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BGMI unbanned: Players cautiously optimistic as KRAFTON headliner returns to India

At its peak, Battlegrounds Mobile India had nearly 100 million users and was a key KRAFTON IP. After the ban, players flocked to other games but BGMI’s temporary return has created excitement.

Akanksha Sarma

Sayan Sen

BGMI unbanned: Players cautiously optimistic as KRAFTON headliner returns to India

Monday May 29, 2023 , 6 min Read

Five years ago, Vikky from Uttarakhand barely had time to breathe. A university student by the day, at night he would pick up his phone and turn to esports. He would “grind” for at least six hours every day with his team, comprising players from across the country. They would discuss every move, learn from their errors and strategise in a bid to become a top esports team.

While earlier they had their hands full with games like Call of Duty (COD), Vikky and his team changed track to PUBG Mobile—another version of KRAFTON’s game Battlegrounds Mobile India (BGMI)—when it was released in 2018.

“We thought BGMI would be a better title to play on mobile at the time because it solved several issues related to the requirement of hardware,” Vikki tells YourStory.

With minimal equipment needed—a phone and stable internet connection—BGMI found widespread popularity in small cities. “It also had a more vibrant esports scene and generally more viewership on streams and better engagement,” he adds.

All those sleepless nights reaped Vikky benefits. He qualified for one of the largest esports tournaments in the country with a prize pool of Rs 1 crore and was also playing alongside Indian gaming giants like Tactical and XLions.

Like Vikky, Shiv, a resident of Nepal, was a regular at the battle royale game. For him, it was more than just esports; it was a way to make new friends. Some of his Indian friends from the BGMI circle even visited his tourist town of Pokhara where his family runs a hotel and brought all the gaming equipment he needed.

But when he joined his usual server on BGMI one fine day in July 2022, his friends were discussing rumours of a ban in India. The tactical shooter game was suddenly delisted from Google Play Store and Apple App Store that month, with government officials citing national security concerns.

“I miss my Indian friends. While I shared my contact with some players I met on the servers, I had no way of contacting others,” Shiv rues.

Too hard to die

At its peak in July 2022, BGMI had nearly 100 million users and nearly 130 million downloads on Google Play Store. It is a key intellectual property of video game holding company KRAFTON which has invested nearly $100 million into India since 2020, including $9 million into the streaming platform Loco and nearly $22.5 million into game developer Nodwin Gaming in 2022.

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While a ban at the outset might have dented BGMI’s popularity, die-hard players like Yash Thacker, who helms the popular YouTube channel LoLzZz Gaming, remain loyal. Despite the ban, Thacker continues to stream BGMI games to his subscriber base of over a million. He uses a virtual private network (VPN) to bypass the geo-restriction—a strategy his team adopted ever since the game’s previous iteration, PUBG: Battlegrounds, got banned in 2020.

Vikky, too, continued with the game for some time. He and his team shifted to playing different versions like PUBG KR—the Korean version of the game—and even participated in a few tournaments, however, the reach wasn’t the same.

Soon, the COD Mobile community reached out and convinced Vikky to join the rival battle royale gameplay. “Since BGMI had been banned, I thought about how I could keep my streak going and COD seemed like the next logical step since it had similar opportunities,” he said. 

His five-year fervour for BGMI had finally come to an end.

It’s exactly such players BGMI is looking to snap up once again now that the government has revoked the ban and granted a three-month trial approval.

India’s changing gaming arena

The vast Indian gaming market is essential for Krafton. The domestic gaming arena is estimated to be valued at around $8.6 billion by 2027 from $2.6 billion in 2022, growing at a compounded annual growth rate of 27%, according to a report by Lumikai—a gaming and interactive media focused fund. 

Once BGMI got banned, the South Korean gaming company tried to recreate its success with other titles. Of them, the most prominent was Road to Valor: Empires, which KRAFTON specifically crafted for the Indian community. The idea was to reimagine the immersive gaming experience to include India-specific content and updates, including Hindi language support. 

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While the game had 2.5 lakh pre-registrations at the time of launch and nearly 1 lakh downloads on Google Play Store, it did not generate the kind of excitement that BGMI had.

“They [KRAFTON] had been very active in terms of launching new games in the ecosystem, but none of them has matched the popularity of BGMI,” Salone Sehgal, Founding General Partner at Lumikai, tells YourStory.

Viewership on streams also dropped. According to a report by AFK Gaming, S8UL, one of India’s top esports teams earning up to Rs 1 lakh monthly on BGMI streams, saw a sharp decline in viewership when it played other games after the ban.

Piyush Kumar, Founder and CEO of India-based gaming-focused streaming platform Rooter, tells YourStory that after the ban, titles like Valorant by Riot and COD Mobile replaced BGMI and were among the top three games watched. 

A promising return

However, Sehgal believes those players will likely return to BGMI. “I think it would be fairly easy for them [KRAFTON] to find their footing again given how much people invested and spent time in the game.” 

Former players like Vikky echo a similar sentiment. “Since I’m officially an esports player there, it wouldn’t be too difficult for me to replay the game once again… before the ban, the tournament we qualified for was put on hold. Now we’re hoping it will return so that we have another shot at winning the prize money,” he says.

“But I will give it another three months before returning to playing the game full-time,” he notes. Tournament organisers are also optimistic, with some also thinking about hosting BGMI tournaments once again. 

“The timing is perfect, to be honest; schools and colleges are preparing for summer breaks and fests. Before it got banned, college tournaments were massive. We used to make a lot of money in such seasons, " said Akash Agarwal, a Ranchi-based adventure events organiser who supplies gaming equipment to colleges in Jharkhand, Bihar, and West Bengal.

The excitement is palpable. KRAFTON’s Instagram post announcing the return has two million likes so far. A more recent post already has five million likes.

Streamers who no longer post content about BGMI are seeing 3X spike in viewership because fans are rewatching older BGMI streams,” said Aman Garg, Founder and COO of content creator network Ebullient Gaming India.

Kumar of Rooter believes that KRAFTON will do all it can to retain BGMI on Indian servers even after the three-month trial approval ends.

“Now all of us have learned that the gaming industry needs to be built on multiple games and BGMI, no doubt, is one of the best in the market,” he asserts.

(Infographics by Winona Laisram)

(The story was updated to chage the designation of Piyush Kumar from Co-founder to Founder of Rooter)

(The graphic titled "Krafton's footprint in India till Date was updated to fix a factual error)

Edited by Kanishk Singh