The allure of fantasy cricket and why it should bother us

In a country with a wide income disparity and minimal digital literacy, the viral acceptance of fantasy cricket can have unforeseen impacts for many.
Fantasy cricket
Fantasy cricket
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There was something unique about the title sponsors of this year’s IPL. Dream11, the title sponsor of the cash rich league, is not a company that makes any tangible product or offers any life-changing service. The company’s offering is fantasy cricket and the company paid Rs 222 crore to the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to attain the IPL title sponsorship. The fact that it could beat some of the big names even in the education technology industry shows the financial reach of fantasy cricket in India.

While betting in cricket has existed for a very long time in India, the IPL title sponsorship by Dream11 has instantly made it a household name. Despite apps such as Dream 11 not being available on App Store or Play Store, they are widely used. The reach of fantasy sports is not just limited to Dream11 and their sponsorship – a big share of advertisement slots in IPL are bought by competing fantasy cricket apps. Most of these companies are endorsed by some of the big cricketing names in the country such as former World Cup winning captain MS Dhoni and the President of BCCI himself, Sourav Ganguly. Their promise – make quick and easy money. So why should the viral acceptance of fantasy cricket bother us and what impact can it have on an unequal society like ours?

In fantasy cricket, each user (player) can form a team of 11 real players. This has to be done within stipulated credits where each real player is allotted a credit. The users also need to follow certain criteria while making the teams. Platforms usually offer multiple kinds of bids ranging from two-user bids to bids involving a large pool of users. Winning depends on the performance of real players in one’s team during a particular game.

The fantasy sports industry recorded a revenue of Rs 43 billion in FY 2018 and is recording huge growth. The industry is regulated by a self-regulatory body formed in 2017 called the Federation of Indian Fantasy Sports (FIFS). The organisation by its own admission attempts to eliminate malpractice in the industry and work for the benefit of users. However, many fantasy sport platforms are not members of FIFS and not committed to the charter of the organisation. Consequently, these platforms are beyond even the minimal ambit of self-regulation.

Suicides related to cricket betting

Resumption of cricketing action after a long hiatus forced by the pandemic is celebrated as a beacon of hope and much-needed entertainment by many. However, the spate of suicides related to cricket betting reveal the dark side of IPL. In the latest incident in Telangana, a 19-year-old migrant worker from Jharkhand died by suicide after losing money in IPL-related betting. A few days before this, a man from Puducherry died by suicide leaving an audio clip warning people about the addiction to online gaming and a request to ban such apps. Available reports suggest that people who died by suicide due to online gaming and betting include students, migrant labourers and traders, and are often in the age bracket of 19-25. In most such cases, they are driven to suicide as they are unable to repay the money they borrowed to play fantasy cricket.

The courts in India have ruled majorly in favour of fantasy cricket, terming it a game of skill rather than of chance. However, this has not prevented state governments from acting against fantasy cricket platforms. Fantasy cricket platforms are banned or not allowed in 6 states, with Andhra Pradesh being the latest to do so. AP Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy has written to the Union government requesting a ban on 132 apps as a measure to combat online gambling.

Understanding motives of people who play fantasy cricket

While a systematic review of literature on the subject concludes that a majority (68%) of research treats fantasy sport as a part of consumer behaviour, academic research is inconclusive. Some studies conclude that fantasy sport is not gambling as there is no role for chance in determining success. On the other hand, some sports psychologists opine that the fantasy sports is in the nature of gambling and can lead to the development of pathological gambling behaviour.

The dominant claim supported by the industry is that fantasy sport is not in the nature of addiction and the apps are “competitive digital sports engagement platforms”. The industry also claims that the average ticket size is Rs 35 and most people do not lose more than Rs 10,000 in their lifetime. However, such claims from a self-regulated industry need more investigation and there is a likelihood of this landscape changing as fantasy cricket becomes more popular. The spate of suicides demonstrates that people invest large sums of money and are unable to quit playing. What explains the manifold growth of fantasy cricket in India?

Voluntary risk taking has become one of the important features of modern societies. Societies that are governed by the principle of neoliberalism celebrate and glorify risk taking. This is evident from the proliferation of riskier financial instruments and increased adoption of extreme sporting activities. The appetite to voluntarily take risk is also boosted as individuals involve in unremitting search for self in modern societies.

As explained by the concept of edgework, there is an increased reception for the voluntary pursuit of activities that involve a high potential for physical injury or psychological harm. There is a seductive power in the risk experience and individuals involve in high risk activity because of its ability to generate a heightened sense of self. Participants undertaking edgework activities often describe the experience as ineffable, and report a sensual pleasure and aesthetic arousal. They often believe that they are capable of controlling situations that are determined by chance or uncontrollable.

People who engage in fantasy cricket might not do this after carefully weighing cost and benefit and their expectations of winning can be fictional rather than rational. The fact that some experienced an inability to quit playing shows us that fantasy sport can attain the form of “virtual edgework”. While dealing in virtual space, the players undergo the experience of someone who engages in some form of extreme sporting activity or similar risky activities. For many players of fantasy cricket, it can become a matter of life and death. This can be understood if we contextualise it in Indian reality.

Fantasy cricket in an unequal society

In a country with a wide income disparity and minimal digital literacy, fantasy cricket can have unforeseen impacts for many. Platforms such as Dream11 attract individuals who can allot a miniscule part of their income and a different set of individuals for whom taking part in fantasy cricket comes at a depletion of their savings. Put differently, these platforms become a space for people with large and small personal balance sheets.

While many start playing by investing small amounts, the allure of big money tempts many to invest large amounts. The availability of low-cost internet and smart phones, together with schemes such as trial play, has made barrier to entry low. The promise of success by cricket stars and few early gains often hook even individuals with less resources to these platforms. The seduction of risk taking through fantasy cricket helps them attain the sense of being a micro entrepreneur. While advertisements touting the benefits of fantasy cricket keep flashing with each game, its legitimacy among the less resourceful takes deep roots.

The legal challenge to online gaming is nowhere near over. Recently, the Madras High Court expressed anguish over the suicides related to fantasy cricket. As a society, there is a heightened need to be more aware about how to regulate this new-age entertainment.

In an age of decentralised and encrypted communication, outright banning will only result in platforms moving to the dark web. There should be a well-thought and robust regulatory framework. To leave it to self-regulation by the industry is allowing the platforms to design the rules of the game where only they themselves will be the winners.

As the curtain on yet another IPL season comes down, there are winners and losers not just on the field. Off the field, there are fantasy cricket platforms who made a lot of profit and some of their users who lost or gained some money and others who lost all their savings. Thinking about fantasy sports from the spectrum of chance vs skill is to adopt a narrow perspective. For a wholistic understanding of the matter, we should confront the question of societal impact of fantasy sports.

Tony Kurian is a PhD candidate in sociology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.

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