The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent country-wide lockdown have affected many facets of the Indian society, including the gaming industry. This article discusses how the pandemic that swept through India has led to both positive and negative outcomes to the gaming industry.
Overview of the effect of COVID-19 in general on the Indian economy and society
As of May 2020, India has 64,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 cases with more than 2,000 deaths. The Indian government hastily implemented a country-wide lockdown on March 25, with relaxations and zoning laws following based on the severity of local situations. The lockdown reportedly slowed the rate of infections. However, the number of cases still keep on rising and the country’s economy is hurting due to hampered economic activities. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) predicted that the country will lose around INR 7-8 trillion ($92-105 billion) due to the pandemic, even with the government’s relief package and fiscal stimulus.
The pandemic also disrupted the Indian society as jobs, wages, and daily activities came into standstill. It is especially important to note that almost 90% of Indian workers work in the informal sector of the economy, making the lockdown very hard on the majority of the country’s population. Moreover, as more of the country is now connected to the internet thanks to cheap smartphones and data packages, misinformation about the pandemic spread quickly throughout Indian society.
Prior to the pandemic, at least 627 million or about half of all Indians were already connected to the internet. With the continuation of the pandemic and the resulting lockdown, the connected consumers are left with their phones and PCs to fill their time. A study by Cyber Media Research in 2019 found that 95% of Indian females and 86% of Indian males who own smartphones play mobile games on their phones. We also see that the pandemic does affect the Indian gaming industry as well as the gamers. Due to the pandemic, gaming is one of the main activities that Indians are increasingly participating in.
Gaming in India before COVID-19
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, India has been pacing well along with other gaming markets in the region in terms of game development. Moreover, about 75% Indians use the internet everyday and people between the age of 16 and 29 are the most frequent users, making online gaming accessible to the majority of the population. Perception of gaming is also changing in the country from a relatively negative behavior into a more positive one. A 2018 Dell survey found that 55% of gamers think that being a gamer is cool, and 50% of Indian gamers feel that gaming makes them a strategic thinker. The fantasy sports genre is especially popular in the country. Fantasy sports players in India have grown from 2 million in 2017 to 50 million in 2019 and the number is expected to reach 100 million in 2020. Fantasy sports operators stood at a mere 10 in 2016 and increased to 70 in 2018. In summary, the gaming industry is growing in India and the society is shifting into accepting the activity more. You can read our India spotlight report for more information.
Impact on the game industry #1: Increased access to online gaming
The outbreak of COVID-19 in India started to be felt in early 2020, especially following the lockdown that started in March. The most natural impact of the COVID-19 lockdown in India is the hike in traffic on gaming apps and websites. Publicis Groupe India reported that between March 1-21, gaming saw a 41% increase in time spent. One example from a series of interviews that Niko conducted found a 21-year old male who mentioned that he used to play games for around 2 hours per day before the lockdown. He now plays between 4-6 hours per day due to the lockdown. Ludo King, PUBG Mobile, Clash of Clans, and Teen Patti – Online Poker are among the popular titles that gain more playtime during the lockdown.
Gamerji, an esports platform, registered a spike in its daily active users from 12,000-15,000 pre-pandemic to 40,000-50,000 during the lockdown. Gamerji conducts daily tournaments to allow its users to compete, communicate, share content, and win cash prizes. Another increase in access is recorded by the Noida-based real money gaming platform The lockdown also resulted in more people registering to join gaming platforms. Online gaming platform Adda52Rummy also saw a surge in its traffic through people joining its platforms from different localities in the country. The platform was previously only popular in South India. However, since the lockdown, the platform has seen increasing number of users from other parts of the country including Delhi, Kolkata, and cities in Gujarat.
Further, Paytm’s games vertical Paytm First Games saw its user base increase by 3 times in March. The user base has also increased by 200% and the platform observed 75,000 new users joining daily. The company also observed that while their significant user base is in big cities, lower tier cities and rural India also contributed more traffic during the lockdown than before. Paytm First Games’ platform include casual games such as Rummy, Ludo, Pool, and Snake Wars. Among the games, Rummy has gained the most traction, with users and games played doubling every week. Paytm now gives out rewards worth over $1.3 million every month. In the mobile gaming scene, Houseparty, an app which allows people to video call and game at the same time, has had over 2 million downloads within a week in April. The app has been trending on the 5th rank on Google’s Play Store and the top spot on the Apple App Store.
Mobile game downloads significantly increased in April and peaked at 197 million in a single week, 75% more than previous quarter’s weekly average. A 21-year old female that we interviewed stated that she started playing mobile games during the lockdown, something that she has never did before. Casual games like Carrom and Ludo King were popular among families and friends and grew by 50-75%. Off the top five apps most frequently downloaded, Ludo king stood at 4th position with 9.5 million downloads between 25th March and 10th April. The game’s active daily user base leaped from 13-15 million prior to the lockdown to 50 million during the lockdown. One of Niko’s sources said “Ludo King is the perfect game as it brought back my childhood memories, when we used to spend hours as kids playing it at home with friends. It also has connected me again with my siblings and cousins again.”
Impact on the game industry #2: cancellations of offline tournaments
Fantasy sports has taken a hit due to no matches being held in the country. For Baazi games, the lockdown has been both a boom and a bane. While the traffic on its platforms Pokerbaazi, RummyBaazi, has increased by about 10%, its fantasy sports platform BalleBaazi has come to a standstill.
While offline esports tournaments came to a halt due to the pandemic, esports in general soared in popularity during the lockdown. The lockdown pushed companies to change tournament gaming format to online-only. PUBG Mobile Pro League South Asia, which was scheduled to kick off in March in New Delhi, was postponed by a week and turned into an online tournament. The tournament is later being held online in its entirety this year due to future uncertainties. Similarly, Garena also announced the suspension of Free Fire Champions Cup, which was to start in March. Instead, Garena partnered with Paytm First Games to introduce the new Free Fire India Solos 2020. Moreover, the online-based Paytm First Games concluded in April, in collaboration with Supercell, was India’s biggest Clash Royale tournament online with over 11,000 participants. Tencent’s PUBG Mobile even recorded an 80% increase in the number of monthly active users and reached almost 19 million. A Niko’s source stated that “PUBG [Mobile] actually meets my need of sharing a banter with my friends. I have been missing out on this due to the lockdown”, when asked why he began playing the game during the lockdown.
Impact on the game industry #3: More recognition of the positive side of gaming by the government
Local government also joined in the gaming bandwagon, such as in the case of Kerala state government, which launched a coronavirus-themed mobile game. On April 28, Kerala’s health department, in partnership with Thrilok Games, introduced Covid Run mobile game to raise awareness among the populace about the COVID-19 pandemic. It should be noted that there is no single dedicated piece of legislation and no specific statute in India in regards to the content of video games. Therefore, the pandemic sets the stage for more positive coverage and economic benefit of gaming which the Indian government might find appealing.
Where will gaming stand in India after the pandemic?
The COVID-19 pandemic, while responsible for a devastating number of deaths and socio-economic problems in India, also created an avenue of opportunities for the gaming industry in the country. More exposure on video games and esports to the general public during the lockdown could lead to the mainstreaming of the industry in India. Furthermore, the increasing popularity of gaming in the country could also increase the industry’s potential to be recognized and supported by the government.
We in Niko Partners see that the pandemic has already already changed Indians’ perception on gaming and driving more people to enjoy and experience gaming for the first time. We believe that although the amount of time spent on gaming will be reduced after the end of the pandemic as more people return to work, the number of Indian gamers will still increase as people are already accustomed to online gaming as a form of leisure activity.