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2019 was a big year for esports in many ways, and while established regions such as Europe and North America continue to capture the spotlight, the emergence of newer regions such as South East Asia (SEA), South Asia, and even South America is only good news for the industry. From 16-year old Bugha’s win at the Fortnite World Cup, and OG becoming the first two-time winners of The International; to Astralis’ year of dominance and Arslan Ash’s back-to-back EVO wins; 2019 allowed esports to reach new heights, helped create new heroes and kept millions entertained across the world. Among all the good news and positivity, one country which had an excellent year, was India. 

Before 2018, despite its massive population, India was isolated from the global esports landscape and was mostly built around small local communities and offline events. In December of 2017, DreamHack Mumbai became the first international tournament to grace the scene and things have been on a massive upward trend since. In 2018, India hosted three international events – ESL One Mumbai, COBX Masters, and DreamHack Delhi. Prize pools paid out from Indian tournaments saw an increase of over 180%, from just above $500K USD in 2018 to over $1.5M in 2019. 

A major factor in this steep rise both in stature and in terms of money was due to PUBG MOBILE, and it’s safe to say that the title is now more than just a video game in the country. The success of the game across the world has seen it become the most downloaded mobile esport titles, and India is at the forefront, leading the charts in terms of both player base and audience. It’s almost impossible to talk about PUBG MOBILE without discussing India, and with Tencent already announcing big plans for the title and its esport ecosystem in 2020, it remains to be seen what lies in store for the country in the coming years. 

Key Takes From 2019

It’s unsurprising that mobile is the most popular platform for Indian gamers. The low cost and ease of access means that a significant section of gamers in India prefer to play games on the mobile. While the PC gaming culture itself is alive for now, it’s struggling to compete against the sheer numbers that mobile gamers are putting up. Titles such as Dota 2 have seen a massive decline in popularity, with organizations dropping rosters and tournament organizers (TO) dropping the title from their portfolios. 

As mobile titles grow in popularity and Indian players and teams start becoming even bigger, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where PC-only tournaments find it easy to attract sponsors. While endemic brands might continue to help fund the scene in small ways, large money from non-endemic sponsors will find its way to mobile esport tournaments, as these have significantly higher viewership and reach compared to PC titles. In 2019, nearly 40% of esports prize money in India was via PUBG MOBILE tournaments. If we discount ESL One Mumbai, a tournament which in all senses is an international tournament hosted by an international TO in India, the combined prize pool for Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) makes up 41% of the total while PUBG MOBILE makes up nearly 50%. With India establishing itself as a huge market for mobile titles, it’s likely that this divide is only going to grow bigger as titles such as Clash Royale, Garena Free Fire, and Call of Duty: Mobile all begin to take note of the opportunity. 

Prize Pool Comparison Versus Previous Years

2019 saw the biggest jump in terms of prize pool, with a 180% jump year on year (YoY). In comparison, the YoY growth from 2017 to 2018 was 85%. As mentioned earlier, the single most important reason for this growth is the influence of PUBG MOBILE. In fact, of the total difference in prize pool between 2018 and 2019, PUBG MOBILE makes up for 60% of the growth. The other 40% is largely due to ESL One Mumbai. However, other than ESL One Mumbai, tournaments such as COBX Masters and DreamHack Delhi were also international in nature, but of course don’t have the same stature (due to the lack of premium teams and a lower prize pool) as an ESL One event. While DreamHack has already committed to hosting another event in India in 2020, the same cannot be said for ESL or COBX.  

Expectations for 2020

Call of Duty: Mobile is expected to be one of the big entries into mobile esports in 2020 and India has the second-highest downloads after the U.S. Should a thriving esports structure for the title crop up in 2020, it is unlikely that India will be ignored. PUBG MOBILE is going to continue to dominate the Indian esports system and announcements like the World League and the PUBG MOBILE Club Open (PMCO) in 2020 will be major factors for India as it is the region with the highest player base and audience. It’s very likely that some big international PUBG MOBILE LANs will take place in the country as well. 2019 seems like it was the last year where TOs and teams put effort into developing the Dota 2 ecosystem and it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which anyone is willing to invest into the scene in India. Existing Indian tournaments such as the ESL India Premiership and Dew Arena are expected to axe Dota 2 from their tournaments. 

 CS:GO is the most popular PC title in the country and DreamHack has already announced a DreamHack Open in Hyderabad in the month of October and November, which will be part of their circuit in 2020. However, it is also headed down the Dota 2 path if viewership continues to stagnate, especially in comparison to mobile titles. 

It is also expected that some tier 1 organizations are going to pick up rosters in PUBG MOBILE, either from India or from South East Asia because of the stable ecosystem and natural appeal of the title.

Shounak Sengupta is a staff writer for AFK Gaming.

Disclosure: NODWIN Gaming is a minority investor in and a client of AFK Gaming.

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