Often, an idea is easier to perceive than being actually inculcated into becoming a reality. This is the story of one such idea, which was relatively easier to conceive but vastly challenging to be implemented.
The journey dates back to 2008, when two 22-year-olds – Harsh Jain and Sanghvi Bhavith Seth – took their common love for sports, which went beyond playing their favourite English Football Fantasy leagues every weekend, to the next level of creating India’s first fantasy sports start-up – Dream 11.
‘Young and Restless’: Building a Personal Project
Online fantasy sports have seen a massive adoption and immense market growth in India from the early 2010s due to large-scale availability of smartphones and high-speed internet.
And with the above as reference, we can see how the brand Dream 11 is the culmination of a personal project born out of sheer love for sports with young and restless entrepreneurial energy. While Jain was working as a marketing manager at an infrastructure and real estate company promoted by his father, Seth was testing the field with different jobs. The duo went on to complete their MBAs together in the US and decided to launch their start-up in 2008.
Fantasy sports came into existence in early 2000 in the US and Canada. The ‘dream’ of launching a fantasy sports gaming platform in India was perceived parallely with the onset of the Indian Premier League (IPL).
Its introduction to the Indian market was in 2008 during the first season of the IPL. With the launch of Dream 11, Harsh Jain and Sanghvi Bhavith Seth wanted to cash in on market opportunity and gain the early entrant advantage.
But before Dream11 came into the picture, ESPN-Star’s joint venture in the fantasy gaming segment called Super Selectors was set up as the first fantasy gaming company in the country in 2001. Joy Bhattacharjya led the company. Super Selectors was a fantasy cricket game that was run by ESPN and Star Sports. It held contests ranging from a month to the duration of an entire series.
The Super Selectors concept involved picking a team of 11 players within a fixed budget where a set number of substitutions were allowed throughout the tournament and points were awarded based on players’ performances on the field. Players also had the ability to form mini-leagues with their friends. But despite good traction, the company was shelved in 2003. And fantasy sport ceased in India even before it could take off.
Things stayed that way for five years until two fresh college graduates, Harsh Jain and Bhavish Sheth, resurrected the segment through Dream11.
In 2008, Dream11 was launched as a free-for-all sports app where users discussed sports via community platform, read blogs and played fantasy games based on sports seasons. However, this ad-based and season-long format did not find much traction among users and lagged in growth. Besides, the scalability of the model was also under question.
In 2009, the start-up was running out of funds to sustain operations. The founders did not want to go back to their parents for money, and this was a make or break stage for the business. The company needed outside capital, which was a tough task for the founders as they were new in the market. Owing to meager revenues and low user interest, the company lost money for the first three years between 2008 and 2011.
In 2010, the duo ventured into a digital and media agency – Red Digital – on the sidelines of Dream 11. Out of 50 employees of Dream11, 40 were enrolled under Red Digital and asked to work in the new company. The decision worked in their favour as the duo managed to generate money to finance Dream 11 and resume its operations. In 2013, Red Digital was sold to Gozoop for approximately Rs. 7 crores.
During this period, the founders also got back to the drawing board to rethink Dream11 from the ground-up.
The real journey of the start-up began in 2012 with the launch of its freemium model, where users accessed free features up to a point, after which they were asked to pay. The primary focus was shifted towards daily matches. The users were able to put money on a team/player of their choice before the start of the match. Based on performances, points were accumulated and teams/players were ranked at the end and money was made by participants from the pool.
Dream11 model charged an entry-level fee from the participants in paid contests besides taking a cut (commission) on the money made by the participants which accounted for about 15-20% of the total pool.
Another source that was expected to earn revenues was advertisement. However, the traffic to the website was minuscule besides the low rates. It did try on Google AdSense initially, but dropped the same for user convenience as it was already challenging to convert a free user into a paid one.
The Legal Hurdle
Dream11 faced a series of challenges for its legality in the courts of India. Avinash Mehrotra, a financial consultant, filed in demanding the Supreme Court to clarify regulations on governing fantasy sports, online gambling and betting websites. To date, Dream11 has overcome various legal challenges by gaining a series of state court rulings finding it to be safe within “skill gaming” protections.
For example, the Bombay High ruled in April 2019 that success in Dream 11 “depends upon the user’s exercise of skill based on superior knowledge, judgment, and attention… It is undoubtedly a game of skill and not a game of chance.” The Supreme Court later backed this ruling. Gambling laws in India are largely left to the discretion of each state, though most states have based their laws on the Public Gambling Act of 1867.
Over the years, fantasy sports have captured the Indian market by attracting consumers and affecting the different sectors of the market. It has also changed the psychology of the people towards e-sports. The sudden growth of sensation in viewers for fantasy sports increased the interest of people in watching different sports, which resulted in the enhancement of the importance of the online gaming industry and fantasy sports companies.
The ‘Real’ challenge
Dream11 faced a lot of challenges finding a reliable source of funding. In an interview, Jain had mentioned that they had approached more than 150 investors who refused to commit, before hitting the first funding.
Dream11 began its fantasy sports business with only a few thousand dollars, but it quickly expanded and acquired a series of angel investor investments. The amount of money needed to run the company was extremely high. But, thanks to their negotiating abilities, they were able to find some decent investment opportunities.
Nevertheless, they learned something new from every rejection which helped the founders make better decisions and use each penny wisely. According to Jain, the success of a business depends more on the execution of an idea than the idea itself.
During this time, the traction for fantasy sports was also picking up in the Indian market. And by the end of 2013, the duo managed to get their first round of funding Kalaari Capital.
Over 10 years, Dream11 has built the category from scratch in India and reaped the benefits of it. And today, it is the largest and most recognized OFS player in India with over 70 million users (a little more than 75% of the users of all other OFS players combined). In 2019, Dream11 generated a revenue of around Rs. 775 crore ($103 milion), a 250% growth over 2018 revenue of Rs. 224 crore ($30 million). Along their journey, the company was backed by marquee investors like Tencent (WeChat owner), Kalaari and Steadview Capital. In Apr 2019, Dream11 was catapulted into the ‘Unicorn Club’ when Steadview Capital invested 60 Million.
Today, the company follows the same business model (freemium), as 85% of the players are free users, and the rest 15% are paid users, with Rs 25 as the average investment into the games. It can go as low as Rs 11, and often it can cross thousands as well. The combined winning pot of all winnings is often more than Rs 1 crore, depending on the game, and trends. 15% of its 50 crore users, i.e. 7.5 crore users, pay Rs 25 per month on an average, which becomes revenues of more than Rs 187 core.
Hitting the Jackpot: IPL Sponsorship
In 2020, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) went looking for a home-grown entity as the title sponsor for the 2020 edition of IPL to replace Chinese smartphone brand Vivo which had bagged the sponsorship rights for Rs 438 crore a year. Dream11 got that chance to hold the title sponsor banner.
It is evident that bagging the title sponsorship of IPL made Dream 11 a household name. It managed to bag the title sponsorship of IPL 2020 for Rs 222 crore. The sponsorship for IPL 2020 was up for grabs as the erstwhile title sponsor, Vivo, decided to take a break from the tournament during that season amid calls for boycotting of Chinese goods in the wake of a standoff between Indian and Chinese soldiers in Ladakh since June 2020.
The road to IPL title sponsorship, however, wasn’t all smooth for Dream11 who also had to fend off some anti-China sentiments because of its connection with Chinese technology giant Tencent. The fantasy sports platform’s top bosses, however, managed to convince the BCCI of their ‘all-Indian identity’ by suggesting that Tencent was only a minority shareholder in the company.
Dream11’s association with sports has grown over the years and it is presently partnering a total of 19 sports leagues along with 6 Indian Premier League Franchises
In June 2021, the iconic cricketer and former Indian cricket team captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni was announced as Dream11’s brand ambassador. With MS Dhoni becoming the new face of Dream11, multi-channel marketing campaigns and brand engagement activities were aimed to surge ahead and strengthen its leadership position in the online fantasy sports industry.
With Dhoni as its face, Dream11 instilled the aspiration of sporting expertise into its users by employing the same kind of thinking prowess that Dhoni is the master of.
Cashing in on the Boom
The localisation of content to reach out to players online not only helped Dream11 expand its market and enhance revenue but also to develop brand recall in a crowded market and better user experience.
Growth amid a pandemic
With the World Health Organization (WHO) prescribing video games as a healthy social pastime to combat social isolation during COVID-19, it became a win-win situation for the gamers as well as the e-sports and fantasy gaming platforms.
Under the WHO-backed campaign called #PlayApartTogether launched on March 18 this year, world’s biggest gaming industry leaders promoted the cause with a message to avoid spreading the coronavirus, while still being connected with each other remotely.
A 2019 KPMG and IFSG report outlined the key categories of e-sports gaming in India, with a focus on understanding the fantasy sports consumer. These were some of its findings:
75% of respondents played fantasy sports one to three times a week, with the majority engaging in it once a week. A significant 20 per cent reported playing more than five times a week.
85% of all respondents played fantasy games on mobile apps.
54% played for free; 46 per cent have played paid contests at least once in the last 12 months.
The playing frequency was fairly consistent across the age groups of 18-24 and 25-36 with nearly 75-80 per cent of the respondents playing one to three times a week. Nearly 50 per cent in the 37-50 age group reported playing fantasy games more than four times a week.
72% of the respondents considered ‘fun and excitement’ as the primary motivator for engaging in fantasy sports platforms.
71% of the respondents played Fantasy Cricket and 54 per cent Fantasy Football. Other sports such as kabaddi, basketball and hockey were less popular among the respondents.
When asked to recall the names of platforms that came to the respondents’ mind, 60 per cent referred to Dream11, followed by official websites of Premier League Football/English Premier League (EPL) and the IPL.
Future for Fantasy Sports
According to the ‘The Evolving Landscape of Sports Gaming in India’ report, the gaming industry is already worth around Rs. 90 billion rupees and is said to reach Rs. 118.8 billion by FY23 with a growth rate of CAGR 22.1%. The report adds that fantasy sports are different from betting and can potentially aid in slowing down illegal betting in the long run. Fairness, legality, and the safe and secure nature of transactions are aspects that draw users to play these fantasy sports platforms.
India has made exponential growth in terms of its digital infrastructure. Growing affordability of smartphones, expansion of the internet user base, and plummeting data price are resulting in such growth. Therefore, the growth of fantasy sports seems very likely to increase in the future.
Though Dream11 success was not an overnight result, it was rather a reflection of hard work and consistency in the founder’s efforts and team’s mettle in building Dreamsters, the Dream11 community. With all the internal and external factors faced by Harsh Jain and Sanghvi Bhavith Seth in turning their vision into reality, their success story is an inspiration to many pudding faces. Overcoming every hurdle with the strength to oversee through the risk and by not accepting failure with the endurance helps entrepreneurs to move forward.
The story of Dream11 sounds like an inspiring movie but it is a real story of two young minds making their dreams possible. From starting as a fantasy gaming platform to being named as the title sponsors of IPL, Dream11 has come a long way over the years and it does not seem to stop but aims bigger.
For more inspiring stories like this, read our Inspire Section!