Few things sell in India the way cricket does. So it was not surprising that the first fantasy sports portal was based on this game. What was surprising though was that actor Aamir Khan turned down the opportunity to be the face of ESPN Super Selector, which launched in 2001, on television.

Khan fielded his own team for the first season but decided the time wasn’t right.

“We had no clue about how big it would be in India," says Joy Bhattacharya, who created the product from an ESPN offsite in Indonesia. His UK colleagues believed getting 7,000 people together online would be impressive. But when they floated the first online cricket game on 29 October 2001, 30,000 people attempted to sign in simultaneously, and the system collapsed. Within three months, the game had clocked 750,000 users.

Seventeen years later, the fantasy sports fanbase has expanded to 20 million, growing 10-fold in just the last two years. Currently, there are about 60 fantasy sports companies in the industry; 30 of them launched operations in 2017-18 alone.

And it’s not just cricket. The US’ National Basketball Association has been using fantasy sports for fan engagement for a long time. Over the last few years, the Indian Super League and Pro Kabaddi League have also used it successfully. But cricket remains the biggest draw and Dream11, a fantasy cricket league, is the market leader, with 90% of the pie.

The concept is simple. You go online to one of the sites and create your own imaginary team using the real players who are scheduled to play a match or a tournament. All the rules, salary cap, selection parameters, number of foreign players in one squad are the same for the fantasy leagues. The selectors win or lose depending on the on-field performance of the real players in their team.

On Super Selector, participants could select a monthly team, free of cost, with an option to make only one-two substitutions every week. Time, effort and, most importantly, skill went into picking the ideal squad.

On television, a live music band and an astrologer were introduced to liven up the show. Harsha Bhogle, Navjot Singh Sidhu and Geoffrey Boycott played regularly. Traffic grew considerably, and the systems started crashing.

“In those days, employees from Infosys would play with 30-40 teams at one time because it was free. I think we missed a trick there, it would have made a lot of money for them (ESPN) at some point. It was not something on their priority," says Bhattacharya.

“The heydays were 2001 and 2002. When Facebook and social media came in 2006, they should have made a stronger attempt to market it, which I don’t think happened," he explains.

Scaling up was something that trend-setter Super Selector struggled with. The founders ultimately shifted focus to other areas. Slowly, Super Selector turned into a quiz show. It was eventually shelved in 2003; Bhattacharya left in 2006.

“Anybody can start a fantasy game with an Excel sheet. The problem is what happens when one million people come," says Ramesh Srivats, founder of Fandromeda, a fantasy sports portal created in 2016, during the T20 World Cup.

According to the Indian Federation of Sports Gaming (IFSG), the projected user base of fantasy sports in India is on course to touch 100 million by 2020, which would still be just 30% of online sports fans in India. More than 70% of the current users are men aged 25-35, with a higher disposable income.

Today’s Indian Premier League (IPL) fantasy games are generally devoid of rumination. Players can pick 11 players every day. It requires less thought, less time and very little money (as little as 10 to enter a game). “We did this (monthly teams) because in those days, getting online wasn’t easy at all. Plus, in Super Selector, players had to choose their team for an entire month, so they had the mental investment. They have easy options now," Bhattacharya explains.

“A daily game is easier to understand but it doesn’t create much culture because there is no commitment to it. It’s only for enjoyment," says Srivats.

In 2013, Srivats launched the official IPL fantasy game and ran it for three years. He remembers the unpredictable spikes in traffic when the playing eleven was announced on TV: “In one minute at 7.45pm, we went from 5,000 to 80,000 people and had to immediately start 15 new web servers.

“If you really look into it, it’s a simple Excel-sheet game but the tech challenge comes in when one wishes to scale and be robust," says Srivats, who also created the official International Cricket Council fantasy league for the 2015 World Cup. Nowadays, companies like Infosys and MakeMyTrip run their own IPL fantasy leagues on Fandromeda for employees.

So what started as a fan engagement exercise is today a huge business opportunity. Star Network estimates that the target market size for fantasy sports in India stands at 180 million for cricket alone.

Niggling legal issues have accompanied this rapid expansion. Last year, for example, a player named Varun Gumber approached the Punjab and Haryana high court, saying he had lost a collective amount of 50,000 while participating in numerous paid fantasy sports contests made available as part of Dream11.

The court ruled that the games offered by Dream11 were games of “mere skill", and thus outside the scope of the Public Gambling Act, 1867. There is no law on fantasy sports.

“A lot of people are essentially setting up betting games and calling it fantasy. One has to look at the game dynamics. Tomorrow, if you set up a game asking will Virat Kohli score more or Rohit Sharma, there is absolutely no way to tell who is going to score more. There is no skill involved," says Nandan Kamath, principal lawyer at LawNK, a Bengaluru-based firm, who helped set up the IFSG, the country’s first and only sports gaming industry organization, a self-regulatory body.

The fantasy league story has a long way to go. Transforming it into a serious culture will take time. Certainly more than it took for the industry to grow as it has over the last 24 months.

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