you make your presentation.”

Unless we have strong regulation in place, he remarks, we will not be able to filter out the good from the bad. Picking on the meteoric growth that the online gaming space has witnessed, many players appear to be making a beeline to invest in this booming segment. The growing competitiveness has necessitated that market players differentiate themselves to sustain and stay relevant to their user-base.

What’s next for Classic Games?

Speaking about the offerings that they are bringing to the table, he shares, “So we will be working on quite a lot of areas for that Jay, you know, in terms of product improvements, you know, one one, a big leap that we have done is that we have basically said that ‘look will not be a standalone property operating one game on one portal. Another game on another portal. We’ll bring them all together. So that’s one, one shift. And with that, you know, we have to do a lot around user experience with the single wallet and optimizing the lobby.”

Sreeram reveals that they are looking at bringing some new short-format games which will lean more on the entertainment side as opposed to the intense ones like poker and rummy ‘which takes a while to learn the skill and a substantial amount of time investment to play the game.’

With the acquisition by Nazara, the company is feeling bullish about its future growth prospects. Speaking about the myriad gateways of possibilities that this acquisition has opened up, he shares, “We now have a much larger muscle when it comes to marketing power and we are part of a much larger company. I think we will be going aggressive in terms of marketing, but we will do it in a very, very responsible way in terms of acquiring customers.”

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In another disruptive move, Sreeram informs, that they have recently launched a new layer where influencers can invite their followers to come and play on the portal.

“There will be a specialized landing page to that influencer. And the influencer will be able to make a revenue share. We want to do deep customization inside this so we start going a little bit broader in terms of our acquisition strategy.”

While they are not averse to onboarding brand ambassadors, he informs that they are currently not pursuing this aspect like other similar players. Apart from that, expanding footprints across the country has automatically led them to consider making the platform multi-lingual.

Speaking of diversification of their portfolio, he explains, “When we started looking at diversifying, we realised that you need a different product. In the hindi-speaking states, fantasy sports is very popular. Poker is quite popular and short-format games are quite well-received. So ever since we introduced fantasy, we have been focusing more on the northern markets, and now that we’ve also introduced poker, we will go a little bit more heavy on these markets.”

While expanding beyond national borders is on the cards, they are currently planning to tighten the ropes in the domestic market, launch the all-encompassing super application and exploit all the synergies within the group companies.

Having spent the majority of his career in the international market, Sreeram’s experience will naturally strengthen their ambitions to fly outwards. “Early next year, we will aggressively start to look at international markets. 15 years that I spent in overseas markets compared to the nine years that I spent in the Indian market. We should definitely find a way to exploit that,” he concludes.