Exclusive Interview With Akshat Rathee, Co-Founder & MD of NODWIN Gaming on PUBG Ban, Cloud Gaming in India, Next-Gen Consoles, Real Money Gaming and More

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Earlier last month we at TechQuila had an exclusive opportunity to interview Mr Akshat Rathee, Co-founder and Managing Director of NODWIN Gaming. We talked at length about a variety of topics including the state of Esports in India after the PUBG Mobile ban, the hype surrounding next-gen consoles and cloud gaming, and much more. We also brought up some serious issues regarding real-money/fantasy sports and games of skill, the former of which Nazara technologies, the parent company of NODWIN Gaming, also indulges in.

You can find the full excerpt of the interview below, and here’s the interview in video form.

You’ve talked about a lot of points, specially regarding the PUBG ban and how COVID has impacted that. Building off of those, how would you say the PUBG Mobile ban has affected NODWIN Gaming’s operations? Obviously you’d want to invest in some other games..

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“PUBG got banned in India. NODWIN runs PUBGM in South Asia. We run it in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Maldives, Bhutan. It’s like having Asia cup without India. Should the Asia cup happen without India? YES, it should! Because the other countries didn’t ban it. It’s not the fault of the Sri Lankan PUBGM player that India banned this. Why should he lose the opportunity? And remember, PMPL (PUBG Mobile Pro League) is a pro league structure right? So there is the PMCO, then PMPL, then there’s the world league and then there is the world championship. It’s a structure.”

“So if the structure exists, and one country can’t play, it is unfortunate but the structure still survives. NODWIN still supports PUBGM in South Asia. The largest market for PUBGM in the world is India, and that went down. But we still believe in the game. Right? We believe the Govt.of India and Bluehole will eventually find a way to work together. I often equate this to saying – if you’re watching any Netflix series, and one of those shows got “curtailed” because of COVID, doesn’t mean that you won’t watch it when it comes back next year. It just means you can’t watch it this year. So yeah, it’s a season that was cut short, we believe PUBGM will be back in the country in 2021. “If, when, how” I don’t know. But it’s not a “If” for me, it is a ‘100% PUBGM is coming back’.”

And I saw recently NODWIN focused on the new ‘India Plays’ series, with Fall Guys. Of course, right now you have to focus on other games. You have said in other interviews that you want to recreate the accessibility that PUBM brought. Even people who may not be able to play something like csgo, they can play PUBGM. So how does it work? Do you just look at where the audience interest is?

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“So let’s look at it this way. The largest running league in the country 9 months every year is the ESL India Premiership. It is still the best, longest, most in-depth league that runs in the country. It’s broadcast on Hotstar, etc. It has got its sponsors- It has 4 games. It had PUBGM this year, but CSGO has been there for 5 years. DOTA was there, which got replaced by Clash of Clans. We’ve also got FIFA this year, so those games are doing well. The premiership is still doing well. The premiership had PUBGM, it’s gone away, we’ll probably replace it with games like Valorant, or a Call of Duty, and that’s fine. We’re working with publishers to see which is that game which is there (to add).”

“IPs, communities, and gaming, will survive anything, because now it is fundamentally cultural for us. PUBGM is a name. Gaming is a lifestyle. It’s a statement that “I’m a gamer”. Look at Mortal – Has his viewership increased on his livestreams post PUBGM. He’s a PUBGM guy, people should’ve stopped watching him less – he’s not doing PUBGM. But his community went up.”

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And that’s great for other games obviously, putting more visibility on other games. You just mentioned Valorant, so what’s the scene with that game? How interested are you in it? Since CSGO has been quite big for a number of years, and Valorant has just emerged recently this year only and it’s targeting a similar demographic.

“Well, I might sound absolutely wrong for the most number of people which is there but I don’t think Valorant is anywhere close to CSGO. I think Valorant is more close to Overwatch, or to Rainbow Six. Because it’s got a class-based hero system. In CSGO, shooting another person is not what the cornerstone of anything. It’s just an FPS. But what kind of FPS? Objective-based, or non-objective based? It’s objective-based, people have skills. Rainbow six, you have operators who have skills. In Valorant, you have operators who have skills. In Overwatch, you have operators who have skills, and you choose that Operator on the basis of what you’re good at or not good at. Because the complexity of the game, the nuance of the game, and the nuances of the esport comes from the complexity that you get from compositions of who’s attacking and who’s defending. Rather than the pure skill play that is there. I think CSGO and Valorant feed off of each other.”

Yeah, it makes up an ecosystem because there is a pool of players which is fluctuating between CSGO and something like Siege. I think Valorant has a good mix of both playstyles. After PUBG, you guys are focusing on other games, that’s great.

“There has been no new game for NODWIN because of the PUBGM ban. We’ve just doubled down on the games that we were already supporting.”

There were some rumors going around about another ban list potentially. I hope it doesn’t come to pass, but do you guys have any kind of contingency plan?

“Well, ‘An asteroid can hit the earth anytime’ so there’s that. You have to go and fundamentally understand that this conversation that is happening is geopolitical. It has nothing to do with gaming. It has to do with China and India. I think we have much of a China risk than we have this. So, CSGO, I don’t even remotely think of that as a ban right now because it’s by an American corporation. I see far more risk out of any Chinese game that is large enough to have some kind of an influence. But there is no other Chinese game that has anywhere close to that influence.”

'Cloud Gaming Is More Secure' - Paul Jackson, Akamai On Game Streaming In India and More
‘Cloud Gaming Is More Secure’ – Paul Jackson, Akamai On Game Streaming In India and More – Read the entire interview here.

There’s another thing that’s come up in recent times which is cloud gaming. All the big companies are investing in it- xCloud, Stadia etc. Even xCloud was in talks with Jio to bring it to India soon. Obviously right now NODWIN – everyone has been pushed back to a work from home environment. I can imagine it might be a little hard to conduct tournaments-

“It’s actually been easier. We’ve done phenomenally well during this time. Again, you have to understand that the business model of tournaments cannot be loaded and predicated only on the last finale as your monetizing metric. The business of esports, the business of media metrics, which is there – your lifeblood has to be your viewership. That’s like going and saying “Cricket does well because the stadium’s full.”

-Yeah we’re seeing that with IPL right now

“Yeah it’s still there. Does it matter that the stadium is – a full stadium or an empty stadium is a better studio location? That’s the mindset you need to have. You can have a 10 people studio, 100 people studio or at Eden Gardens a 100,000 people studio. It looks better. It feels better. Don’t get me wrong here. But the business model of Esports is not based on filling a stadium out. If your business model was predicated on a stadium being filled, then you are making the fundamental mistake of being an event agency. Because then there is not much between you and an Ed Sheeran concert.”

Yeah, we’ve seen that with a lot of streamers where the entire model is based on digital viewership. NODWIN did the same with ‘India Plays’ where lots of members brought their own viewership within.

“Let me just wrap up on that- ‘India Plays’ is a property that we have with YouTube where we change the game every month. So last time was India Plays Fall guys. Next time it’ll be India plays something else. Can be India plays ‘Among Us’ or India Plays ‘Raji’, the new Nodding Heads Studios game.”

-Oh, Raji. Yes. It’s out there.

“Yeah why shouldn’t we play Raji? We can do some really cool stuff where streamers and everyone can get together to play some fun stuff.”

Yeah I agree with you. Pushing Indian game development through this platform is a great initiative. So with Raji, I would love to see Raji make its way to whenever India Plays returns.

Raji An Ancient Epic
Raji An Ancient Epic

So I was talking about cloud gaming, so what does NODWIN have in plans for conducting something, because cloud gaming will bring some inaccessible PC/Consoles games to the masses. Say a version of Rainbow Six Siege comes to cloud, a large pool of people is now able to play it. So that also translates into more viewership. Now that Dreamhack and ESL have announced a merger, but whenever the next big event happens, you might see an uptick in viewership, registrations, engagement. How are you guys thinking about handling cloud gaming, whenever it does come to India?

“The short answer is it’s above our paygrade. If and when it lands in India, we’ll fully support it. We believe either in Airtel or Jio will very actively involve because you’ll need that. We believe NVIDIA would be involved with their acquisition of ARM datacenters. We believe a bigger play for Google is more on the Stadia+YouTube integration, which is probably a bigger, better bet than xCloud currently. Because Microsoft let go of Mixer.

Amazon has still yet to figure out how Twitch works in India. I understand where Twitch comes from when everyone’s been asking ‘Why is Twitch not in India?’.

Twitch’s tech stack does not support the Indian consumer very well. Twitch is really good on the desktop. It kind of sucks really bad on mobile. That’s the problem, and nowhere in the world is twitch on a mobile stack. It’s fundamentally on a desktop environment for consumption. That’s where over 85% of their consumer base comes from. Monetization works on it, the super interactivity that Twitch plays on its elements, and extensions all work on the desktop. None of them work on the mobile, and I think there’s a value space currently available for someone to go ahead and put a cloud gaming strategy which is mobile-first.”

You and Gautam (Virk, Co-founder) have talked about this as India is very much a mobile focused market. Obviously there are players on other platforms, but for that browser integration in mobile makes sense. You have to look at the viewership part obviously, which will be on YouTube (if through Stadia). The first impressions of xCLoud have been positive in the US, better than Stadia.

“To me xCloud works- I think if you look at how Microsoft Game Pass is doing – Rs. 50 for onboarding. I think it’s a great value proposition. I love what Microsoft has gone and done with Game Pass on PC. Game Pass PC + Xcloud for single player game experiences will do extremely well. I think Microsoft has a leg up there. On multiplayer experiences, NO, because Microsoft doesn’t have multiple- because you don’t have a great broadcasting experience, if they integrate with YouTube then maybe. Eventually every platform does really well when there is a very high amount of discovery. And discovery – as of right now everyone except Netflix (Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft) are all competing in that space. Facebook is using Facebook Gaming which launched in India, but their problem is they don’t have a store yet. They want to have a store, but they don’t have it yet. They’ve tried it before but I don’t know how many people love Facebook for it, and its apps are not integrated well. For example, Instagram’s discovery app is not integrated well with FB Gaming. FB Gaming is not integrated with the whole of Facebook as such. It’s just a disparate app.

YouTube + Stadia + Google Play Store is extremely good for India. Discovery, download, and play – it’s a great sequence.

Amazon has a problem with Twitch where it has a discovery platform but it’s not relevant in India. And Amazon app is available on Play Store but not really compatible with Google, since Google and Amazon are competing with each other.

So then you’re left with saying ‘kaun karega? Kaise karega?’ (who’ll do it and how?)’. Then there’s Jio and Airtel in there trying to do some stuff. As of right now, on cloud gaming, for single-player experiences – xCLoud + Game Pass. And for multiplayer experience – Youtube + Google Stadia.”

Xbox Game Pass Ultimate xCloud
Xbox Game Pass Ultimate xCloud

I had a question regarding the debate around games-of-skill vs real-money gaming. You guys have talked about it in the past and where you stand. Nazara, NODWIN’s parent company, does engage with fantasy sports-

“Yes, we hate them doing it. We absolutely disagree with it. They might be our parents and they have no say in operations of NODWIN at all. We’re a fully independent company and we believe real-money gaming in India is a regulatory black-hole. Gambling even more so. We believe #EsportsDoesntDeserveAnyGambling.

We are not skill-based gaming, we are a sport. We are a sport because the physicality of responses of our participants leads to the result of a winner. And esports is fundamentally a speed competition. “I’m faster than you with my eyes to notice what’s happening. My brain and my hands respond accordingly with my mouth telling my teammates what’s happening. I use multiple senses which is minimum of 2 to be faster than my competitor, and that is why I’m better.” That’s why it’s a sport, not a game. Chess is a great game, I love it. But it’s a game. Even speed chess is a game, because you don’t have – the speed of responses is not there. You can blink your eyes and – you can literally play with your mouth and a person who’s a quadriplegic can go ahead and play chess.”

You’ve said you don’t agree with real-money gaming-

“No I’m absolutely fine with real-money gaming. Not everything in India someone does, is new. All the real-money gaming guys either want to be draft kings out of the US, which is regulated by the gambling commission of the US. Or they want to be skill-based. Look at both of them – Draft king is a daily fantasy kind of ecosystem, controlled by the Gambling act of US. Skills does not say they are esports. They call themselves ‘competitive gaming’. As long as people say- 2 people playing Candy Crush for Rs 10 against each other is ‘competitive gaming’ I have no problem. They’re not esports.

What’s the business model of esports? The business model of esports is the money you make from sponsorships, media rights, and from franchising. That’s where you make money. What is the business model of a brokerage? The business model of a brokerage is – making small amounts of commissions from the transfer of wealth from losers to winners.

So Zerodha makes money how? For every transaction someone sells and every transaction that someone buys. That’s how Zerodha makes money. It doesn’t care whether its stock is going up or down. It literally does not care about it. How do all the RMG companies who call themselves ‘Esports companies’ make money? They make money from you, me going and paying 10-10 rupees and you winning 25 rupees. It is a redistribution of wealth between the players. And the platform keeps Rs. 5.

Now, once we have established that that’s how you make money, how will you make more money? By having more matches. That means you need more losers than winners. So you are taking money from people and giving it to other people and the platform keeps money. However, now let’s assume that all 3 of us are playing the same game and all of us pay Rs.10 where you’re the best. Let’s say we are playing FIFA 21 esports competition. So all of us play right now and you win. Then all of us play again, you win. Then all of us play again, you win. Will I play the 4th time? I’m like “Chuck this. I’m not doing this.” I’ll stop playing because you are better than me, because there is no matchmaking. So what you need in a good competition is balanced matchmaking. That means all of us are at the same level where one of us is going to – you’re not gonna win all the time because sometimes I’m better than you.

But you cannot go ahead and build matchmaking unless you’re at critical mass, unless you invest a lot in the technology, and you have integration within FIFA itself, which now EA should be doing anyway. If you’re a 3rd party, you’re saying I can’t do matchmaking so the only way you can go ahead and do this is to go and create a chance – literally create ‘chance’.

That means if I touch a red handkerchief in my pocket, if I touch my mother’s feet 4 times, and ring the bell I will ‘suddenly win’. And the chance of me winning, irrespective of your skill – my ‘luck’ beats your ‘skill’ – is the chance that the business model survives on. Then I’ll keep on doing it. Because there is a chance, where now the model is – what if I win, because I’m ‘lesser’ than you, I win an Rs.100 instead of 10? I’ll keep playing. My chance of winning is much higher. But the only way that chance of winning can actually come in is by ‘chance’, and by definition of that it goes away from a game of ‘skill’ to a game of ‘chance’ and that’s what the esports problem is there.”

Obviously there is sort of a conflic to interest between your stance on this and Nazara. Nazara hasn’t entered the Indian market, with those games yet. But if it does, what are your thoughts on it?

“We’re gonna oppose it. You can quote me on it. If Nazara goes and brings skill-based gaming in India – NODWIN does not stand for gambling in esports. We’re too young. I mean, why? Our Government is anyway saying that ‘Gaming eats your brain’ or something. And then you want to go ahead and give them more fodder by saying ‘Isme toh gambling bhi hai’ (there’s also gambling involved in this).”

And they’re also bundling all of these – esports and gambling together which shouldn’t be.

“Yeah exactly. I understand – it’s not they are who are doing it, it’s other venture capitalists who are putting money behind those RMG companies, and those companies to get away from regulation call themselves ‘esports’. But that’s wrong. They are not esports. They’re just competitive gaming, and we are ok with it. You can’t call Peetal (Brass) as Sona (Gold) just because it looks the same. And it’s very convenient for your valuations. Worldwide we have a common definition of esports. Only in India, some people are like ‘no but this is esports’. No, ‘Aisa na ho payega’ (this won’t do).”

I want to get back to the PUBG situation. There were some reports that a lot of players were still waiting for prize money from some of the matches that Tencent South Asia held. What’s the situation there? Are players still waiting on prize money or what?

“Let’s actually define what the process is. The money doesn’t come from NODWIN. This is not a NODWIN tournament. NODWIN is the executer of the tournament. The prize pool comes from Tencent. So they tell us ‘Hey Akshat, go ahead and distribute this money to these number of people.’ So that’s the supply side. On the distribution side, there are compliances that are required. Esports is becoming proper. So when I give you money, I have to go ahead and declare to the Income Tax dept. why I’m giving you money. You can say it’s ‘prize money’, but they’re like ‘prize money for what?’.

And as soon as you do that, if I’m giving you money because of the laws of our country, I need things from you. I need your PAN card, and if you don’t give me your PAN card, I can’t give you money. Some people don’t have bank accounts. Some kids don’t have it. It’s nice to say “Send us the money”. The next part of this is – when you actually have money that is supposed to be going out, if you don’t give your Adhaar card, you also have to claim your money. Now some people go ahead and play for say, team ‘A’ but when they’re claiming money they are claiming from team ‘B’. However, you don’t have things like NOCs from your previous team. We know how players are – People don’t have continuity which is there.

So as of right now when you play in this tournament, if you played it from a private limited organisation, that has your representation, then that team is the one who’s going to get your money. So sometimes players don’t give NOCs, sometimes organisations don’t give NOCs, and you keep on following up with them saying “Can you please give this?” but because they don’t want to have the hard conversation b/w their team owners & whatever they’re like – “It’s NODWIN’s job to give me money.” And I’m like “I can only give money to one person.” If I give it to you and your team owner comes in saying “Mujhe kyu nahi diya? (Why not give it to me?)” I can’t pay 2 people. So why don’t you both decide who I have to give this money to.”

NODWIN ESL India Premiership 2020
NODWIN ESL India Premiership 2020

So it does come down to a lack of organization at a certain level.

“Fun fact – We have paperwork and contracts right? Let’s take an example of Team Entity. If you are Ghatak & you’re saying “I played with Entity. Please go ahead and give the money to Entity” when you signed on. Everything’s good, money comes in and goes straight away. Ghatak now moves on [to another team]. Now Ghatak writes to us “Where is my money?”. And we’re like “But you said ‘give it to Entity’. And he says ‘No you have to give it to me.’ But Ghatak hasn’t said it, Entity hasn’t said it, this is just an example.”

“That’s always where you get into trouble. Because people and teams have fights. And till the time they don’t resolve, I can’t even pay either one of them. It’s not my job. To me, this is a civil dispute. They need to resolve who it is. Because when a team says ‘pay me’, the player says ‘pay me’. And this is mostly an exception.”

“A typical payout time is b/w 60 and 90 days. But it’s 60-90 days from the end of the tournament. And sometimes these tournaments last 2 months. So from day 1 they’ll be like “Yaar jis din se khela thaa, 5 mahine ho gaye, paise nahi mile” (It’s been 5 months since we played & still haven’t been paid). Yes! But it’s like a 2-3-month long tournament. You can only have PMCO finish, for me to pay for PMCO. You have to have PMPL finish, for me to pay for PMPL.”

Yeah so the countdown starts from the end of the tournament, so by then you’re adding another 60-90 days of process so I get that. So earlier this year we had an incident with Mannu ‘Krat’ (PMCO caster). After that NODWIN did put out a statement and he was put on probation..

“Yeah he was terminated. During the investigation, we put him on probation. And I think within 48 hours of that he was terminated.”

So you guys have completely broken contact with him?

“He’s not an employee of NODWIN, we do not work with him. He has come and done 1 content piece but that was for a client who hired him. We were the place where the shoot happened. If someone like Tencent comes in and says “ye content piece karna hai and this person is going to come.” (we have to produce content with him), that’s fine. You can call Shah Rukh Khan tomorrow; we don’t represent Shah Rukh Khan.”

Are you looking forward to the new consoles?

“The problem is not the consoles. Consoles are like one-day cricket. PC is like test match. It takes about a lakh or above to get a good experience. Mobiles are T-20, it’s time pass, you can do whatever you want. And that’s great, one helps the other as long as it is gaming, right?

The problem with consoles is they only do well when COD or FIFA launch. So those are the only 2 reasons you play consoles [specifically in India]. We’ve done this. We’ve done KO Fight Nights where we supported Street Fighter and Tekken and Super Smash Bros. It doesn’t get a great amount of traction. We’ve tried. FIFA does okay-ish. More people like to play FIFA than they like to watch FIFA.”

PS5 and Xbox Series X | cross-gen strategy
PS5 and Xbox Series X

I guess it also has to do with accessibility. Getting into mobile gaming is much easier.

“And India also has the parent-buying proposition. Just a dedicated gaming device is always a harder sell than a mobile or a PC. That’s how parents think right? I’ll give you a funny analogy – Say next gen consoles are around 30-40k. Parents would be okay with you buying a 30k incremental GPU, so going from a 70k PC to a 1lakh+ PC is easier, than getting a PC + console. They’re like “chalo PC mein padhai toh kar lega” (at least you can study with PC). You can say the new GPU has X no. of CUDA cores. But parents care about their kids not just wasting time, but about having skills and a career. And they still don’t get the career aspect of playing games. On phone they think kids can watch Netflix and Khan academy. But on consoles that penny has not dropped in India.

And while it has dropped in the US and Japan, because the history of console gaming from arcades to living rooms was based on communities gathering around that. So in US, with pacman or contra, that arcade came to your house & now you and your friends can sit down and play CoD or Fortnite together- because it’s community based. The way the communities aggregate in US and Japan is where consoles come from. It’s the same thing with PCs. PCs are predominantly a North Europe manifestation. That culture then went to China & South Korea specifically. So with 200 PCs in a LAN cafe and you used to see Star Craft happening, and then you started following Starcraft, because other people in physical proximity of you were playing that.

With mobile in India, that’s where we have gathered together. That’s why communities are very important for mobile and not for consoles in India. The largest console community for consoles in India is either Chennai or Punjab, because both of them have American cousins. They make up 60% of the total console market of the country. Every serious household who can get a PS4 or an Xbox in Tamil Nadu right now has a cousin they can play with in the US. Same thing with Pubjab and Canada. Communities are already pre formed around those.”

When asked about Epic Games’ efforts in getting new subscribers, Rathee had the following to say:

“It’s a sustainability problem, right? For e.g. most games that have- it’s a timed exclusive problem. Timed exclusives work as market entry strategy, not as sustainability. Epic needs to go ahead and do something to get people to download the client. To me, that problem – while I love Epic Games – I think the subscription that Microsoft has offered with Game Pass is far better.

Between EA Origin, XGP and Epic Games. To me Epic’s value is great, but think about it – How many games except Fortnite will you go ahead and play on Epic’s store?

If you go ahead and look at the number of people who are playing Control on Steam and Epic look at the concurrent number of players – Steam has more concurrents than Epic.”

Again, if you prefer to not read a wall of text, you can watch the video interview above. We’ll have more stories breaking down the interview into byte-sized chunks soon!

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Rahul Majumdar
I've been writing here for quite a while. Tech, Gaming, Film, you name it. Lead Editor here at TechQuila. Occupational hazards include excessive gaming & movie-binging sessions. Most active on Twitter!

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