[The Turning Point] Love for sports and tech led childhood friends to start Dream11, India’s first gaming unicorn
Homegrown fantasy sports platform, which is the talk of the town amid the ongoing Indian Premier League (IPL), was started by sports fans Harsh Jain and Bhavit Sheth back in 2008 as a passion project.
Dream11’s journey began 14 years ago, when childhood friends Harsh and Bhavit, who were also avid sports fans and engineers, started the company with a firm belief that sports fantasy leagues would become a big business opportunity in a country of billion-something cricket fans.
The duo wanted to create a platform for sports fans as they felt there was “no culture of fantasy sports in the country despite millions of sports enthusiasts”.
Dream11 is one of the fantasy sports games apps by Dream Sports, and lets users can create a fantasy team based on a real-life match like IPL to score maximum points and win exciting cash prizes. A user can be a team owner on the platform and compete with other fans using sports knowledge.
The idea to launch Dream11 first took shape in 2008, the year IPL was launched.
At that time, Harsh, who was already familiar with the thrill of playing EPL fantasy football since 2001, began looking for a similar platform to play online fantasy cricket in India. He was shocked to learn that fantasy cricket did not exist in India, where cricket is a religion and ardently followed by millions of Indians.
Determined to solve this problem, Harsh, an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia Business School, asked his friends if they wanted to join him in this quest. This eventually led to him co-founding Dream11 in 2009 with Bhavit, an alumnus of Bentley University and Harvard University.
Harsh Jain, CEO and Co-Founder, Dream Sports
Bhavit and Harsh both were passionate about sports, gaming, technology, and Dream11 was simply an extension of their love.
In an earlier conversation with YourStory, Harsh said he was shocked that in a country with a billion sports fans, there were no fantasy sports at all. For him, the idea of his startup came as a solution to a personal problem.
In fact, till 2012, Harsh and Bhavit were running a digital branding and marketing services agency called Red Digital to support Dream11, then a small passion project. He recalled that the services business was a means to make ends meet and provided the team with cash flow.
“It allowed me to continue being stubborn about not going back to my dad and saying you were right and beg for money or I had to shut it down,” Harsh said.
The duo started experimenting with various formats on Dream11 and pivoted multiple times over the span of three years, before finally finding a product-market fit with freemium single-match fantasy sports in 2012.
By 2013, Dream11 started seeing many first-time organic users without spending zero money on marketing. Organic users started coming back. Every new user would invite two friends, and the referrals helped grow the business.
Over the years, Dream11 has evolved into India’s biggest sports gaming platform, offering multiple sports such as fantasy cricket, football, kabaddi, basketball, and so on. Six years later, in 2019, the company acquired unicorn status.
Today, the fantasy gaming startup has more than 11 crore users and more than 40 sports associations and leagues as official partners, including the International Council of Cricket (ICC), Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), Indian Super League (ISL), National Basketball Association (NBA), Caribbean Premier League (CPL), International Hockey Federation (FIH), and Big Bash League (BBL).
Parent company Dream Sports also runs and owns brands like FanCode, DreamX, and DreamSetGo. The Mumbai-based company is trying to create an ecosystem of sports in India and recently set up a $250 million corporate venture capital (CVC) fund, DreamCap, to invest in sports, online gaming, and fitness-tech startups. The corpus is financed by Dream Sports' own balance sheet.
Last year, in a LinkedIn post, Harsh wrote that “through thick and thin, highs and lows, funding and near-shutdown, expansion and contraction, sunshine and rain, I know we’ll continue to stay strong because Dream Sports #CantStopWontStop till we’ve fulfilled our mission to ‘Make Sports Better’ in every way possible”.