Suraj Chokhani on Ability Games’ rise and expansion, regulating India’s real money gaming industry
13th October 2021
India’s online gaming ecosystem, despite several roadblocks, has been on an upward trajectory with a multitude of players foraying into this arena.
Case in point: the meteoric rise of Ability Games which includes under its banner 11wickets.com, rummy24.com, pokerlion.com, Yudiz.com, and crictracker.com started about four years ago and it has already become a name to reckon with in the real money gaming space.
Founder and managing director of Ability Games Suraj Chokhani who is a graduate of Bhavanipur College took a deep dive into the journey of the gaming conglomerate; its offerings, portfolio, and the road ahead in G2G news’s flagship show Game On With Jay Sayta.
The Kolkata based-gaming conglomerate has a diversified set of offerings. Not only are they invested in real money gaming segments like poker, rummy, and fantasy sports but they are also entrenched in software development and sports content business.
Founding of Ability Games
Having been a poker player himself, Suraj precociously sensed the viability of the digital platform. Back in 2017, according to him, the online gaming sector was still evolving and he frequented ICE exhibition in London where he stumbled upon a few stalls set up by various companies. That’s when the idea dawned upon him as to how viable this business will be in India.
“I thought this sector is going to open up like anything. So it started from poker, then we soon came to know about fantasy sports,” he recounts.
“Very immediately, I realized that this is going to be a game of masses. So we came into fantasy sports in a big way, no doubt. And then definitely, rummy was always on the cards”.
Speaking about avenues other than real money gaming segments they have their mitts on, he shares that Ability Games is also fully invested in games and application development through their subsidiary company called Yudiz. Apart from that, they also own Cricktracker under their umbrella which deals with sports content.
Aimed at providing a 360-degree gaming solution, Ability Games has achieved milestone after milestone over the course of its existence.
Speaking about their ever-expanding user base, Suraj shares, “I’ve always believed that mitigating risk in this sector is the best thing to do. When it comes to exact numbers, I would like to tell you that now, we are a family of five million-strong user base across all our products for the gaming part, where we are into B2C segment. This is the RMG part.”
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When it comes to the content part, Cricktracker rocks at one of the top hundred positions in India.
“Very recently, we came up with the Cricktracker Hindi version, and just to share with you, you are the first one I will be sharing this news. Only a few days ago Crickttracker Hindi website had a hit of half a million people in just one day. Within 15 days of launch, if you get half a million hits in a day on a Hindi website, you can imagine what the future is going to be like.”
These two products, he informs, are fully taken care of by their subsidiary Yudiz which is based out of Ahmedabad. When Suraj took over Yudiz, it was a 140-150 artists strong company and despite the covid-induced economic slump and challenges, its staff size has ballooned up to over 250 people.
Ability Games as a conglomerate stands around 350 employees as of today but Suraj’s ambition is to take the count up to a thousand by a matter of a year.
Ability Games expansion plans
Ability Games is one of the few companies from India which have forayed Bangladesh with their fantasy sports segment. According to Suraj, fantasy sports which is majorly associated with cricket is a booming segment. He shares that they have tried exploring new geographies and ‘Bangladesh being one of the major markets where cricket is like a religion’ became their natural target.
In addition to that, the effort of penetrating the Bangladesh market was buttressed by Suraj’s own Bengali roots. Moreover, they tied up with the number one Bangladeshi Cricket Player; Sakhibul Hasan to make inroads into the market.
He shares, “Honestly, right now. we are not offering real money solutions in Bangladesh but fantasy is there and it is like our premium product and it is doing pretty good. The numbers are amazing and hopefully very soon. We will be able to offer a complete package in Bangladesh.”
Apart from Bangladesh, Suraj shares that they are eyeing the African market to start their operations too. For a company that has scaled tremendous heights, Ability Games, to this day is completely bootstrap.
He states, “The day I formed abilities, a certain amount of money was committed from my side and I was pretty sure it is going to be a big pie for a small amount of money.”
However, with the company making progress each day, fundraising is definitely on the horizon.
He shares, “Only when I’m able to reach a certain level, then only I will go for fundraising and somehow initial talks with private equity investors pretty much attracted me, honestly, speaking. The kind of term sheets that they offer. So going forward. We do plan to go public and raise funds in traditional ways which the companies have been doing in India.”
He revealed that they are exploring a variety of options but IPO (Initial public offering) is definitely on the horizon.
Touching upon the IPO plans, he shares, “All I can say is very soon. Sooner than anyone would be expecting it. We have already initiated talks and hopefully, all the regulatory approvals are in place”
Real Money Gaming; bans and regulations
The booming real money gaming segment has been saddled with tons of litigations, bans, regulations, and threats from various governmental and judicial forces across the country, especially in Southern India.
Suraj feels that these apprehensions and reactions from states are natural as with any other new-age sector.
“Any new industry definitely has to go through these challenges. They are a part and parcel of the game,” he opines.
He also lauds lawyers including Jay for being forthcoming and protective of the real money gaming segments’ constitutional rights, citing the Tamil Nadu high court’s striking down of a bill that banned online gaming for stakes.
Speaking about the regulatory challenges, he shares, “We are a 360-degree solutions provider and regulations might take a lot longer time than what we expect, maybe getting it regularised and getting it regulated and having a proper licensing and everything. So in the meantime, to mitigate the risk as a company, as I said, we are into the infotainment information domain also. For cricket and other sports, we are coming up with one more website. We are even looking at non-RMG gaming products also to be offered to the users.
Explaining the diversified offerings of the company, Ability Games, he informs is into full-time game development with more than 250 developers working out of Yudiz.
While the ecosystem has witnessed favorable judgments, it has faced some challenges from the government’s end with the recent one being the recently passed Karnataka Police Amendment Bill which obliviates the difference between games of skill and games of change and imposes an overarching ban on the entire online gaming ecosystem.”
Despite such legal troubles and frenzy, Suraj is positive about overcoming the challenges. He shares, “So honestly, this is not a threat but definitely a challenge and we will overcome it. I am pretty sure or just we but the entire industry.”
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In an intensive new age market such as online gaming where operators and players are jostling to find their space in the sun, one has to calibrate and adopt a set of marketing strategies that sets them apart from their competitors. Suraj recounts that marketing was an easier process back in the year 2017-2018.
He expounds, “Back then you could go for some google clicks or some programmatic ads or Facebook advertisements and everything was hunky-dory, but when other companies started operations, the cost per click went up almost 10 times from what we originally used to get two years back.”
Keeping the rising costs in mind, they had to explore new avenues. Suraj shares that influencer marketing is one of their strongest fields. “You won’t believe that I have an entire department in my office for my marketing wing dedicated to influencer marketing and that too influencer marketing,” he informs.
Speaking about the variety of ways in which they market their product, he shares, “Maybe some contests or some roadshows so it’s not just advertising digitally on Google or Facebook but other than that, there are a lot of avenues.”
Big leagues in the IPL being dominated by the market leaders who can churn out hefty amounts to pay doesn’t deter Suraj who is also keen on smaller leagues that are available.
Citing examples, he shares, “It’s IPL or APL like Afghanistan premier league which only had one season but we sponsored one of the teams there and it gave us a very good response. We had a presence in Abu Dhabi T10 league also. So that was also a very good response. Around the year, there is a cricketing calendar, one has to just keep looking for the right opportunities. Now each and every country has its own Premier League or some other form. And then, there are a lot of options when it comes to digital marketing.”
He opines that one must keep moving ahead with whatever resources we have and results will come. He explains, “Results may come at a slower pace definitely eventually you will succeed if you keep at it.” He informs that they harbor various strategies including acquisition plans as many new companies that are established are looking for guidance and multi-fold growth.
“So every option that we are looking at, obviously the whatever funds we raise from any of the routes will go into not just organic growth but inorganic growth as well; maybe through acquisition or making our own different kinds of games listed on the market,” he concludes.