Armed with online poker, rummy, and fantasy sports, Baazi Games is on a ‘X to 10X’ growth mission
Baazi Games founder Navkiran Singh was introduced to poker during his engineering years at Manipal University. Later, he travelled to Las Vegas and witnessed the extravagant World Series of Poker tournament.
It wooed him so much that he set his eyes on starting a poker business someday. After a brief stint at TCS, Navikiran founded Baazi Games in 2014, and went on to launch PokerBaazi, one of India’s earliest online poker platforms.
India’s data revolution and the subsequent tailwinds in gaming were still a few years away. But Navkiran’s conviction about poker and its ability to draw players made Baazi Games a pioneer in India’s real money gaming (RMG) industry, which is valued at Rs 2,000 crore today, with 30 million gamers.
“My father was very apprehensive about gaming. We have a weighing scale manufacturing business and he wanted me to join that. But, I took it up as a challenge to show him that you could be successful in gaming too,” Navkiran (fondly known as ‘Navi’ in gaming circles) tells YourStory.
“Online poker may have been ahead of its time in 2014, and educating early users was a challenge. But Indians have always been good with card games, so we had the right product-market fit. We built our own gaming technologies and had the first-mover advantage too.”
PokerBaazi was the first vertical to launch under Baazi Games. The company later expanded to fantasy sports with BalleBaazi in 2018, and online rummy with RummyBaazi in 2019 — both rapidly growing segments in e-gaming.
How the numbers stack up
It took Delhi-based Baazi Games five years to reach its first million users. But the last 15 months have spun a different yarn altogether, with the user base across verticals zooming past 5.5 million.
A lion’s share of it came from BalleBaazi that rode the hockey stick curve in the fantasy sports sector. The platform holds daily fantasy leagues in cricket, football, basketball, baseball, and kabaddi, and counts four million users.
In 2019, it also raised $4 million in a Series A round from undisclosed private equity funds. BalleBaazi revenue grew 500 percent in FY20 alone, with additional spikes recorded during the lockdown. Evidently, fantasy sports is the cash cow and a driver of hyper growth at Baazi Games. (more on that later)
PokerBaazi and RummyBaazi continue to add steady numbers to the company’s topline. In fact, poker — more high-risk and high-stake than the other verticals — drives 50 percent of total revenues (30 percent comes from BalleBaazi, 10 percent from RummyBaazi, and the rest from ancillary services).
PokerBaazi has over one million players, and is one of India’s largest online poker rooms. It also runs the PokerBaazi Premier League (PPL), the country’s biggest online poker series, four times a year.
RummyBaazi, on the other hand, has gained half a million users in a year. Earlier in 2020, it also raised $2 million from Udtara Ventures (along with a $1 million capital infusion by parent Baazi Games) for growth and expansion.
Rummy and poker: The dark horses
Navkiran is bullish about the growth of online rummy in India.
“Rummy is such an old game. It has been passed on through generations. Now, with the ease of playing online, more people are viewing it as a source of recreation and social interaction while staying indoors,” he says.
Poker too presents tremendous potential. Even until a few years ago, it was inconceivable that India could birth such a massive market for real-money gamers, who are always willing to raise the stakes.
But today, most online poker platforms offer monthly prize pools running into several crores, and sometimes even higher than their global peers.
PokerBaazi also got a fillip after roping in actor Sunny Leone and Olympic medallist boxer Vijender Singh as brand ambassadors. Leone’s association helped drive exponential growth in women poker players, according to the company.
PokerBaazi also partnered with IITs and IIMs to increase poker awareness and eliminate the stigma associated with it. Today, online poker is a $150 million industry in India, and PokerBaazi is Baazi Games’ most profitable vertical.
“We used earnings from poker to invest in other verticals,” Navkiran reveals.
With three of the fastest-growing online gaming verticals under its belt, Baazi Games is projecting a user growth of 10X by 2023.
Along with a bunch of ancillary services like gaming ecommerce (CasinoKart), game design and development, it is also looking to grow revenues at 120 percent. It also plans to invest $5 million in India's gaming industry to build new technologies.
Given the burgeoning growth of gaming in India and the government’s patronisation of homegrown startups, it may not be all that difficult. But what sets Baazi Games apart in a competitive market is its “full-stack” appeal.
Rajiv Chaurasia, Chairman, Udtara Ventures (RummyBaazi investor), says, “The team has been a part of the Real Money Gaming space for long, and their knowledge and industry experience will help Baazi Games emerge as a market leader with a unique position as a full-stack RMG platform. An increasing user base backed by high player retention has reaffirmed our thesis.”
BalleBaazi: The breakout star
BalleBaazi began as an independent platform in late-2017, and was acquired by Baazi Games in 2018. It went on to garner 400,000 active users in 12 months.
Today it has over four million users, with the last million coming on-board post the lockdown. Navkiran says BalleBaazi has grown “35 times” riding on the staggering boom in fantasy sports, and is among the top five players in India.
Much of its growth has been driven by celeb brand ambassador Yuvraj Singh, who helped galvanise a larger fantasy gaming base and drive better audience engagement, according to BalleBaazi.
Saurabh Chopra, Co-Founder and CEO, BalleBaazi tells YourStory,
“The participation of users on fantasy gaming platforms depends upon major tournaments such as IPL, which is going on at the moment. We have experienced a 4X increase in participation of active users. The next 24 months will be an exciting time as we get set for a cricketing sports fiesta with three IPLs and two World Cups being played. We are well-equipped for it, and have charted out a detailed plan to grow our business significantly in that period.
India’s fantasy gaming user base has quadrupled between 2016 and 2020, with over 60 operators today, according to the Federation of Indian Fantasy Sports. Despite the intensely competitive market, BalleBaazi claims a user retention rate of 40 percent — higher than the industry average.
The company recently added a slew of non-cricket sports to attract a diverse audience. The present demographic is largely young and male, with 70 percent of users coming from “semi-urban regions” — mirroring an industry-wide trend.
The fantasy sports space in India may be getting saturated, but new emerging market dynamics will keep everyone on their toes.
Saurabh says, “Bigger gaming companies have also shown an interest in collaborating with fantasy sports companies to make a mutually beneficial model that is more rewarding to the users. So, there is both immense scope and enthusiasm in the market. The dynamics will change, the user base will expand, newer variants and models will emerge, and a lot more.”
India’s real money gaming revolution
Until 2016, before the advent of Reliance Jio, India had only about 150,000 online real money gamers. Largely, Indians shied away from expending cash to raise stakes.
However, this trend has reversed with the Rs 2,000-crore RMG industry projected to grow 3.5X by 2025, according to the All India Gaming Federation (AIGF).
The rise of RMG and its “increasing wallet share”, as one investor puts it, has been due to a variety of reasons: affordable mobile data access, trusted and secure deposit systems, improved gaming skills, efficient reward structures, superior UX, rising disposable incomes, and a higher appetite for risk-taking.
Roland Landers, CEO, AIGF told YourStory recently, “Online skill gaming hasn’t seen any adverse impact since players are participating digitally, unlike in physical gaming. Online card games and digital esports have seen a higher uptick in the pandemic as people are looking for ways to pass time indoors. The volume of data going towards these segments is also growing.”
RMG platforms have also emerged as viable earning sources for players, and have birthed an entire generation of gaming influencers, who are, in turn, driving word of mouth for the likes of PokerBaazi, RummyBaazi, etc. The multi-player format allows them to compete virtually anywhere in the world.
Navkiran sums up the RMG mania by saying,
“Jio changed the dynamics of the entire gaming industry. The RMG market began to grow after that, and now it is generating employment and opportunities even in sports that were not valued earlier. India’s gaming economy is just starting to boom, and we believe it will be bigger than entertainment and Bollywood in future.”
Baazi Games’ journey from ‘X to 10X’ is only getting started!
Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta