Poker, like cricket, will become a sports category in India: Baazi Games’ Navkiran Singh

The latest episode of G2G News’ flagship video series Game On with Jay Sayta featured co-founders of Baazi Games – Puneet Singh and Navkiran Singh – who touched upon several key themes of their organization like milestones, opportunities, and challenges in the online gaming space.

Prior to founding Baazi games, Puneet worked in financial markets and headed a stock booking firm’s northern India region. He recounts, “I was looking after their compliances and operations and that’s when Navi came to me and he used to play poker a lot from his Manipal days and really wanted to do something in gaming.”

When Navkiran proposed the idea of founding the company, Puneet immediately nodded as he believed that ‘there were synergies between the gaming industry and stock markets.’

The journey began when Navkiran was struck by the scale of grand poker events in Las Vegas where he saw twenty thousand odd players partaking in tournaments. The scale spurred him on to think that online poker could be what he describes as the right product-market fit.

Fusing Puneet’s expertise on compliance, finances, and the stock market, Baazi games was born in 2014. Navkiran shares, “In India, generally card games that require some skill have been an absolute product-market fit. Games like rummy were really big even seven years back so I felt you know by getting into online poker, where I could solve my personal problem as well.”

Poker Baazi, a flagship online gaming platform of Baazi Games, emerged from his personal desire for a platform where he could play with other players and solve other poker players’ problems.

Shortage of funds was one main challenge in the initial days which made them rely on product strategy. Navkiran adds, “That’s why we built our own product too and I think that is what is the biggest differentiating factor as well between us and the rest.”

PokerBaazi Milestones

According to Navkiran, customer ratings are important to look at when speaking about milestones. Speaking about their successful journey, he shares, “The biggest milestone for me has been you know the release of the new product. Unlike fantasy and rummy, online poker already had a very established market in the west so when we built PokerBaazi, we weren’t only competing against domestic players. We’re also competing against international ones.”

Since online poker was a familiar segment in the landscape back then, leveraging and growing led to good customer ratings. He informs that touching the revenue of 10 million dollars enabled them to diversify the portfolio and integrate other verticals like online rummy and fantasy sports.

Baazi Games is the first company to hold big tournaments in the RMG space. The recent National Poker Series, he informs, attracted about 20000 unique players in India which in itself is an unprecedented feat any online poker operator has achieved so far.

Baazi Games Product Portfolio

With belief in ecosystem theory, Baazi Games has built multiple ancillary products. Enlisting the products, he shares, “There is a PokerBaazi school that is going to go live very soon. Then there is Pokershots that will give you a lot of analytics around your own gameplay and apart from that, we have a content platform on the fantasy side called Fanblaze so we truly believe in building these games as ecosystems, and to support that we’ve built multiple ancillary products. Some of them are already live and others we are building.”

Apart from that, he informs that they are also building a unified platform called Baazi Mobile Gaming that is set to go live in 45 days. The platform will have its games under one roof.

From a bootstrapped company to one of the biggest players in the RMG space, Baazi Games has come a long way. Navkiran attributes their own interest in the game to their success. He shares, “In games like poker, the spend time of a user is more and this is more skill-driven and involves more nitty-gritty in the entire gameplay like understanding what the anticipation delay for every card that is dealt should be or what the stats that you can show are and what the percentages you can show on each of the betting rounds are.”

Understanding from the customer experience level and integrating it in the product, he shares, is their X-Factor, and being a poker player definitely, helps Navikaran understand the essence of what consumers seek. Baazi Games had tied up with offline poker destinations in Goa and even conducted a tournament in a bid to create more awareness however the pandemic-led lockdowns forced them to discontinue the association.

With the conditions easing up, they are hopeful that they will be able to explore that aspect more freely. Navkiran shares that poker can be a different category like cricket in India in the next 15 to 20 years.

Poker as a Sports Category

Describing it as a sport, he elaborates, “It has to be articulated or presented to the consumer properly. There is so much skill in the game. I mean there are so many colleges talking about poker as a mental game. I feel there is so much physical effort that also needs to go in to have your mental game at its peak so I believe this sport, I mean poker can be like a different category of sport in India.”

Online Gaming Regulation and Legislation

Real Money Gaming space has been marred by myriad legal challenges over the course of time. In the teeth of court cases, threatened bank bills, regulations, and bans, the industry has been wading through troubled waters.

Puneet believes that this is the right time to bring a robust and modern regulatory framework since things have changed a lot over the years. Explaining the reason, he shares, “When we started, the perception was not that great. We know all the campaigns were about why Poker is a game of skill, what is the element, how do we differentiate poker from other games which are games of chance.”

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Commending companies like Dream11 and MPL for helping change the perception of gaming in India, he feels the online gaming space has witnessed significant growth because of their efforts.

Given the huge growth potential of the segment, Puneet shares that the country needs a robust policy ‘that not only regulates but also boosts the industry at the same time.’

“The potential has already been mentioned in one of the reports of the law commission in the 276 report as well as to how big the industry can be. Even in NITI Aayog, we have seen them talking about fantasy in particular. How big all of it can be especially, the sports engagement part of it. So I feel the potential of this industry is huge. It just needs the right push from the government. We can definitely be one of the major contributors to the GDP of the country along with a favorable policy framework,” he shares.

Puneet asserts that the education of games of skill versus games of chance needs to be done at a grassroots level.

He adds, “Users need to understand that which are games of skill and which are games of chance the problem why what we are facing currently is because you know there has been this delay in some kind of a central regulation which I am pretty much hopeful know we should see in the near future because with so many supporting judgments and the NITI Aayog taking interest in it. I’m sure we should see some positive judgments going forward.”

With positive reports by EY and KPMG and three federations namely AIGF, TORF, and FIFS working together on the awareness of games of skill vs games of chance coupled with FICCI and IMA report, Puneet is of the view that that tremendous progress has been made over the years to change the perception.

Navkiran shares that it is time for them to scale and instead of burning money into marketing and conventional media channels, they would be focused on ROI-driven marketing and explore global markets.

Fundraising in India’s Online Gaming Industry

Online gaming is easily one of the hottest spaces for investors. Navkiran opines, “It is so new in India. I think gaming is going to be very big and we’ve seen some really key statements from big people in India especially like the ones where they posit that gaming in India is going to surpass Bollywood entertainment in the next decade so this is a very preliminary stage. There is definitely going to be a lot more funding happening in the gaming space.”

With the three hardcore skill games namely poker, fantasy sports, and rummy being our initial offerings, it makes it easier for them to diversify further and expand their categories into casual games and esports.

“RMG is a fast-moving sector in the country today that in the next 12 to 15 years, we will witness a golden period of gaming in India,” he concludes with a smile.