Seven years ago, when Ankush Gera founded Junglee Games in San Francisco, he wasn’t sure what games the company would be building. Cracking the small Indian online gaming market, where players like Dream11, 99Games and Nazara Technologies were dominant, wasn't going to be an easy ride.
Four months into their start as a business in 2012, they launched the flagship skill-based Junglee Rummy for Indian users. Come 2019, Junglee Games has over 20 million users and is one of the major skill gaming operators in the space. The Indian online gaming industry itself has expanded to USD 500-600 million, thanks to the rise in popularity of skill-based money games.
In a phone interview from San-Francisco, Gera spoke to The Passage’s Moulishree Srivastava and Ruiyao Luo on the evolution of India's online gaming industry, the rise of Dream11, the popularity of PUBG, and why Tencent and Go Ventures are taking notice. Edited excerpts:
The Passage: How do you think the gaming industry in India has changed over the years?
Ankush Gera: When we started in 2012, there was a small number of gaming companies and they were quite immature. The quality of games lagged behind what I saw was being built out of two-men studios in San Francisco. The general mindset was that India wouldn't be able to monetise games — which was true in 2012. While the industry has grown dramatically, it’s still very small. We're still scratching the tip of the iceberg today.
The biggest difference is the quality of games. Of course, there was not a whole lot of venture financing back then. It was just the beginning of smartphones and the internet being affordable, and people getting used to the concept of having games as entertainment. The perspective has changed around gaming and companies have also matured in the last seven years. There's no difference between a gaming studio in the San Francisco Bay area and Junglee. I see no difference in the quality of talent.
The waves in the internet industry in India, such as travel and e-commerce, and exposure to working in companies like Amazon, Flipkart and Google have made a talent pool available that is no less than what exists in mature markets.
Seven years ago, ours was USD 20-30 million-a-year industry. Today, it's over USD 500 million a year. It is still very, very small. This is the entire gaming ecosystem — including games in the Google Play Store, skill games like fantasy and rummy, and all the games on PC, Playstation or Xbox. That’s the number for every game, every platform across the entire country. One game like Candy Crush or Angry Birds makes more than that in a year.
So what a successful title in the West does in one year is greater than the entire gaming ecosystem of India today. The reason why we're in it and growing, and are very, very, bullish on the industry is we're just catching the wave early so that we can ride it for a longer time. We are going to see 20-50x growth in the next five to ten years. We're talking about the opportunity of a billion screens.
The Passage: How did Junglee Games see such growth without VC funding? Tell us about the journey so far.
Ankush Gera: The key pillars of any company are its product, data and people. We are just doing a good job at all three. We've brought in leadership teams — CEOs of other companies. So it's not just my baby. There are 200 other people who work with Junglee. The leadership team we've built has seasoned people with 10-15 years of experience with other larger companies. People were shocked when they heard we have three to four games and 200 people. The key is to offer the deepest level of customer service. We create mini-founders within the organisation. People who run the product feel like they're playing the role of a CEO. It’s their product, their game and for their division, their business unit. So they put the right team in place and then rebuild a high-quality content.
Just the way people go and spend money on a new movie, we are entertaining people by providing hours of entertainment with the same money. That money goes a long way in a game. People are starting to see that and they're adapting. One of the reasons why we've been able to monetise is just putting all those pillars in place. We are building what I call it a data science company and not a gaming company.
We have some very smart people — PhD data scientists and neuroscientists — working on these products to offer a beautiful experience to our players. That is why we’ve grown so fast without raising tons of venture financing.
The Passage: Which are your most profitable and popular games?
Ankush Gera: Junglee Rummy and Howzat — both games are quite profitable and successful in India. Globally, eatme.io, which is more than an Angry Birds-style game, is very successful. It’s not a skill game, but a social game. We see an appetite for rummy as well as fantasy sports worldwide. We plan to take both (Rummy and Howzat) global.
So far, we have been entirely focussed in India. But we are planning a major story with global expansion this year.
The Passage: Your competitor Dream11 has 90% market share in fantasy sports. How do you plan to tackle that?
Ankush Gera: I think we have a decent share. We have Howzat, which is a household name. It used to be the largest sports video game on Facebook. We already have a massive user base of cricket lovers who play our game in its old format. Now we're getting those users to play the fantasy side. We launched it just this IPL and are seeing crazy traction. Though we are kind of late, we're in time for the World Cup.
For a new game that’s starting out today, it's really hard to get tens of millions of users without spending a ton of money. We've been very effective in being the only company that is seed-funded and has been able to grow to the size that we have. We feel fairly confident that we can capture market share quickly. Once we do that, we also know how to monetise well, relative to the rest of the industry. That's our game plan.
The Passage: How many users do you have right now?
Ankush Gera: Across all these games about 20-21 million. Rummy, Howzat and Eatme.io, each of these games have around 5-10 million users each.
The Passage: How are online gaming companies dealing with regulations? Do you find that challenging?
Ankush Gera: It’s the same as it has been since we started the business, which is that skill-based games are exempt from any gambling laws. Anything that's a game of skill is exempt from any kind of gambling laws. There are multiple judgments supporting that. So you cannot run a game on chance, like games with a dice roll. Otherwise, we'd love to have those. Howzat and Rummy are the two that we are limited to because of the regulations.
The Passage: In the last seven years, have you seen Indian gamers evolving in terms of their willingness and ability to pay? Was there ever an inflection point in the gaming market in India?
Ankush Gera: I don't think there's been like a single inflection point. Smartphones got cheaper, but that didn't happen in a year for certain. The launch of Reliance Jio’s cheap and fast internet did make some difference. But I think Junglee and a few other operators like Dream11 have been consistently educating and helping the market grow. I think that's been the main force that has led us to the changes in the landscape.
I think the ability was always there, the willingness is maybe changing slowly. We've probably made some impact by building more awareness and trust. The industry is more credible now, which has made people comfortable paying for games.
The Passage: What is your revenue model?
Ankush Gera: Super simple. So in social games, we have in-app purchases. If you play eatme.io, you would need to buy the virtual currency that you can use to get a new skill, look or feel for your avatar. It is monetising virtual goods by in-app purchases. And then, on the skill side, it’s a simple model around tournaments. You enter a tournament and you pay an entry fee. Let's say there are a thousand people who put in a dollar each — that's USD 1,000 that has been pooled in the entry fee. A bunch of people win (from the pooled money) and we charge a small service fee of about 10%. So we would keep a hundred dollars and the winners would get nine hundred.
The Passage: So these are real money games, where people come and pay so that they can have a chance at winning money.
Ankush Gera: That's right. But players can also get a chance to enter for free. A lot of people participate in free tournaments. If you win enough tournaments, you can also win tickets to enter the finals.
The Passage: Do you think the rise in real money games has changed the industry? They are helping companies earn money. Is that why investors are now interested in the gaming industry?
Ankush Gera: I think most people, like 99%, don’t play games looking to make money. The reality is people are just looking to kill time. For example, they play for a few minutes every day while taking an Ola to work.
There is some merit to your question because, again, if you play Candy Crush and buy something for ten dollars, that money is spent and you are entertained. It’s like how you go to watch a movie.
With esports and gaming tournaments model, you get to potentially win. It's a more fair thing because it’s a two-way street. I think the media is getting a wind of this because the size has grown in the last year or two, but the reality is that this industry has been growing slowly but consistently for the last seven or eight years.
The Passage: What do you think about Tencent and Go-Jek investing in the Indian gaming sector?
Ankush Gera: Not just Go-Jek or Tencent, but also Sequoia. I think they see this as the next wave. Travel was the first wave in India, followed by e-commerce. Then we had food delivery as the third wave. I think gaming is the fourth big wave that investors are attracted to. They feel that in a country with a billion people, online gaming can be one big form of entertainment like the movie industry today. They're looking at this as a sizeable industry that could potentially be much bigger than the movie industry. In the US, the gaming industry is bigger than Hollywood.
Venture capitalists are looking at this space because India is a huge market. There are a lot of people with very limited means of entertainment today. So it’s the size where it starts to get interesting.
The Passage: Do you think you will be building games like PUBG?
Ankush Gera: I don’t see us building PUBG type of games. That's not our expertise, but you never know.
When we started the gaming business, we didn’t know exactly what games we would be building. We made a bunch of mistakes initially. We tried a lot of things before we could figure it out. I never say never to anything, but I don't see that in our roadmap at all. There's plenty of PUBG-like games out there already.
I do see us expanding into esports. So even though those games are built by someone else, we would build a tournament model around them. We are potentially looking at these sports as an expansion area along with other games of skill as we go forward. We are evaluating companies that either have exciting games of skill or esports models.
The Passage: What were the major challenges you faced while scaling up? And what are the challenges now?
Ankush Gera: Dream11 began its work in 2008 and there were other skill gaming companies that started in 2006-2007. When we began in 2012-13, we were already six or seven years late. Our competitors had raised venture financing. They had established teams, people and processes. Then we came in and basically bootstrapped. We have been trying to match or better the level of growth of other players, and we have been able to accomplish that on a shoestring budget.
Having never run a business in India before, building a team from the ground up, finding the right talent, all of those were challenges. Pretty much everything was challenging.
Today I wouldn't call them challenges. They're fun problems to solve. Today, the challenges are how do we grow at 150% instead of 100%. It's more of a drive and fire to grow faster and do better. How do we continue to maintain this beautiful culture we've created? How do we maintain 200 people? And if we grow from 200 to 400 people, how do we continue to grow? I wouldn't call them challenges that make me lose my sleep.
The Passage: How do you see the gaming industry in India evolving two to five years down the line?
Ankush Gera: There are plenty of reports that say it is going to grow in size. Everybody knows that. I think it's going to employ a lot more people, you’ll see a lot of new companies come into play. There are already 200-300 gaming companies now.
I think we will start seeing global-level hits come out of Indian studios, and our gaming industry will continue to get mature.
The Passage: Have you thought about entering the China market?
Ankush Gera: To enter China is a little bit of a black box. It is a really tough market to crack. However, we would look at Europe, the US, the UK and South America. We are just starting with this plan. It'll take us several years before we can say we have a decent market share in the UK or Europe.
The Passage: What are your plans for the future?
Ankush Gera: I think we'll be launching at least three or four games this year. They may be skill-based or social games. And we are going to expand some of the games that we have. We are also going to launch new IPs (intellectual properties).
The Passage: There is a concern that people are getting too invested in these games. Some companies have even started warning users to not spend too much time on the platform. How do you see that?
Ankush Gera: I think it's a responsibility for everyone to regulate. When you watch Netflix for eight hours straight, would you see a pop-up saying you watch too much Netflix? Does Amazon give notice to those who overspend? There are a lot of companies that put checks and balances in place to make sure that people self-regulate. We also have have that in place to educate people about the concept of playing responsibly. I am really happy about that, but that's the extent of it. It's not like you can set a limit on gaming in terms of time and money.
The Passage: Are you looking to raise money since you have elaborate expansion plans?
Ankush Gera: I can't comment on that. We have interests that come in from an investors’ standpoint. We are growing at almost 100% every year. We're not looking to go out in the market, but we're always open to strategic conversations with other companies and investors.
We're not looking to raise money at the moment because we're profitable. And we had broken even very, very quickly, like in the first 18-24 months. We are going to continue to be more profitable because we are investing majority of the revenue back into growth.
Right now our goal is just to stay focused on building and growing the business. And we have a new target for this year — we are looking at USD 600 million in gross transaction volume, and our revenue will be roughly 10% of that.
The Passage: Media reports state that you are eyeing unicorn status. What do you have to say?
Ankush Gera: Time will tell. I don't know. I think, there are two or three companies in this space that are going to be highly valued. Putting a number on that is not in my control. But we're fairly optimistic and are letting time and appetite dictate the rest.