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2018 was undoubtedly a significant year for poker in India. From massive turnouts at international outings like the World Series of Poker (WSOP) to rapid changes in the online poker segment, and major international brands like the World Poker Tour (WPT) and PokerStars consolidating their presence, we saw explosive changes dawning on the small but rapidly growing poker industry in the country.
As we recap the five major factors that led to the growth of Indian poker industry in 2018, number #3 on our list are the poker leagues and the pivotal role they played in bringing the mind sport to a mass audience and enhancing its mass appeal by taking it on national television.
As of date, there are three poker leagues that have played out at least one season on the Indian soil – the Poker Sports League (PSL), Match Indian Poker League (Match IPL) and Global Poker League (GPL) India.
Struggling with an environment where the legal connotations regarding poker are still unclear, these leagues have entered the Indian market and waded past a host of legal and operational restrictions. However, with their team-based format, ‘sportified’ feel and the fact that they employed television as a means of publicity and broadcast, the leagues have succeeded in taking poker to a much large audience. They have not only recreated the thrills of live poker for the television watchers they have also left an indelible imprint on the social acceptability of poker by helping people understand how poker involves skills and assessment.
All the three Indian poker leagues are spearheaded by strong entrepreneurs with a long-term vision and great execution skills. While PSL was conceptualized by Dabur’s Amit Burman who roped in Adda52 founder Anuj Gupta, and was executed by industry veteran Pranav Bagai, Match IPL has businessman Raj Kundra at the helm. Kundra enjoys an extensive network in the Bollywood industry and gaming market and has been aggressively promoting poker. GPL India came to India on the shoulders of Alex Dreyfus who has long been associated with the mind sport.
These flag bearers of gaming have correctly assessed and identified the means to usher in an exponential growth of poker, and not only given the poker fan base a taste of league-based poker but also managed to portray poker as a skill-based sport.
Match IPL has played out three seasons already that have all been aired on MTV India. The league continues to help promote Indian players by sending its winning team to the International Federation of Match Poker (IFMP) Nation’s Cup. GPL India had already announced its entry into India in August 2017 but took the longest time to come in. With recorded bytes from GPL Season 1 to be broadcast soon on television, and the PSL expected to announce Season 3 in the next few weeks, the country’s poker landscape can expect the contributions from poker leagues to continue all through this year!
Although rake and a high margin of taxation (30%) makes poker a negative sum market where growth is propelled chiefly by the inflow of capital investment, the rising popularity of the game has had a ripple effect in the sector. Over the past few years, the pool of Indian poker professionals fielding in international tournaments has only grown. Adding to this is the coming in of various coaching stables and an increasingly competitive online poker space.
For the founders of Poker Sports League (PSL), these factors offered just the right business environment to introduce the league concept in the country. PSL has taken the first steps in merging poker with team-play and bringing new and seasoned players together as qualifiers and mentors. Its franchisee ownership formula has attracted huge corporate interest and the brand has continually streamlined its offerings.
The enormous response that the PSL Season 1 received, particularly on social media set the mood for Season 2. 11 teams were locked up for PSL Season 2, with each committing to a base franchise of ₹9 Crores through the next eight years. The season was hosted live at Casino Deltin Royale in Goa from May 9-13 and the tournament finals between Team Goan Nuts and Team Gujarat Falcons was broadcast on Dsports from June 11-17, 2018. The league also got in some of the best poker players from around the world to participate in the league as wildcards, adding even more credibility to the mind sport.
Vishwanathan Anand, India`s most celebrated and well-known chess grandmaster and former world champion was the brand ambassador for PSL Season 2. PSL leveraged Anand’s coming on-board as the league was going on. There were numerous media appearances, television ads, video bytes and press releases where Anand went on record saying that poker is a challenging mind sport and interests him. His endorsement of poker as a mind sport tremendously helped improve the brand-identity of PSL and went a long way in changing the perception of the masses that poker is gambling.
Despite recent rumors that the league may be shutting down, PSL is still very much in the reckoning. The league is reported to be reworking its business model and building a new core team that is expected to announce Season 3 in the next few weeks.
The Raj Kundra-owned Viaan Industries brought Match IPL to India in partnership with Switzerland’s International Federation of Match Poker (FMP) and right from its first season, which was hosted at Yash Raj Studios in Mumbai (November 17-18, 2017), Match IPL has maintained a strong outreach to new and aspiring players.
Right from its first season, all three seasons of Match IPL were aired on television. For this purpose, Kundra struck a deal with Viacom to have the league shown on MTV India. He also leveraged his links with the entertainment industry to lend a big dollop of glamour to Match IPL and this has only worked to popularize poker in the country.
Match IPL has played out three seasons till now, the latest was hosted in Mumbai (October 23-24) and was the recorded bytes of the league were telecasted on MTV India on December 19-20 last year. The league also got added impetus when it sent the winning teams to the IFMP Nation’s Cup. The winners of the latest season will soon be competing in the 2019 IFMP Nation’s Cup, an international platform where teams from a number of other countries will participate.
The entry of Global Poker League (GPL), which is a league-based offering by Malta’s Mediarex Sports and Entertainment Ltd, into India signals a rising interest of international poker brands in India.
Mediarex’s Alex Dreyfus who has nearly two decades of experience in the poker industry and has recently branched into the emerging blockchain technology recognized India as market holding huge potential way back in 2017. The same year Dreyfus went on to unveil his ambitious plans of launching an India edition for the GPL.
With international gaming major PokerStars joining the GPL offering as its ‘skill-partner’, the league has offered an internationally competitive environment for six city-based teams. The GPL India kicked off its inaugural season in June-end with online qualifiers on PokerStarsIndia (June 25 to July 22), and the subsequent Bootcamp (September 8) in Delhi. The league’s Regular Season and Finale played out to award a winning team of Kavin Shah, Raman Gujral, Young Gun Vivek Singh, Saurabh Sindhwani and Aneesh Nair five Platinum Passes for the PokerStars Players NLHE Championship (PSPC).
Recorded bytes of the league will soon be aired on television and when it does, India’s third poker league will take the mind sport straight to the television sets of millions of people. This is a big boost for the gaming and poker industry and will catalyze an exponential growth of the mind sport.
Looking at how the three currently operational poker leagues are going strong, and have mapped out their plans to strike deeper roots into Indian gaming segment, it is clear that they will continue to play a big role in furthering the growth and popularity of poker among the Indian sport-loving masses.