2020 saw India become a greater part of the global esports conversation. The country’s flourishing PUBG Mobile ecosystem laid the foundation of a sustainable community in the country, attracting foreign and local investors as well as putting India on the map.
Even though the title was banned in the country for much of the year, the solid groundwork laid throughout 2019 and 2020 has allowed established stakeholders to remain relevant while authorities and the publisher settle their differences. Fnatic, TSM, and Nova Esports have established presence in the region, and with other names like Vitality on their way, India is gearing up to take its esports scene to the next level.
Amidst all the news, an Indian organisation which has always managed to stay true to its core audience and position itself as a homegrown brand has been 8bit.
PUBG Mobile, the ban and expanding into other titles
8bit is closely associated with Team SouL, a top PUBG Mobile organisation owned by Naman ‘MortaL’ Mathur. The two organisations, although separate entities, operate a gaming house in Mumbai which is populated by content creators and professional players from both organisations. In addition to 8bit, Goldy and his partner Animesh ‘Thug’ Agarwal also operate a talent agency, managing some of the biggest pro players and online talent in India.
“Valorant gives a chance for India to be on the global [esports] map because of how the title is positioned”
Having built their presence due to PUBG Mobile’s success in India, 8bit has now diversified their offerings to new titles and verticals, as Jain explained: “After the PUBG Mobile ban we got a hard reality check that esports is not just PUBG Mobile and as a result, we began to diversify our operations. We are currently in four games with plans to expand into core PC titles in 2021.”
There is evidence to suggest that the foundation PUBG Mobile built has spilled over to other titles. The recently concluded Free Fire Continental Series Asia had an average concurrent viewership of 828,986, mostly from India and Indonesia. It was one of 2020’s most-watched esports events globally.
Jain is quick to point out that viewership and player base for titles like Call of Duty: Mobile and Free Fire have increased in the months following the ban and nearly all industry stakeholders have had to diversify their offerings to sustain operations. He has high hopes for both CoD: Mobile and Free Fire, lauding their efforts in building up communities and supporting their esports ecosystems, much like what Tencent did with PUBG Mobile in early 2019.
He also mentioned the rising popularity of VALORANT in the South Asian community, which has seen rapid growth in relation to viewership and prize pools in the absence of PUBG Mobile. “VALORANT really gives a chance for India to be on the global map because of how the title is positioned,” he said. “Unlike the west where PC esports are well established, organisations in India have transitioned from mobile to PC. This is really exciting as it now gives us the opportunity to explore new markets, sponsors and activations with core PC brands and stakeholders.”
Building a sustainable model in India
The region has seen a massive surge in investment into gaming and esports, but the real challenge is to grow and build sustainably. Jain says that many team owners that bought into the PUBG Mobile space had unreasonable expectations and unsustainable models. “Without quoting any names, most teams in India work on a model where they focus on prize money. And unsurprisingly, because of the ban, many of these organisations have had to shut shop,” highlighted 8bit’s Co-owner.
“We can’t just drop an exclusive line like a 100 Thieves and expect our fanbase to lap it up”
The emergence of esports as a budding industry has certainly allowed investment from various places. But organisations in the West have proven that content and merchandising are more sustainable forms of revenue. 8bit is on a similar page, but Jain points out that the differences in markets, geography, and socio-economics play an important role. “For our core base, affordability is always going to be the number one priority. We can’t just drop an exclusive line like a 100 Thieves and expect our fanbase to lap it up,” Jain explained. “We understand that 80 percent or even more of our core audience is not one with significant amounts of disposable income and as a result, finding the right merchandising model is going to require a fair bit of trial and error.”
For their esports teams, Jain is adamant that the only focus is on building good brands that can consistently be on top, so they can then be monetised through sponsorship. Since this is only possible for the top three or four organisations, having other channels is also important. He said: “We’ve made a significant investment into the content side of things to help us be as sustainable as possible. Our brand and how we position it is something that we work on day in and day out.”
The goal, however, remains much more long-term for Jain and 8bit. By the end of 2021, Jain wants the SouL and 8bit brands to close in on a $20m (~£15m) valuation along with plans to set up a top-of-the-range gaming house in the region, as well as launching their own line of merchandise. By 2022, he aims to have built a brand capable of competing with the likes of 100 Thieves and Team Liquid on the global stage.
This story is written in collaboration with AFK Gaming. AFK is an India-based esports media and content company that aims to provide quality and consistent coverage about teams, players, tournaments and competitive video games with a primary focus on the Asian region.