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Cricket fans replace sweeps with swipes

Former Australian cricketer Matthew Hayden (second from left) with Nextwave Multimedia co-founders and siblings Rajendran P.R. and Jayashree P.R. On the right is Rajendran’s wife, R. Kalpana, who handles data analyticsPremium
Former Australian cricketer Matthew Hayden (second from left) with Nextwave Multimedia co-founders and siblings Rajendran P.R. and Jayashree P.R. On the right is Rajendran’s wife, R. Kalpana, who handles data analytics

  • Nobody knows when cricketers will return to the field. But fans are finding their stars’ digital avatars in mobile games
  • The impact of covid-19 is double-edged: Online gamers have increased but ad rates are falling because of the economic crisis

This time last year, the Indian Premier League (IPL) was reaching its climax and cricket fans were getting worked up with the World Cup. How different it is now, with deserted stadiums, no IPL, and the T20 World Cup likely to be postponed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cricket addicts can only get their fix virtually. So it’s not surprising that digital games are seeing a spike in usage. Diehard fans who miss seeing Virat Kohli clip a ball to the midwicket fence can get an animated figure of the Indian captain to execute the stroke. They can choose when Jasprit Bumrah bowls his slower one and where he pitches it.

The most popular cricket game on Google Play Store is WCC (World Cricket Championship). With over 100 million downloads, it has nearly three million daily active users (DAU). “Our DAU crossed three million at the start of April. It fell back to 2.8 million after that, but it’s still much higher than the 2.2 million DAU before covid struck," says Rajendran P.R., co-founder and CEO of Nextwave Multimedia, WCC’s creator. “Average time spent on the app has also gone up to 55 minutes from 45 minutes earlier."

WCC was among the top 10 games in India across categories, as per monthly active users tracked by App Annie from 2016 to 2018. It dropped out of the top 10 last year when multiplayer warfare games like PUBG picked up traction in India. But a new version of WCC, which will be available by June after launching in beta mode this week, hopes to restore its ranking.

“To retain your users, you have to keep investing in the game and building it up," says Rajendran. So WCC 3.0 has some new hooks. One of them is expert commentary from former openers Aakash Chopra and Matthew Hayden.

Digital pitch

“Janaab, yeh pavilion se set hokar aye hain, chowke se shuruat (He has come well-set from the pavilion, starts the innings with a boundary!)" Gamers get ball-by-ball commentary in Hindi from Chopra, while Hayden says it in English with his lazy Aussie drawl. “There’s a lot of cricketing heritage in Chennai, the oldest continuously used stadium in the country," he says as the fielding team and batsmen walk out.

Of course, unlike a real game, this is commentary pre-recorded for various game situations, such as the start of an innings, a sweep shot, or a six. This goes into an AI engine, which plays the appropriate commentary as situations unfold in a game. It’s a new thrill for gamers to have international commentators, which helps to make the experience realistic.

Commentators too are warming to a digital environment. Chopra, for instance, is one of the best analysers in live commentary. Now he’s adapting to the situational commentary of a mobile game where the action is controlled by users.

“In a real game, you can see patterns develop. When you’re commenting digitally, you don’t get those cues. But the more you play, the more you understand that it’s a different realm where you can still create a theatre as a commentator," he says. “You have to visualize 40,000 people in a stadium reacting to what’s happening. In your mind, you have to imagine it’s real and not digital."

WCC’s multiplayer version called Rivals has been integrated into WCC3. So gamers have the option to play against one another. A point system, leaderboard and rewards hook users into playing the long game with strategy simulation, such as rotating players through a league season. There’s also a spectator mode to allow friends or even an esports channel to get different views of a game and stream it on YouTube or Twitch.

WCC has depended on ad revenue because of the reluctance of users in India to pay for games. Users earn playtime by choosing to view ads. This makes covid-19’s impact double-edged. On the one hand, user engag ement has increased. But on the other, ad rates are falling because of the economic crisis.

Rajendran hopes to reduce the dependence on ads in WCC3. Apart from paying for an ad-free mode, gamers are nudged to make in-app purchases. For instance, they can buy points to upgrade a player’s skills. The championship league’s competitive element is designed for this, along with other features to make the game more realistic and engaging.

“A big move in WCC3 is a game design with progression, reward mechanics, bragging rights, supply-demand scarcities and so on, improving the experience every time somebody buys something," says Rajendran. “In India, we’ve been very short on talent for in-game economy design. We eventually built a team in-house to do this after seeing our in-app revenue growing at 50% yearly even without any serious effort from our end."

Services to products

With over 500 million smartphone users in India, the journey of a gamer usually starts with swipes on a phone screen rather than button pushes on a console. That’s the space Nextwave has focused on since its inception.

Rajendran was a store helper in a factory before becoming a copywriter in a Chennai ad agency, while his sister Jayashree started out as a telephone operator to make ends meet. They attended evening classes to learn programming, graphics and animation. Soon the siblings were creating ad campaigns on their home PC.

They launched Nextwave Multimedia as a digital marketing company in 1995 and it grew over 15 years. Demanding international customers honed their capabilities. “We did animation and games for films like Open Season, Shrek and Spiderman," says Jayashree, who heads product development at Nextwave. “We saw that some of the solutions for our clients were winning awards abroad. So we thought we were good enough to build our own products."

Their first in-house product was a tool to create a comic on a mobile phone and share with friends. This won global app competitions held by Nokia and Intel in Europe and the US in 2011, worth 1 crore in cash prizes. “That became the base capital for us to turn away from services and start doing products."

Cricket was an obvious focus for a fledgling gaming company targeting Indian users. It’s not the easiest sport to gamify, given a multitude of variables and scenarios. But WCC has grown from a minimum viable product to its current multi-featured form requiring a 700MB download. The Jio effect on data rates is helping with the adoption of multiplayer games.

Mumbai-headquartered Nazara, which has a diverse portfolio of digital games, acquired a 52% stake in Nextwave a couple of years ago. The marketing muscle from this has brought the Chennai gaming company to its next inflection point with WCC3. The challenge is to make a cricket game as big a revenue earner as PUBG or FIFA Mobile.

Sumit Chakraberty is a Consulting Editor with Mint.

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