Reality Kings – Inside the Very Real World of India’s Fantasy Sports Leagues

http://sorigcollege.org/PRMLZ/cdmXm/ There were a lot of things vying for Aditya Mallya’s attention on that idyllic Saturday evening in Goa; the nippy September breeze, the pristine sands of the Benaulim beach, the wondrous setting sun, the perfectly chilled beer, the delicious prawn balchao, and the company of his closest friends. All the ingredients of a memorable evening were there. But, the 29-year-old’s focus was locked on a man nearly 8,000 km away – Tottenham Hotspurs forward, Harry Kane.

The footballer had been on Mallya’s mind all day – while he lazed in the pool, while he half-heartedly played cards over lunch, while driving along Goa’s winding roads to get to Benaulim. It was an odd obsession considering Mallya, an Everton F.C. fan, wasn’t even a Tottenham supporter and, more importantly, didn’t particularly care for Kane. But like Kane, Mallya was participating in a football league of his own – the Fantasy Premier League – a virtual platform run by the English Premier League that allows football fans to assemble their own teams and accumulate points based on each player’s live performance that week, all in an attempt to attain a lofty goal – to be perched atop the leaderboards.

Kane – among the most popular players this season – figures in thousands, if not millions, of fantasy teams. Just not on Mallya’s team that September. After a goalless August, Mallya had dropped the usually prolific forward from his fantasy team for a less expensive but more in-form Aguero. “I really hope he doesn’t score tonight,” he said at some point that evening. But as The Rolling Stones once said, you can’t always get what you want. Mallya checked his phone before bed that night. Final score: Tottenham Hotspurs beat West Ham united 3- 2. Kane scored. Twice.

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Fantasy sports is believed to have been born in the 1960s when, as the story goes, Wilfred Winkenbach, part owner of the Oakland Raiders, an American Football League (now NFL) team, thought of the idea on a rainy weekend in New York City in 1962. Winkenbach, a golf aficionado, often picked “fantasy teams” that consisted of golf players, and wagered against friends that they couldn’t do better. They’d tally the points at the end of a tournament or season, with the spoils going to the winner. That weekend, holed up in a hotel, and several cocktails down, Winkenbach, alongwith Raiders staffer Bill Tunnell and Oakland Tribune sportswriter Scotty Stirling, decided to start a similar fantasy league involving AFL players. The following summer they invited a few other friends to join in, eventually launching the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League (GOPPPL) with eight teams in 1963. Over time, the original eight members scattered across the country, taking the fantasy league idea with them to other cities and friends’ circles.

In an unrelated parallel, fantasy baseball was taking a life of its own. The debate on who is responsible for the birth of fantasy baseball rages till date. What is certain, however, is that Daniel Orkent, an American writer and editor, is credited with popularizing the hobby. Orkent, a die-hard baseball fan, cooked up the basic framework of a fantasy league during the off-season as a way to stay in touch with the game. He developed a method to fit the various statistics that come out of each baseball game—batting average, home runs, saves—into a model that would, in his words, “Let me compete with my friends and show that I knew more about baseball than they did.”

As shown in the ESPN film Silly Little Game, Orkent took the idea to a group of his friends who lunched together at a New York City restaurant called La Rotisserie Francaise. They loved the idea and thus the Rotisserie Baseball League was formed. The game took off after Okrent wrote about it for Inside Sports magazine in the early 1980s. Private fantasy baseball leagues began popping up across the US – in dorm rooms, offices, basements, schools, playgrounds. Okrent and his friends, recognizing the incredible buzz and the immense potential of the game, organized conventions where fans could come and talk about strategies.

A decade later, the arrival of the internet catapulted fantasy sports to another level. Fans no longer had to refer to next day’s newspapers or watch the nightly news for the latest scores; everything was available online almost instantly. One of the original players of the Rotisserie League sums it up best in the documentary, “I’m old enough to have seen a man land on the moon and that was pretty amazing but I don’t think anything was quite so awe-inspiring as seeing the same day box scores slowly take form on [Okrent’s] computer screen…it was absolutely incredible.”

Today, fantasy sports is serious business in North America. According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, 57.4 million people in the US and Canada have played some form of fantasy sports in 2016 with each player spending an average of $556 dollars per year on league-related costs, challenges and material. That is a $32 billion industry. So far this year, that number is already on pace to grow by a little less than 10%.

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Initially restricted to private leagues among friends with everyone putting in money for the big jackpot, the pastime became more organized. With fantasy leagues spreading to other countries and sports like football, rugby and cricket, large sports organizations such as ESPN began to wake up to the value of fantasy sports and the fans who play it. With large amounts of money at stake, it comes as no surprise that private players – such as Fanduel and Draftkings in the US – are multi-billion dollar companies. As another example of the power of fantasy sports, the Fantasy Premier League (FPL) – the most popular fantasy sports league outside the United States – was created by the English Premier League (EPL) as recently as 2002 to further engage its most loyal fans, and as a way to create new fans.

What started out as a fun idea in New York City in the 1960s has now grown into a thriving, multi-billion dollar industry running parallel to the sports industry. Today, various avatars of fantasy sports can be found on nearly every continent, with tens of millions of fans signing up to play.

The game has greatly evolved, and continues to do so, but its avatar remains relatively simple: A fan plays the role of a manager – picking a squad of players who have been assigned values based on their talent and skill level – within a given budget. These players accumulate points based on how they perform during live matches; at the end of the season, the fan with the squad that has the most points wins. Often, much like in real life, fans can trade players and make substitutions. However, this must be done within a stipulated time before the real match begins. Fans can choose to participate in common leagues like “Asia” or “India”, or create their own private leagues where they can invite friends and compete with each other.

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Cricket was the obvious choice to introduce Indian sports fans to fantasy sports.

In 2001, ESPN and Star Sports launched Super Selector, allowing fans to go online and select a team of five batsmen, four bowlers, one all-rounder and one wicketkeeper – each worth a certain number of points – per month within a 1,000-point budget. Points were then awarded for wickets, catches, stumpings and run-outs.

Glamour was added; celebrities like Naseeruddin Shah and Aamir Khan, and cricketing legends like Sunil Gavaskar and Geoffrey Boycott appeared on a fortnightly television show that Shah hosted.

ESPN and Star Sports even dangled the carrot of all carrots: a grand prize of an all-expenses paid trip to watch India tour South Africa, with a stint in the commentary box during a game.

Consider that, at the time, Orkut was the chat engine of choice and registration for Super Selector could be sent via competition postcards and fax. Yes, fax.

The industry has come a long way since faxed registrations. In the last decade or so, operators like Dream11, Fandromeda and CricBattle have taken front row seats, each with its own set of rules, points and prizes. Today, sports fans in India can play more than just fantasy cricket as these websites offer similar fantasy leagues for kabaddi, football, wrestling, and more recently basketball.

As the popularity of fantasy sports grows, so does the need to put frameworks in place. A handful of operators came together to form the Federation of Indian Fantasy Sports (FIFS) earlier this year. The goal: to self-regulate, promote best practices and protect the interests of the fans. The FIFS charter drafted includes sections on regulatory compliance, player fund protection and the consequences of breaches, among other things.

How effective the body will be in regulating the industry remains to be seen; but the general outlook is positive. As Peter Schoenke, chairman of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, said in an email, “India is a hidden success story in fantasy sports. The key is that local companies have developed to take advantage of the market. It’s been hard for US companies to expand outside the US given the language and cultural barriers.”

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“I could never make FPL changes when I’m high because there are too many numbers and stats to think about,” said a friend as he walked me through the weekly team changes for his fantasy football team. I saw what he meant—there were columns of numbers that meant zilch to a noob like me. But to him, a player’s monetary value, form value, selection percentage, influence index and the difficulty ranking of his upcoming fixtures was crucial to make selections for the upcoming week. While he combed stats to find the perfect players for his team, I tried to understand why he’d spend an hour a week on something that promises little more than bragging rights, the occasional consolation prize, and the even more occasional grand prize.

Even as a cricket fan who enjoys watching India play and makes it a point to watch our national team live at Wankhede Stadium, I have never understood the fascination for fantasy sports leagues. But while for me, enjoying a live match and following a team’s fortunes is sufficient, there are millions around the world who need another layer of investment or a social component – testing their intuition against their friends’ – to enjoy sport more.

If nothing else, almost every fantasy sports player has one thing in common – they started after they heard friends talk about it and wanted to try it too. They wanted to know what the fuss was about, or to be part of lunchtime and water cooler conversations.

Atisha Penjore Bhutia, a 28-year-old video producer, and Qais Ajani, a 27-year-old entrepreneur, both first heard about fantasy sports through friends before deciding to give it a shot. For Varsha Reddy, it was about having things to discuss with friends. The 25-year-old corporate lawyer is a Bayern Munich fan and didn’t know much about the EPL which her friends followed. That’s when she decided to sign up for the FPL saying “…at least now I can join in when people talk about players or matches…earlier I didn’t know what was happening.”

Picking the perfect team on the Dream11 app

While building teams and tracking friends’ performances on the leaderboard is thrilling, what keeps most fans going is the banter. According to Ajani, “The banter will keep you coming back every season.” He refers to the chatter and trash talk amongst fantasy players on forums, discussion boards, Whatsapp groups and parties during an ongoing season or tournament. Players constantly engage with one another while discussing whether goalkeeper David de Gea should be dropped for Hugo Lloris or whether batsman Rohit Sharma should make the cut for a team. Asking for advice isn’t uncommon but the odds of receiving genuinely good advice are low. Both Reddy and Bhutia have been misled many times, often by their own friends. There’s also plenty of good-natured ribbing that the lower-ranking players must endure, while winners’ bragging sessions can go on for days after the end of a tournament or season.

Another reason people gravitate towards fantasy sports is to live out their managerial dreams. Having a stake or some sort of ownership in a league added a new dimension of engagement for fans. When Swapnil Khetan, a 26-year-old recruitment consultant, first played the IPL fantasy league in 2010-11, he fell in love with cricket all over again. “There was a novelty value for me,” says Khetan, “because I saw those auctions and could picture myself being a team owner. It made me think about the game in a whole new way.”

“Fans love to play would-be general manager,” says Schoenke. “You acquire a lot of knowledge about sports as a fan but have no way to put it into practice other than some arguments with your friends. Fantasy sports allow you to put your sports knowledge to the test and show your friends and others you know more and can make better decisions on that information.”

In addition to following the matches of their main teams, fans also follow other games depending on the players they’ve chosen; it wasn’t just about India, or the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB), or Everton winning. An RCB fan might watch her team in action but would also keep an eye on the Mumbai Indians-Delhi Daredevils game happening later that day because Hardik Pandya from MI is on her team. Expectedly, this can lead to complicated situations. Sameer Dhamani had mixed emotions during the India-West Indies semi-final in the 2016 T20 World Cup in Mumbai. “India was losing really badly but Andre Russell got a wicket and he was in my team so I was happy about that…but my friends were cursing me,” he recalls.

Fantasy sports may have begun as a pastime, and is often considered a hobby. That assumption, however, could not be further from the truth. Fans don’t take their team selection lightly. Most people spend, on an average, about an hour a week making changes to their teams. That can go up to four hours in the days before the start of the season or tournament. This includes consuming a steady stream of news regarding the latest transfers, injuries, suspensions and sackings, discussions with friends and watching experts giving tips on selections. Bhutia makes it a point to watch videos by FPLTips, a popular fantasy football channel on YouTube. “Sometimes they will talk about an upcoming or obscure player from a team that I don’t follow,” says Bhutia. “And then I can consider him for my team.”

Others like Mallya prefer to get more technical. He – unlike the others in this story – plays fantasy sports more for the love of its analytics than the social component. “I look at it as an intellectual exercise,” he says. “I enjoy the thrill of trying to beat the game,” adding that luck and uncertainty make it that much more fun. It was from this obsession that a complex selection system took birth; one that plays out on an Excel sheet each week. He has come up with a formula that involves points per game, intrinsic value, the team’s form in the last few games and home & away results. Some of these values are available online but others he assigns himself. It took him a while to get it right, but is quite happy with how it helps in his selections now.

The unpredictability Mallya speaks of can lead to strange, and sometimes frustrating situations. There’s Bhutia’s friend, posted in the Army, who made one round of selections at the start of the EPL season before being posted on duty. “He hasn’t had a chance to update his team but he’s (still) second in the league right now!” Bhutia exclaims. Ajani too, shakes his head while talking about a friend who came from behind to beat them in the league. “This guy knew nothing about football!” he rues, “… he thought Lionel Ronaldo was a player!” Frustrated by the constant chatter about the game as his friends watched matches on the common TV outside his dorm room, Ajani’s friend decided to immerse himself in football, and specifically fantasy football. “Within no time, he was No.1 in our league!” Ajani says in disbelief.

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Platforms like FPL, Super Selector, Dream11, CricBattle and Fandromeda set up shop to cater to fans of every sport. Indian companies – like the four mentioned above – start with cricket leagues before expanding to other sports. These platforms offer a host of free and pay-to-play contests to cater to a wide variety of fans.

Today, Dream11 is arguably the biggest fantasy sports platform in India. Started in 2012 by Harsh Jain and Bhavit Sheth, Dream11 introduced fans to the headiness of daily fantasy sports. Unlike FPL where fans can choose players from across teams and play for the entire season, in daily fantasy sports, fans choose players only from the teams playing on a particular day. The participation fee, also known as a buy-in, ranges from Rs 15 to Rs 1,300 ($0.20 – $20), with prizes varying from Rs 25 to Rs 500,000 ($0.40 – $7500). The company has grown rapidly over the last five years, claiming to have over 15 million users on its platform who play fantasy cricket, football and kabaddi. In November this year, the National Basketball Association (NBA) launched its official fantasy league for India in partnership with Dream11 – the first official fantasy basketball league in India. When contacted, Dream11 chose not to comment for this story.

Rakesh Desai had played fantasy American football as a teenager in the US and thought something similar could work in cricket-crazy India. Sensing a business opportunity, he set up CricBattle in 2012 and was the first to introduce the draft system to fantasy cricket. In the draft system, multiple fans in a league cannot pick the same player. For instance, once a fan picks Virat Kohli for her team, no one else in that league will be able to pick Kohli. The draft system is commonplace in the US. CricBattle currently has about 350,000 registered users with roughly 70% fans from India and the rest from North America.

What Desai saw as a business opportunity, Ramesh Srivats of Fandromeda saw as a way to live his passion. Srivats and his buddies hosted private fantasy leagues for years. Then in 2012, his company TenTenTen approached the BCCI and suggested creating a fantasy league for the 2013 IPL season. The usually conservative BCCI bought in on the idea.

“We launched the official IPL Fantasy League in 2013 and it was a mega hit!” says Srivats. “We had over 500,000 users in the very first year. We ran it for 3 years and got to 1.5 million users.”

Encouraged by the success of the IPL fantasy game, TenTenTen managed to snag the rights to create and the official fantasy league for the ICC World Cup 2015 as well. Buoyed by the confidence, and the sheer fun behind running these fantasy leagues, Srivats and his team decided to create their own fantasy sports platform; Fandromeda was born in 2016. “The money will come,” says Srivats. “But for us, the main motive is getting people to play and making fantasy sports a part of the culture here.” Fandromeda has about 200,000 registered users and is one of the few platforms in India that hosts fantasy leagues that last a whole tournament or season.

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As one would’ve guessed, running these huge platforms isn’t cheap. As the number of users grows, so do the costs in ensuring they have a seamless experience. With so much competition already in place, and much more to come, it takes a fair amount of money to keep these platforms running. For CricBattle, the funds come from pay-to-play users and partnerships with brands like Dainik Bhaskar and the West Indies Cricket Board. “They have the users and I have the product,” says Desai. “So we usually have a revenue share model or something similar.”

Like CricBattle, Srivats’ Fandromeda also looks to corporates and brands to boost revenues. Srivats hosts internal fantasy leagues for companies like Infosys, where departments and employees can play against each other during specific tournaments such as the IPL. To bring brands to Fandromeda, Srivats offers to host games connected to the product on the site with official branding. “For Pepsi,” he explains, “we once hosted a game where users had to create a team in 90 seconds and the timer was a bottle of Pepsi that was slowly filling up.”

With an ever-growing fan base that has access to what other global leagues are providing its users, fantasy companies in India also need to stay ahead of the curve. US-based Desai believes he has an advantage; immersed in US fantasy sports from a young age, he routinely studies and adopts new ideas for CricBattle. The site now offers a live one-on-one challenge, where players from different leagues can challenge each other for a single game during a live match. Recently, he also launched a beta bot on Facebook Messenger that allows users to make selections and keep up with scores without ever leaving the social media site. “We want to reach cricket fans who follow the sport on Facebook,” Desai says.

Srivats, too, knows the importance of keeping it fresh. Fandromeda offers various contests including a winner-takes-all and “Double Your Money” where the top half of the points table win double their entry fee back. “We also have a unique tournament mode game called pay-per-sub,” Srivats shares, “where users can create a squad free but pay for each substitution they make. All the money paid for subs keeps getting added to the prize money which keeps growing through the tournament.” The platform recently introduced Fandromeda ‘coins’; users earn these coins by playing free games and then redeem them for brand vouchers. It’s a win-win-win situation.

Fandromeda Founders – Ramesh Srivats and Mahesh Shankar

Winning is important; so are prizes. As thrilling as it may be to beat friends in a game of intuition and wit, some free merchandise, cash, or, in the case of one lucky Fandromeda Fan of the Year, an all-expenses paid trip to watch the Malaysian Grand Prix, is key to entice users to return.

However, with the element of reward involved, fantasy sports companies in India must also ensure that the skill – in whatever form – of a fan is tested if they want to remain on the right side of the law.

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Fantasy sports is innocuous enough when played informally amongst friends. But when large companies and large amounts of money are involved, things were a little nebulous initially.

There has been some confusion about whether pay-to-play fantasy sports, and other online games that involve cash, ought to qualify as gambling. To understand the place of paid fantasy sports and gambling in the intersection of games and Indian laws, we must take a step back and consider gambling’s role in our society. Gambling and betting have existed in India for as long as anyone can remember. Famously, the Mahabharat includes a reference to gambling after the Pandavas lost their kingdom to the Kauravas over a game of dice. Today, taash (card) parties are a staple at Diwali celebrations with people winning and losing anything from Rs. 100 to several hundred thousand in a single night.

Pride is important, but so is money – One of many cash prizes on the Fandromeda app

The Constitution of India places gambling on the State List; each state can create its own legislation on the subject. The Public Gambling Act of 1867 has been modified and adopted by several states, while some others have drafted their own laws. Goa, for instance, allows gambling institutions on offshore vessels; as a consequence floating casinos are popular in the state. Others states like Assam, Odisha and Telangana have banned gambling completely.

Fantasy, being digital in nature, sits squarely within the definition of online gaming. Save for Sikkim, Nagaland and Telangana, no state has passed any specific laws or ordinances dealing with online gaming. Then too, most of the rules govern card games such as poker and rummy; rules regarding fantasy sports have so far been culled from various court judgments and observations. The general rule of thumb for legislation in this regard is that “gambling” does not include betting on horse races, lotteries administered by recognized authorities, and games of skill.

“Games of skill” is an important phrase in this discussion. Only once a contest qualifies as one of skill can it escape the purview of gambling laws in India. Contrast this with games of chance such as roulette – where winning is based on luck or chance. The courts first addressed the issue in 1957 in State of Bombay vs. R.M.D. Chamarbaugwalla, where the Supreme Court noted that to avoid “the stigma of gambling” a competition must require the exercise of skill to a substantial degree. Even if certain games had an element of chance, they would not be considered gambling if there was a preponderantly higher requirement of skill from the player. Future decisions revealed that whether a game requires skill or is left to chance is be decided on a case-to-case basis. For instance, in State of Andhra Pradesh vs K. Satyanarayana, the courts found rummy to be a game of skill, given that players must recall the cards that have been already dealt, and use their judgement to hold or discard cards during course of play.

The same logic—of a participant having to employ intuition or wit to win a game—is used to exclude activities like betting on horse races from the ambit of gambling; it is argued that a person putting money on a horse will have to bank on his knowledge of the horse and the jockey, the animal’s pedigree, the distance of the race among other things. Similar logic is used when the validity of online games like rummy and fantasy sports is questioned.

As we’ve seen earlier, it does take a fair amount of skill to play fantasy sports competently. The first legislation dealing with online games was passed in Sikkim in 2008 to control and regulate online gaming through electronic or non-electronic formats, and impose a tax on such games in the state. Eight years later, Nagaland passed the Nagaland Prohibition of Gambling and Promotion and Regulation of Online Games of Skill Act, 2016. Under the law, companies incorporated in any part of India can apply for the license, thereby getting access to participants in Nagaland. Needless to say, companies without such a permit cannot operate within the state. The act lists several games that qualify under it including rummy, poker, Sudoku, and fantasy sports.

This begs the question: why would companies like Dream11 and Fandromeda, that are already operating in India, apply for such a state-centric license. Ranjana Adhikari and Tanisha Khanna from Nishit Desai Associates pointed out that approval from a state government would add to the legitimacy of such companies. “It will help whitelist these companies and that really helps when it comes to things like digital marketing,” says Khanna.

It also means promotion on platforms like Facebook and Google become more amenable to these companies because a government green light removes any possible connections or association to gambling. Vidushpat Singhania of Krida Legal believes the license would also be handy when dealing with payment gateway companies that are very specific about the clearances and permissions that potential clients need to have in place.

The first court ruling dealing exclusively with fantasy sports came in April 2017 when the Punjab and Haryana High Court held that playing fantasy sports does not amount to gambling and requires a substantial degree of skill. In the case in question, a player signed up to play fantasy cricket and football on Dream11. He lost the entire amount he bet (approximately Rs 50,000), and took the company to court alleging that fantasy sports were gambling activities. He was unsuccessful in his petition. But more importantly, the court also noted that since fantasy sports did not qualify as gambling, Dream11 was merely conducting a business as stated by Article 19 (1)(g) of the Constitution which protects the fundamental right to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business.

There’s still a lot to be done to regulate fantasy sports in India but progress has been encouraging so far. In light of recent sports betting scandals, even government bodies like the Law Commission of India are, for the first time, considering whether gambling and betting should be legalized; and if they are, what status games of skill should be assigned.

But the future of fantasy sports looks promising. Piyush Kumar, founder of Rooter, a mobile social gaming platform for sports fans, said that for the first time, this segment in India is considered an important demographic. “The market potential is huge and brands and teams will spend more on fans and try to engage with them in multiples ways,” he says. This undoubtedly spells good news for fantasy sports platforms.

Even from a regulatory point of view, Desai feels things will fall into place. “Right now, there are about 6 million fans playing,” he says. “By 2020 I think that number will go up to approximately 30 million players. With so much at stake, the government and concerned authorities will work to help the industry grow.”

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“I learned the hard way about Harry Kane’s August jinx,” Mallya said in November, a couple of weeks after buying him back. The Tottenham player has never scored for his team in August though he invariably begins finding the back of the goal as soon as the month ends. After a decent show in September, Mallya decided to get Kane back in his side but the footballer flopped in the very next game. So, once again, Mallya decided to let him go in favour of a cheaper, but just as skilled player…only to have Kane score two goals and an assist in the next game. The only consolation Mallya has is that he hasn’t scored in the three matches since then.

I asked him how he thinks the rest of the season will pan out for Kane and for him. “Kane is quite possibly the best striker in the league now, which is evident by the fact that he’s the most expensive player in FPL,” he said, “So I fully expect that he’ll rack up 20-plus goals over the season, just like he has for the last 3 years running. I just hope I’m able to do as well in FPL as he does in the real league.”

Published on Nation of Sport – December 2017

Cover photo: Rishikesh Waje / Trip Creative Services

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