Niko Partners has included India in our market coverage for 2 years. This report comments on the current issue of India banning 177 Chinese mobile game apps since June 2020, including very popular titles such as PUBG Mobile, Mobile Legends and Rise of Kingdoms. For more Niko analysis on India’s games market, please see the links at the end of this report.
India: Impact of India’s ban on Chinese games
India is a young and rapidly growing video games market with over a quarter of a billion gamers in 2020. Mobile games propel the market growth, with the availability of lower cost smartphones, lower cost data plans, and an influx of free to play (F2P) games. Indian telecoms giant Reliance Jio was at the forefront of this growth in 2016 by taking a magnanimous and market-creating step to offer 4G service for free to all 52 million of its customers. We credit this action with the growth of what had been a nascent mobile gaming market in India.
Trends to follow include the roll out of 5G technology, investment in mobile esports, increases in consumer purchasing power, new affordable high spec smartphones and access to localized versions of global games. With all growing industries comes regulatory oversight. This has happened on a geopolitical scale in India in late 2020.
India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEIT) investigates everything from gaming addiction complaints to national security and data privacy issues. Recently MEIT has focused on rising tensions between India and China and the impact of Chinese apps and games in the Indian market. Other countries in the world have also taken a second look at some of China’s companies, such as Huawei. India made a dramatic shift in foreign direct investment (FDI) policy for border nations in April 2020, primarily impacting aggressive Chinese FDI. Niko Partners analysis of the outcome of this policy on the Indian games industry can be found here.
Further, military tension at the border with China in June 2020 was one circumstance that led MEIT to ban 59 Chinese apps, followed by banning 118 more six weeks later in September. The stated justification was that MEIT was concerned with protection of user data, saying that the banned apps were “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India.” The decision to ban the apps (as a national security measure) was to “safeguard the interests of Indian internet users and to ensure the safety, security and sovereignty of Indian cyberspace.”
The 2-part ban included popular social apps such as TikTok (Bytedance), which was the #1 app by downloads at the time, as well as 38 games listed in the table below.
Specific analysis about the ban on Chinese games
The ban concerns Chinese publishers, because they have the contact with end users, but does not concern Chinese developers. Example: PUBG Mobile is developed and published by Tencent so it is banned but Call of Duty Mobile is developed by Tencent and published by Activision so it is not banned. Subsidiaries are also not impacted. Example: Supercell can operate Clash of Clans and Brawl Stars, even though Supercell is owned outright by Tencent.
National security and user data protection issues are more relevant with servers based in China than they are with those located in India. Nevertheless, the ban applies no matter where the servers are located. As we noted, Tencent and Yoozoo had started to store data locally in India, yet both had apps on the ban list.
The Government of India has targeted apps that are from large Chinese publishers or that are popular in India. While these games have been removed from app stores, we note that there are still a number of high revenue generating titles still operating from Chinese publishers today. We have found several games from Chinese publishers that have ranked in the Top 25 grossing games list in the past 30 days. This could signal that a third list is being worked on that will ban the remaining apps still in operation.
The emphasis is on mobile apps. PC and console games are not yet banned. So far the hardware side of things is also unaffected. Example: Chinese smartphone brand Xiaomi is able to operate and sell devices in India. We watch for more Made in India tags as consumers become more aware of the conflict.
The move has also come at a time when the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, spoke out in support of creating a national games industry and emphasized that India should tap into the growing digital gaming sector by developing games that are inspired from Indian culture and folk tales, just before the announcement of more banned apps on September 2nd. It remains unclear whether India intends to ban additional Chinese published apps that are still operating, or whether it will ban games that are developed by Chinese companies and published by non-Chinese firms.
Chinese authorities and developers have appealed the decision to ban Chinese apps, to no avail. The location of the server seems to not matter, and a senior government official reportedly told Reuters that changing the ownership rights or publisher of a game on the ban list will not lead to it being permitted again. The move is primarily being seen a way to respond to Chinese aggression at the border. We await a new batch (it would be the 3rd), which could include popular titles such as Genshin Impact (MiHoYo) and potentially apps owned by subsidiaries of Chinese game companies.
Impact on notable games and genres
Two of the highest grossing genres in India are Battle Royale and MOBA, and Chinese operators have several of the most popular titles in each. PUBG Mobile had been the #1 game in India in 2019 and 2020 and a driver for growth with 200 million downloads (70% were PUBG Mobile Lite). The follow on impact on esports and influencers is also devastating to India’s rising stars.
Call of Duty Mobile and Garena Free Fire are the main beneficiaries from the ban, with both titles offering battle royale gameplay in addition to other modes. Garena Free Fire was already the #2 game by revenue in India prior to the PUBG Mobile ban, and saw a sharp jump in downloads up 118% between August 2020 and September 2020 according to data from Sensor Tower. Call of Duty Mobile, also a top ten grossing game, saw a much larger jump with downloads up 583% MoM between August and September according to Sensor Tower. Users flocked to those games from PUBG but failed to spend the same money as they would have on PUBG, which will negatively impact the mobile games market revenue in India.
The ban of Mobile Legends (Moonton) has left a vacuum in the MOBA category that will be hard to fill. Mobile Legends was the #1 grossing MOBA title in India with more than 10 million downloads, according to Sensor Tower. This game was banned in June in the first batch, causing users and influencers to move to Arena of Valor and Marvel Super War – which were banned in the 2nd batch. Revenue generated from the MOBA game category in India across iOS and Google Play declined 78% between Q2 2020 and Q3 2020 as a result.
Local Gamers Perspective
Speaking to local students in India, we found that concern is high about India-China relations and they believe that Chinese apps could pose a security concern. We interviewed several Indian students who believe the ban to be unfair, at least for the apps that stored India data in India.
We do not expect the Government of India to overturn these bans in the short term. If anything, we believe there is a moderate to high risk of additional bans in the future should tensions increase between China and India or if there is a data and privacy scandal involving notable Chinese firms. Tencent, PUBG Corp, Bytedance and others will continue to seek ways to re-enter the market. Bytedance was in talks with Jio, but currently there is no confirmation on them finding a path to have TikTok unbanned.
One company that is making aggressive moves to return to the Indian market is PUBG Corp, which is a Korean company with a Chinese publisher (Tencent). PUBG Corp recently announced that it would launch a custom version of PUBG Mobile, titled PUBG Mobile India, to bring the game back to the country. The company noted that it had partnered with Microsoft Azure to store user data securely in India and had made changes to the game to build and foster a healthy gaming environment, such as adding green blood and restricting the amount of time that minors can spend in the game. Ironically these changes make it identical to the Mainland China version of the game known as Peacekeeper Elite. This would theoretically mean the game operates in a similar capacity to Call of Duty Mobile, which while developed by Tencent, is published by Activision and able to operate with no issues. However, India’s government has also made it known that switching publishers or server locations for already banned games will not lead to a game being unbanned. If PUBG’s efforts are successful, other Chinese game devs may follow by partnering with a non-Chinese publisher and using local servers in order to re-enter the market.
More Niko Partners analysis on India’s games market:
India PC & Mobile Games Market Report and 5-year Forecast November 2020
India’s ban of Chinese apps and games September 2020
India’s new policy clamping down on Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) April 2020
India’s mobile games market October 2019