When Ravi learned about the online fantasy sports app Dream11 from his friends in 2018, he saw it as an opportunity to make a quick buck. As a cricket fan from a young age, Ravi, who requested anonymity, as his job does not authorize him to talk to the media, thought spending on fantasy cricket games could be lucrative — by investing just 50 rupees (around 65 cents), he had a chance to win 10 million rupees (over $130,000). For a low-ranking member of the Indian security forces, this was too good to pass up.
The 33-year-old started off by betting a couple of hundred rupees each day on cricket games; Within a few months, he was making bets on football and basketball, sports he knew very little about. “If I wasn’t making teams, I would start feeling anxious,” said Ravi. “When I would suffer losses, I would think I had to recover it, and I would put in more money.”
At his worst, Ravi said, he would spend between 100,000 and 150,000 rupees per day. Within two years, he lost his entire savings, maxed out his credit card limit of 800,000 rupees, and had taken a bank loan to support his addiction. He incurred a total loss of 3,500,000 rupees, around six times his annual income.
One day in September 2021, panicked by the thought of telling his family about these losses, Ravi left his barrack and walked to a nearby railway station to end his life. He tweeted out a suicide note, which alerted his seniors, and a team was sent to rescue him. “I was then taken back to my unit and, from there, to a hospital,” Ravi told Rest of World.
He spent 20 days at a psychiatric institute in Kolkata, where doctors treated him for depression and addiction. He had to give up his phone for the duration of his stay.
Ravi is among the millions of Indians who have been lured to online fantasy gaming, which has witnessed an exponential rise in the country in recent years. Fueled by smartphone adoption, cheap data, and easy digital payment methods, the online gaming industry in India is expected to nearly triple from $1.1 billion in 2019 to $2.8 billion by the end of 2022, according to Deloitte. In 2019, India saw its first fantasy gaming unicorn, the Tiger Global-backed Dream11; In 2021 Sequoia Capital-backed Mobile Premier League (MPL) became the second company in the sector to join the billion-dollar valuation club. A host of smaller fantasy gaming platforms — My11Circle, MyTeam11, Fan2Play, and 11 Wickets — have gained popularity in India in the last couple of years.
But the rise of these fantasy gaming apps has led to a spike in gaming and gambling addiction over the last few years, according to doctors at Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and Bengaluru’s Service for Healthy Use of Technology (SHUT). Much as in China and the US, the phenomenon is also spurring the rise of gaming addiction facilities to help individuals like Ravi.
Despite the growing popularity of fantasy gaming, there has been no concrete research in India about addiction among users, Saksham Singh, a researcher with the Center for Social and Behaviour Change at Ashoka University, told Rest of the World. This is despite the fact that “there is literature from around the world that [says] gaming addiction can lead to incidence of mounting debts and financial loss,” Singh added.
The SHUT clinic in India’s Silicon City, Bengaluru, has seen a trickle of online gaming addiction cases in recent years, said Dr. Manoj Kumar Sharma, who heads the center. Sharma sees at least a couple of new patients with symptoms of addiction to fantasy gaming each month. But, he said, the real number of victims is possibly much higher. “Technology-based addiction is still not seen very seriously in the country, [so] It’s hard to assess the real impact of online fantasy gaming on the masses,” Sharma said.
Many Indians don’t see spending on fantasy games as a problem until they become suicidal, due to losses, or suffer from depression, which stops them from seeking medical help, said Dr. Rachana Bharghava, professor of clinical psychology at AIIMS. “We have had a couple of cases of online betting addiction, but after a few counseling sessions, they didn’t come back,” she told Rest of the World. “Going on these platforms to try [their] luck is very convenient, but getting over the addiction takes a lot of commitment.”
Earlier this month, Koyi Chandrasekhar, a member of the Indian army, tweeted to Dream11 after losing 2,000,000 rupees — taken as a personal loan from a bank — on the app over two years. “Almost my entire salary of 55,000 rupees goes into paying EMIs. Earlier it was okay, but now I’m married,” the 31-year-old, who is posted in Kolkata and lives with his wife, told Rest of World.
Despite the vast user numbers of companies like Dream11 and MPL, there is little information available on the details of these users and what kind of impact fantasy betting may be having on them. “The lack of regulatory mechanisms in place to hold these platforms accountable for collecting user data makes it impossible to know who is using these platforms,” said Anirudh Tagat, a research author at the Department of Economics at Monk Prayogshala in Mumbai. “If the process to sign up only requires a smartphone, then it is making the barrier to entry very low, and therefore we have no clue who could be using and potentially becoming addicted to fantasy gaming apps.”
While all forms of gambling are illegal in India, there are no clear regulations when it comes to fantasy gaming. The industry has so far thrived in a gray area, where companies such as Dream11 claim that the pay-to-play contests they host are skill-based, although that description has been challenged by multiple state governments. In October last year, the southern state of Karnataka passed legislation that banned all online gaming apps. But last month, that order was struck down by the state court, citing that fantasy gaming was skill-based and didn’t fall under the ambit of gambling. Previously, the supreme court of India had also upheld the legality of online sports. Yet, states such as Telangana, Assam, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim, and Nagaland have a complete ban on such online games.
The Federation of Indian Fantasy Sports (FIFS), a self-regulatory industry body founded by Dream11, said these companies ensure participants below the age of 18 are not allowed to use their apps. Participants also need to comply with “Know your customer,” or KYC, guidelines, which are used for identifying and verifying a person’s identity. Users also must be “financially independent and must possess digital banking instruments, as fantasy sports platforms only allow digital payment: this further increases transparency and traceability of funds,” Anwar Shirpurwala, CEO of FIFS, said.
A Rest of World Review found that the registration process on most of these apps does not involve KYC, and age is verified voluntarily. KYC is required only to withdraw funds from the app account.
Shirpurwala also said that since the entry fee for participation in the pay-to-play format is usually as low as 35 rupees, “almost 98% [of users] have either won or lost less than 10,000 rupees net on an online fantasy platform in their lifetime.” While it’s true that the majority of fantasy sports contests have a low entry fee, users can play multiple high-stake head-to-heads, where the entry fee is anywhere between 2,000 and 20,000 rupees. Chandrasekhar lost most of his money playing “big winnings” contests, where only limited spots are available and the entry fee can range from anywhere between 3,000 and 10,000 rupees. “On the face of it, you can play by investing little money. But there are multiple contests during a single match or game. It’s these big contests that ruin people,” Ravi told Rest of World.
Sourabh Mondal, a 33-year-old computer science graduate who runs a YouTube channel that offers fantasy betting tips and has more than 26,000 subscribers, said a number of people have opened up to him about their addiction and financial losses in the more than three years since he started making videos. He recalls one particular conversation he had with a subscriber from Rajasthan last year whose 16-year-old son had tried dying by suicide after suffering a loss of 15,000 rupees on one such app. “The interesting thing was this 42-year-old [father was] also playing these fantasy games. He had even made some money,” Mondal said.
Mondal’s own friends have lost money playing these games, he said. “I know a lot of people who have lost lakhs of rupees, and, to recover that money, they keep playing.”
“How can they call it skill-based? It’s purely based on luck,” Ravi argues. “In cricket, players follow their coach, take advice, and get better at the game. Here, no amount of advice or playing can make you a better player,” he said. Ravi had subscribed to a number of YouTube and Telegram channels that offer tips on playing such games. “I have paid at least 150,000 rupees to one such Telegram channel,” Chandrasekhar said. “Sometimes, I would win using his combination, but, over a period of time, you realize it’s all a scam.”
Singh from Ashoka University believes there is a need to keep consumer protection in mind while regulating this new industry. “Traditionally, [with] any service product one buys, there has to be the accountability of the seller,” he said. “Here, we are not sure what is the nature of the accountability. Accountability could only be imposed by clear regulatory structures, such as an Indian gaming commission, which take into account the perspective of addiction.”
Ravi is now back in the security forces and slowly repaying his loans and credit card bills. But he is also still active using fantasy gaming apps — in moderation, he said. “Winning 1 crore rupees could completely change my life for the better,” he explained. “I invest 100 rupees [around $1.30] on games and teams I have knowledge about. I know how addictive it can get, so I’m not overusing it.”