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With the gradual rise in the popularity of poker in India, the domestic gaming sector has been witnessing an internal evolution over the past few years. Looking at how online poker platforms have grown and the broadening of the poker fan base catalysed by poker leagues, it is not surprising that India has caught the world’s attention as a market holding huge potential for real money gaming.
Continuing with our feature recapping the top five factors that contributed to the growth of the poker industry, number #4 on our list is the entry of international brands in the country’s fast-growing poker eco-system that has helped to strengthen the game’s standing within the domestic gaming industry.
If 2018 saw the trend of bigger Indian turnouts at international poker destinations like the World Series of Poker (WSOP), then it also witnessed massive amounts in institutional investments and VC funding pouring into the real gaming sector. These factors combined have helped create a healthy growth potential, that have ushered in major international brands like PokerStars to India. The international gaming giant had originally planned an India-focussed launch in 2017, but after a long and prolonged wait finally came out with the ring-fenced site, PokerStars.IN in April 2018. They chose a strong domestic partner for their India operations in lottery conglomorate Sugal & Damani Group.
But they weren’t the only ones to realise that the country provided a lucrative market, as we also saw the global leader in online and live poker tournaments, the World Poker Tour (WPT) returning to the country for the second year in a row; once again in collaboration with India’s biggest poker sites Adda52. Global Poker League (GPL) was another major international poker brand that hosted its inaugural poker league in the country, with PokerStars India as its ‘skill game partner’.
The advent of these big brands into India’s poker eco-system played an important role in the expansion of this nascent industry into a bigger and stronger trade last year.
Indian poker has gone from a slow simmer to a rolling boil over the last few years and a lot of that has to do with the international brands that have shown interest in the country’s budding poker market.
For years online poker existed in a legal grey area in India, but that era appears to be over. The very first online poker license was awarded back in 2016 and several more have been handed out since. When the internet poker conglomerate PokerStars entered the domestic online poker scene, it legitimized the fact that India, well and truly, had entered a stage of poker boom!
The Indian market is a potential goldmine for operators due its large population of more than 1.3 Billion people. In fact, PokerStars CEO Rafi Ashkenazi has previously estimated the Indian market to be worth $150 million per year and growing. Having worked in Italy, France and Spain, PokerStars was well-versed in the art of integrating itself in ring-fenced markets, therefore, The Star Group’s decision to launch PokerStars.IN was much anticipated.
Initially slated to launch by the first or second quarter of 2017, the release was delayed as the brand was unable to find a local partner for a joint venture in running the local operations. The site was eventually launched in April 2018 in association with the Sugal & Damani Group, which is the largest state government lottery operator in India. However, the PokerStars India website is owned by Kolkata-registered Sachiko Gaming Private Limited, which is a subsidiary of Mumbai-based Sachar Gaming Private Limited.
The launch of PokerStars.IN has been a long time coming. The brand already had a special place within the Indian poker fraternity after it signed Aditya Agarwal as its first Indian Team Pro back in 2015. Earlier this year, yet another Indian was signed on to the bandwagon. Muskan Sethi joined as a brand ambassador, just as the brand launched in India.
PokerStars is primarily on online site but they are an also formidable force in the live poker scene and has established poker festivals all around the globe including the European Poker Tour (EPT), the Asia Pacific Poker Tour (APPT) and the Brazilian Series of Poker (BSOP). While they have only launched their real-money site in India, it is certainly an indication of greater things to come in the future. With their deep pockets and core expertise, along with a vision for long-term growth, a strong tournament-centric brand like PokerStars is sure to work wonders in an emerging poker giant like India.
The live tournaments scene in India has changed over the years. Following a decline in 2015, live poker is steadily trying to regain its prior position in an increasingly uncertain environment, wrought with legal ambiguity. Even though live poker is quite a few steps behind its online counterpart, the fact that one of the most-renowned international poker brands, World Poker Tour (WPT), came to India, not once but twice, shows that India has managed to create a name for itself in the global scene.
The increase in the popularity of poker in Asia and the Asia-Pacific circuits has led to the top poker brands looking at the region with more interest. In that vein, the WPT in July 2018 announced its ‘Asia Swing’ tour following the success of WPT New Zealand.
On the heels of the announcement of WPT Japan, WPT Korea, it also made an announcement for WPT Vietnam and WPT India. In India, the inaugural WPT India stop was a smashing hit and a second season was the natural follow through.
Possibly the biggest live tournament held on Indian soil, the second edition of the WPT India smashed most of its previous records. The 2017 ₹55K Main Event had previously set the record for the highest attendance with 527 entries. While the ₹35K Main Event at the 2018 Deltin Poker Tournament (DPT) July edition had come close to overthrowing this achievement, the event only managed to pull in 457 entries, falling short by 70 entries. The ₹55K Main Event of the 2018 WPT India successfully demolished its predecessors record with an overwhelming 697 entries.
However, it wasn’t just the Main Event that saw a record increase in attendance. Following is the graphical comparison of the player attendance at the WPT in 2017 and 2018.
But it wasn’t just an increase of attendance, the Kickoff NLHE, Bounty NLH, Main Event, High Roller, Turbo event and Ship IT NLH, all saw the eventual winners take home higher payouts than their predecessors.
While the closure of thriving poker business in Bengaluru and the legal clampdowns in Gujarat and Telangana are a setback, the fact that a global brand like WPT has maintained its faith in India as a lucrative market for poker, even though the legal ambiguity surrounding the mind sport still persists, ensures that live poker within the country is heading towards a bright future.
The paradigm shift that the Indian poker front has seen in the past few years has also been in part due to the emergence of poker leagues that has played an important role in bringing the mind sport into the limelight. While Match Indian Poker League (MIPL) and Poker Sports League (PSL) were both locally breed leagues, the first international league to step onto the Indian terrain was the Global Poker League (GPL).
With PokerStars India as its ‘skill game partner’, GPL India Season 1 consisted of six city-based teams – Kolkata Creators, Pune Alphas, Mumbai Jetsetters, Delhi Diehards, Bengaluru Hackers and Chennai Sharks. The grand prize up for grabs were five Platinum Passes worth $30,000 (approximately ₹20 Lakhs) to the PokerStars Players Championship (PSPC) to be held in the Bahamas, later this month.
Even though the ultimate prize on offer was an incredible opportunity for both established and emerging players, what the league truly did was bring together six top pros, namely Aditya Agarwal (Kolkata Creators), Muskan Sethi (Delhi Diehards), Abhishek Rathod (Pune Alphas), Vikram Kumar (Chennai Sharks), Kavin Shah (Mumbai Jetsetters) and Vidwath Shetty (Bengaluru Hackers) to coach and mentor some of the most promising and budding talent within the country.
Having ventured into the markets of Brazil and China and acquired sufficient experience, GPL’s biggest contribution to India was the expertise they brought to the league concept, along with the mass appeal that the TV broadcast of the inaugural Season is expected to bring in sometime in the next few months.
This global invasion seems to have worked wonders for the Indian poker industry and we can only hope brands like WSOP, 888poker and partypoker come knocking soon.