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Right out the park.
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A fantasy sports startup has entered the unicorn club thanks to India’s IPL fever

By Kuwar Singh

Emerging from the grey areas of Indian anti-gambling laws, fantasy sports gaming platform Dream11 has become the country’s newest unicorn.

It announced yesterday (April 09) that Hong Kong-based asset manager Steadview Capital has bought an undisclosed stake in the startup, valuing it at over $1 billion. Last year, Dream11 had also received investment from Chinese online gaming giant Tencent, along with others, in a $100 million funding round.

With over 60 million users, the Mumbai-based firm calls itself India’s biggest fantasy sports-gaming platform. Its rise to the top, though, has been anything but smooth.

What is it, exactly?

In 2008, University of Pennsylvania alumnus Harsh Jain co-founded Dream11 with his friend Bhavit Sheth after they felt a lack of fantasy gaming platforms catering to fans of the Indian Premier League (IPL), a wildly popular cricket tournament launched the same year.

Though cricket remains its main attraction, the platform has today expanded its reach to football, kabaddi, basketball, and hockey.

On Dream11, sports fans can create their own fantasy team that consists of real-life players from an upcoming match. Each of these teams must contain players from both sides playing in the real match. The teams gain or lose points based on the individual performance of players during the course of the real match. 

One can play for free or bet money. The user behind the team whose players perform the best in the real match wins the entire amount wagered in a pool. The company charges a 15% commission on this figure. 

While only around 15% of Dream11’s users bet money on their fantasy teams, it is also the firm’s only revenue source since it stopped running advertisements on its platform.

And it’s doing well?

Dream11 has the first-mover advantage—its only predecessor, Super Selector, shut shop before the IPL even launched. 

In a country obsessed with cricket, IPL has emerged as a multi-billion dollar brand. And Dream11 has carved out a piece of the pie. Last month, the firm clinched a 4-year deal to be the official fantasy gaming platform for the summer tournament. It has also signed former Indian cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni as its brand ambassador.

These moves have helped Dream11’s user base grow by several times over the past few years.

However, that hasn’t brought an end to its legal hurdles.

How legal is this?

India bans any wagering activity, including several card games, that depends more on chance than skill.

Courts in the country have, however, interpreted the law to allow betting in horse races on grounds that these involve deep knowledge of the horses’ and jockeys’ pedigree and past performance, not merely luck. 

In 2017, when a user lost money on Dream11 and filed a case against it, the court agreed with the firm’s stance that betting on the platform depends predominantly on skill, as users build their own team based on knowledge of players’ abilities and performance.

Yet, since sports betting remains illegal across India, Dream11 cannot allow users to bet on the real teams.  

Further, the various states in India can and do enact strict anti-gambling laws of their own. Dream 11, hence, does not allow users from states like Telangana, Assam, Odisha, Nagaland, and Sikkim to play for money.

In its 2018 report on whether gambling should be legalised, the law commission of India cited a ruling by the European Court of Justice which cautions against online fantasy sports:

Apart from the lack of direct contact between the consumer and the operator… the particular ease and the permanence of access to games offered over the internet and the potentially high volume and frequency of such an international offer, in an environment which is moreover characterised by isolation of the player, anonymity and an absence of social control, constitute so many factors likely to foster the development of gambling addiction and the related squandering of money, and thus (is) likely to increase the negative social and moral consequences…

How’s the future looking?

The number of fantasy sport buffs is growing rapidly in India, particularly as internet penetration rises and people get more comfortable with e-payments. 

Most enthusiasts access such platforms via apps on their smartphones, according to a joint report by KPMG and a Dream11-led industry body. This is despite the Google Play Store not hosting apps that offer cash contests—Dream11 users are forced to download the app from its website.

CEO Jain has said that the firm plans to reach 100 million users by the end of 2019. As is usually the case with startups, though, growth has come at a cost for Dream11, data from business intelligence firm Tracxn show.

Then again, flush with new money and the coveted unicorn status, Dream11 can dream some more.