Garena Free Fire is one of the fastest-growing mobile titles in the world and in 2019, it crossed 450M downloads and a revenue milestone of $1B USD. While the game has become a massive success in Brazil and certain regions of Southeast Asia, the publisher, Garena, hasn’t lost sight of one of the biggest markets in the world: India. The Indian subcontinent has shown tremendous potential with mobile titles and has built an entire esports ecosystem largely on the back of PUBG MOBILE – all within the span of just one year. Now the Indian PUBG MOBILE ecosystem consists of salaried teams, homegrown organizations, tournament organizers, talent, and content creators. In fact, the ecosystem has also attracted the likes of global organizations such as Fnatic and Team SoloMid, who have set up operations in the country.
While the size of the market in India is the obvious focus, Free Fire has to work with its own set of pros and cons. While PUBG MOBILE had the first-mover advantage, Free Fire has to compete with a title that has already established itself as an essential part of the entertainment culture in India. The fact that the game is of the same genre, also does not help its cause. But what Garena has going for it is the fact that the groundwork has been set. As Indian organizations look to grow their portfolios, Free Fire is a natural next step for both teams and tournament organizers, and with a sizable audience to work with, the potential to quickly explode is always lucrative.
“India’s smartphone ownership levels are rapidly rising, with only around one in every four people owning a smartphone device,” Harold Teo, Free Fire producer at Garena, told The Esports Observer “This means that we’re barely scratching the surface of India’s gaming industry potential. As smartphone ownership continues to increase, driven by rapid infrastructure development, India’s mobile gaming market is projected to reach $405M [USD] by 2022, up from $266M in 2016.”
Capturing an audience requires a good understanding of the demographic and the landscape. In this endeavor, building and supporting the community in the initial stages is important to lay a strong foundation. With PUBG MOBILE, the enabling of content creators and focusing on content had been a key factor in driving the game’s success.
“India’s budding mobile gaming industry means that there’s still much to learn about gamers here, with there being limited insight into their preferences, consumption patterns, and gaming behavior,” explained Teo. “Against this backdrop, we’re currently focused on getting to know our Indian community better. To this end, we’ve been engaging various members of our community in recent months to better understand how we can better excite them and attract new members. This includes our player community, our streamers and content creators, as well as various endemic and non-endemic brands and celebrities.”
What has worked with Free Fire is the focus on localization and celebrating what the regions have to offer. For example, in Brazil, the game teamed up with DJ Alok, a top musician from the region to release an in-game skin themed around the celebrity. But with India being a country of diverse regions, religions, and languages, localization might not be as easy to implement.
“Localization has always been a key part of what we do at Garena and is one of our core strengths. It goes far beyond text localization, and at Garena, means striking a chord with the player right at the heart,“ said Teo. “We believe that localization is a key contributor to our ability to create exciting and engaging experiences for fans; we are constantly engaging our community so that our content caters to their preferences.”
Free Fire has made some efforts to attract the local audience, from celebrating the Indian festival of Holi with an in-game event called the “Color Challenge,” to teaming up with content creators such as comedian and YouTuber Tanmay Bhat. On the esports side of things, the title has put a focus on India with some domestic tournaments featuring very sizable prize pools. These include the Free Fire India Championship which is currently ongoing and the Free Fire India Today League in 2019. Both tournaments had a prize pool of INR 3.5M ($45.5K). To cater to the Indian audience, the company has also made available Hindi language commentary for Indian tournaments and for international ones that have Indian teams as participants.
“Most recently, we launched the #IndiaKaBattleRoyale campaign starring Indian superstar Amol Parashar. The campaign featured the actor on outdoor hoardings in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Kolkata, and Chennai, as well as a three-part video series on social media highlighting Free Fire’s key features – low memory usage, short game duration, and low battery consumption. The campaign was immensely well-received by Indians, garnering more than 35M views across Free Fire India’s official Facebook and YouTube channels so far (as of April 7).”
In early 2020, Free Fire also flew down the top 20 Indian streamers and influencers for a retreat to facilitate sharing of ideas and help create connections. It was also an opportunity for Garena to directly interact with the influencers and get feedback on the game and the community management. The current novel coronavirus (COVID-19) situation has put a halt to Free Fire’s esport plans. The finals of the Free Fire India Championship was moved online initially but eventually postponed when the country went under lockdown. However, it’s not hard to see the efforts made by the company in recent months with both digital advertisements and physical hoardings being used to reach the masses.
While there is a big market to tap, Free Fire’s biggest challenge is still public perception. In a country where the words video games and PUBG MOBILE are used interchangeably, can a new title breakthrough and make a space for itself?
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