Sai Srinivas Kiran G. calls himself a sportsman. “Entrepreneurship is a performance sport. It’s a mind sport. If you don’t perform, you are out of the team. You have to be at your game every single day,” says the co-founder and CEO of Mobile Premier League (MPL).
Bengaluru-based Srinivas, 32, or Sai, as he is known within the organisation, and his team have brought their A game to the table since the pandemic began. Set up in 2018, the real money mobile gaming app saw its user numbers grow from 40 million in March 2020 to over 60 million in seven months, a spike that led to 2 billion transactions on the platform since its inception. Its visibility has seen a boost since it became the official kit sponsor of the national men’s and women’s cricket teams, and the sponsors for Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) and Kolkata Knight Riders in the recent Indian Premier League. Incidentally, Indian team and RCB captain Virat Kohli is MPL’s brand ambassador and an investor in its parent company, Galactus Funware Technology Pvt. Ltd.
Along with MPL, the entire mobile gaming industry witnessed almost 3x growth last year and continues to ride that wave, says Srinivas. So it’s not surprising that MPL became one of a handful of startups to get substantial funding during the pandemic in September, raising $90 million, with its value spiking to $450 million now. This has allowed MPL to buy back employee stock ownership plans valued at $3.2 million. “I am grateful and privileged to be one of the few digital businesses to have seen some positive impact of this weird black swan event,” says Srinivas.
But even he did not anticipate the demand during this period, he says: “Honestly, I never thought that so many people would take to this format so quickly in India. I mean, video formats like OTT just hit their prime in 2019 and early 2020. So, we were thinking gaming will still take a year-and-a-half, two years (for such volumes). What this black swan event has done is it’s accelerated the entire timeline of how our country adopts digital gaming, and shrunk it to three or four months,” says Srinivas.
One of the reasons for the demand could be related to the fact that gaming transcends language and regional barriers—the way a game of pool is played will remain the same no matter which city you live in, Srinivas explains. All you need is a mobile phone and an internet connection to compete with 100,000 people around the country.
MPL, with users in 200 Indian cities, says that on average, a user plays six different games on the platform at any point; these include games such as Pro Cricket, Run Out, Can Jump, Rogue Heist and World Cricket Championship. Some games saw a tremendous increase in user base; World Cricket Championship, launched just before the lockdown, grew by 400%, while pool grew by 100%. Even carrom saw an uptick.
MPL has been particularly vigilant about ensuring tournaments are fair. It ensures KYC checks of all paid users. Machine learning helps it measure the number and location of taps on screen and take into account the user’s history of game wins. Any deviation from a pattern could be cheating. Right now, it’s 99.99% sure if someone’s cheating. “Whatever we are doing in digital sports, we are learning from physical sports,” says Srinivas.
To encourage more original games from India, MPL recently announced a ₹37 crore fund for game developers. “We also noticed, during the lockdown, that a lot of our fantasy gamers moved to other games on MPL due to the lack of live sporting action. I am not complaining,” says the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur alumnus.
Srinivas and his team have started gearing up for the next challenge—live-streaming tournaments. They believe people will enjoy the finals of large multi-player tournaments as much as an on- ground game. “Supposing two people reach the quarter-final of a tournament, of course there will be a lot of intensity between the players. But I am reasonably certain the other million people who were part of this tournament, and a few others, would be very interested in watching this game. That’s the future,” says Srinivas.
“We have got the games, we have got the infrastructure to host large tournaments, now we bring in the third layer— the ability to take the streams of the tournament and show the world how these incredible players are actually competing in these tournaments And get them the attention they deserve. It will be mind-boggling,” says Srinivas.
First, though, they have to overcome the infrastructure challenge. Not everyone owns a PC, and it’s difficult to live-stream matches on the mobile phone while playing a game. “It’s like riding a bicycle and juggling. In India, most people don’t have a laptop, they have just got a phone, and more often than not, the phone is only going to have 3 GB RAM. It’s not that people don’t want to or are not interested in streaming. But after a point, if you don’t have the infrastructure that’s needed, it’s impossible. Hopefully, we will come up with a solution keeping these limitations in mind in the course of five to six months,” he says.
Growing up in Hyderabad in a middle-class family—his father worked with the State Bank of India and his mother was a schoolteacher—Srinivas always liked creating things, like building projects for the school science fair. Once he won a prize at the district science fair for making bricks from rice husk ash, a cheaper alternative, to construct furnaces. “It was great fun. I had a neighbour, a mechanical engineer, who helped me with the project. These were the things that influenced me a lot,” he says.
This was why he chose aerospace engineering at IIT, Kanpur. Within a year, however, he realised it wasn’t for him, though he did complete the course. “It’s much easier to do what I am doing rather than building aeroplanes. Leave a bug in a software product, you can patch it and fix it, but you can’t afford to leave bugs in aeroplanes,” says Srinivas, who graduated oin 2010.
His stay on campus piqued his interested in internet-based companies—high internet speed helped. He realised he wanted to become a tech product manager at a tech startup.“Today, product managers are so common. Back in the day, when I joined U2opia Mobile as a product manager, half of my batch was clueless what the role was. It was unheard of,” he recalls, referring to the nascent stage of internet product companies in India.
But after two six-month gigs in startups ibibo and U2opia Mobile in Delhi, Srinivas was desperate to get back to the south. “I just couldn’t take the weather. It’s insanely hot,” he says. In 2011, a friend helped him get a job as a game designer with Zynga, the social game developing firm that created FarmVille for Facebook, in Bengaluru. “It was my first finishing school. It taught me everything that I value a lot today,” he says of his 18-month stint.
In late 2013, Srinivas started CREO Tech (which raised $4.75 million, apart from an undisclosed sum in angel investment), a hardware company that designed and developed tech hardware products like streaming media dongles and smartphones, with Shubham Malhotra, who would become a co-founder at MPL. They had met through a common friend and since they both enjoyed building products and had complementary skill sets, decided to team up. Three years later, CREO Tech was acquired by instant messaging company Hike Messenger. “One of the things we realised is that market forces are the ultimate truth. If you are building a product in a market that’s growing, it’s like rowing a boat downstream in a river. Life is slightly easier. But if you are building a product in a market where the market is not in your favour, it’s like rowing upstream. And it’s very hard,” he says.
Two years later, they got things right with MPL, putting together a great team and choosing an industry with the potential to grow. “We put our boat inside it and rowed as fast as we could. And we are lucky to be where we are today,” he says.
Srinivas also became more mindful. In the first year, he says, he was a “kind of a micro manager”—but soon realised the folly of this. The second realisation was more philosophical in nature. “Nothing is as good as it seems and nothing is as bad as it seems either. In the first impression, you feel that something is awesome, but it’s not, it’s okay. Then there are times when you feel the world is crashing down, but it’s not that bad, it’s okay,” he says.
Putting things in perspective is something he learnt quite early at IIT, Kanpur.
In his third semester, he failed two courses. “It was an earth-shattering experience.... The thing with IIT is there are so many smarter people around you, and then you fail two courses. It took time to realise that it wasn’t that big a deal,” he says. He failed in three more courses during the rest of the five semesters.
“Those failures were very useful for me as they taught me that you don’t remember the failure for too long. But you will forever remember the regret if you hadn’t tried. Among those five failures, the first was the toughest to handle; by the fifth, I didn’t even care. Eventually, I started making peace with it,” he says. It has made him tougher as an entrepreneur, he says.
Today, he wants to be a crucible for growth. “Hopefully, in the future, when we have offices across the country, it would be wonderful if I could enable people the way Zynga did for me.”
Srinivas is in favour of a government regulatory framework, believing this would set standards, benefit everyone, and help attract investors. South Korea, the first country to create e-sports regulation, “realised it before anyone else that e-sports will probably make it to the Olympics very soon. And by the way, e-sports is already there in the Asian Games. It was in the exhibition category in 2018, and in 2022 it will be a full medal category,” says Srinivas. He is set for a win.