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Illustration: Priya Kuriyan
Illustration: Priya Kuriyan

Nitish Mittersain | Big game hunting

The founder and managing director of gaming and sports media company Nazara tells Mint why he is bullish about online gaming, an industry that has done sportingly well during the lockdown

You shouldn’t need a pandemic to accelerate your business. But we will take what we get," says Nitish Mittersain, laughing.

The founder and managing director of gaming and sports media company Nazara Technologies Ltd is one of those who may look back at the virus-induced, seemingly endless lockdown without too much regret. Globally, online gaming and eSports have done sportingly well and Nazara, which has added around 10 million new gamers over this period, is no exception.

One of its subsidiaries, media content company Sportskeeda, saw a 70% drop in revenue when mainstream sport was suspended in March. It quickly pivoted into an eSports news portal, adding 13 million users, a 2,000% spike, in just two months. Kiddopia, an “edu-tainment" application for young children (Nazara is invested in the company Paper Boat Apps), has grown four-five times, he says, though others, like fantasy sports platform HalaPlay Technologies, suffered because there was no live sport.

“The positive impact (of the lockdown) has outweighed the negative impact," Mittersain adds. “A lot of businesses, like eSports, have become more mainstream. The perception change is going to help us in the long run because many first-time gamers have come into the network."

We met over a slightly patchy Zoom call, both dressed in T-shirts and pushing hair back from our eyes because barbers had been on a sabbatical for nearly four months in this part of the country. He was seated in an open courtyard, with trees swaying in the monsoon wind behind him, having escaped to Alibaug from claustrophobic Mumbai recently because he “could not take it any more". Pictures of blue skies and dark-sand beaches dominated his social media posts those days as he espoused the joys of being in the open.

His children, six and three years old, appeared occasionally in the background, tossing a ball. I eagerly waited for a Robert Kelly-like moment—when the Korea expert was interrupted by his bouncy four-year-old during a live interview with the BBC in 2017—but that did not happen.

If 41-year-old Mittersain is busier than ever—and feeling somewhat content sitting in the outdoors on a weekend afternoon—it’s because his journey has been two decades in the making, from the time a tech enthusiast teenager left college with a commerce degree. Nazara today has business operations in 64 countries, with a portfolio that includes free-to-play mobile games, real money gaming, eSports and gaming subscription services. With over 100 million players in India, it has licensed mobile gaming rights to popular Indian characters like Chhota Bheem, Motu Patlu and Shikari Shambhu, besides games such as World Cricket Championship (WCC) and ESL India Premiership.

His family business of textiles was never really a career option, perhaps right from the time his father, Vikash, handed young Nitish a ZX Spectrum, an 8-bit personal computer that would play a major role in video-game development. “I don’t know what prompted him to buy that for a six-year-old," remembers the entrepreneur with a smile. “I have not done that for my six-year-old. But it got me hooked. Since then to now, I have been married to the world of gaming."

By the time Mittersain was in his early teens, he was operating a bulletin board service out of his bedroom with a bunch of computers and over a dozen modems—this allowed personal-computer owners with modems to dial in to a dedicated system and leave messages for each other and interact for online games. In Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics, Mumbai, he used his free time in the computer lab, which was run by students. A lot of his friends played network-based games after classes, when they had the lab to themselves.

One of the callers to his bulletin board was the late actor Shammi Kapoor, an early adopter of the internet, with whom Mittersain forged a close friendship. Through him, the college student got access to the Internet Users Club of India, and discussions on gaming.

“This was 1998-99," says Mittersain, whose great-great-grandfather Lala Deen Dayal was a pioneer in the field of photography in the late 19th century. “If I had realized then that I was thinking a decade too early, I probably would not have started this. But it’s good not to have hindsight sometimes.

“The fact that my father bought me a ZX showed he was progressive. He was supportive of me trying new things. Textiles were not flourishing—we had a large mill, but with challenges. He saw that as an opportunity to get into a new business.

“You have seen all Bansals in the internet space," Mittersain says, smiling. “We (referring to Marwaris) tend to move quickly—my family had that in our DNA."

His grandfather, the Padma Vibhushan winning cardiologist B.K. Goyal, was Mittersain’s idol, inspiring him to strike out on his own rather than just take over the family business.

During the first dotcom boom, Nazara—a pun on ‘site’ and ‘sight’ thought of by his mother, Sandhya—had Indianized games like Housie, which people could play casually. Initial funding came from family, with the first major capital— 75 lakh—raised through investors in the early 2000s, just before the dotcom crash.

The bust, at a time when they were a team of 50-60 people with virtually no monetization, left him with a debt of 2-3 crore at age 21, Mittersain says. He found a tangential business in reselling SMSes. By 2004, the company debt was in control.

There were a few key lessons from the time, he says. “You need to face the mirror as soon as possible. Sometimes, our bias stops us from looking at the truth. Coming to terms with the crash took me time—I would not have lost the money had I faced reality faster."

Another outcome—partly negative—was that the crash made him averse to losses and debt. “I say ‘negative’ because I am a bit scarred from the time and that doesn’t allow me to take risks. I see entrepreneurs these days and they will say ‘we want to raise another $10mil for the next six months’… I find it difficult to digest. When things go bad, my conservative approach shines better."

The 2004-05 period proved crucial. For this was when Nazara decided to make a cricket game for the mobile and approached Sachin Tendulkar to endorse it, a move that won it both credibility and visibility. It also piqued the interest of investment fund WestBridge Capital, which came with funding of $1.5 million (around 11 crore). This was followed by partnerships with telecom companies like Airtel and a tangible monetization stream.

Through his then agents WorldTel, Tendulkar apparently sought $1 million for the deal. “I didn’t have a million dollars to give him," says Mittersain, laughing. “But all credit to him and his enthusiasm. When I met him, I had made the game with his imagery inside and he could see what it was about. I was 22-23—I think he found that compelling too."

Today, Nazara is invested in what he calls the whole gaming and sports ecosystem, with transactions worth $50 million in the last three years. This includes stakes in Nextwave Multimedia, NODWIN Gaming, Mastermind Sports, Moonglabs Technologies, Bakbuck, CrimzonCode and InstaSportz.

Mittersain says they are expecting to grow at about 60% over the previous year, based on the first-quarter run-rate. Over the last three years, plans leading up to an IPO (initial public offering), now on the anvil, brought India Infoline and Rakesh Jhunjhunwala on board as investors. The latter’s interest in his company, Mittersain feels, also comes from having children in the “gaming age".

Not surprisingly, the tech lover is the good cop at home when it comes to his children’s screen time. “Anything has to be done in balance, of course. But I see my son playing games, and different types of them. There is a lot of learning, eye and hand coordination, application of the mind in puzzle games…. It’s not all bad. But you are asking someone who is biased and has only done this since the age of 6."

All those years of gaming and quick coordination have now evolved into a more physical sport too—Krav Maga. He became interested in the Israeli martial art on a trip to that country three years ago. It’s not an attractive form of self-defence but it’s effective, he says. And it has not only made him fitter, it has taught him to be alert and mindful.

He also took to the saxophone, inspired by the early 1990s Hindi hit song Aate Jaate from Salman Khan’s Maine Pyar Kiya. Mittersain, who started learning it as a teenager, plays occasionally in Mumbai clubs as part of an amateur group, Jazzy Joe and his Jazz Junkies, formed by his instructor, Joe Pereira.

“Over the years, I found that it was a good way to de-stress, that’s how I stuck with it," he says.

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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