The US Internet Industry can Learn a lot from Indian Cricket

Ten plus years ago, when the Chinese internet was getting off the ground, many Chinese internet companies were clones of US companies. QQ was just AIM for China, CTrip was just Expedia for China, Dianping was just Groupon for China, and so on. The conventional wisdom was that Chinese companies were good at copying American models, but bad at true innovation.

Under this mindset, American internet execs would look at things that happened in East Asia that had no analogue in the US as weird aberrations peculiar to Asian markets. People pay for digital goods in games. How weird. That would never work in the US.

People use the internet almost exclusively on phones. How weird. That would never work in the US. People watch live streams of non-professional content. How weird. That would never work in the US.

Turns out those Asian markets weren’t weird, they were just early adopters, and in the US we see all of these behaviors. And now almost half of all the biggest internet companies in the world are Chinese (shown in red below).

Source: Kleiner Perkins

The same mindset is still being applied to Indian internet companies. Flipkart is just Amazon for India. Zomato is just Yelp for India. OlaCab is just Uber for India. No true innovation. This is just as wrong.

In May 2018, an Indian company set a new world record for most viewers for an OTT video stream. 10m concurrent viewers watched the final of the IPL cricket championships between the Chennai Super Kings and Sunrisers Hyderabad on the video streaming platform Hotstar. To all accounts it was a pretty good game (watch the highlight video below and tell me this isn’t more exciting than baseball!):

Let’s put this into context. The January 2017 inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump peaked out at 4.6M viewers. HQ Trivia’s maximum peak concurrent viewers is in the 2–3M range. NFL games on Amazon Prime have peak concurrents under 2M. This Indian cricket match blows all of them away.

Hotstar is run by Star India, a subsidiary of 21st Century Fox, and soon to be a subsidiary of Disney. Hotstar has streamed the IPL for the last five years, and in September 2017, paid $2.39 billion to secure streaming rights for the next five seasons. As the leading sports broadcaster in the region, the company wanted to ride the streaming wave.

The IPL has always been popular in India. But this year, Star India reimagined both TV and online viewer engagement in several ways that led to a 40% increase in overall viewership across both mediums and a dramatic increase in online streaming:

Mobile-first. Hotstar created a mobile-first experience for this year’s tournament, producing lower-bitrate encodes optimized for smaller screens and lower-bandwidth delivery.

Interactivity with the live stream. The company rolled out Watch’NPlay, a game that tests the viewers’ cricket smarts as they watched thematch. It was part-quiz, part-prediction game, that let viewers answer questions related to the game, and win real prizes.

Treating Sports like popular culture. The IPL broadcast has traditionally catered to a male fan base who were knowledgeable of the game. This year, the broadcast also aired on a lifestyle focused channel with a more female user base, and packaged and produced the game with more context, rather than just being focused on play-by-play commentary. The best analogy would be how NBC broadcasts the Olympics, including vignettes about players off field lives and backstories.

Regional customization. India is a polyglot country, and Hotstar’s coverage of the IPL was streamed in six different languages for the first time: English and Hindi of course, but also Telugu, Kannada, Bengali, and Tamil. Malayalam and Marathi were added for the finals. The final match was broadcast in these languages across different TV channels.

Catering to enthusiasts. In addition to the separate language feeds and the lighter lifestyle focused feed, Hotstar added a premium subscription feed called “Select”, aimed at the most enthusiastic cricket fans. This stream focused on stats, strategy and graphics. Rather than ball-by-ball descriptions of the play, the commentators discussed what the two teams captains should do. It also had 65% fewer ads. Each of these feeds were available for online streaming for a total of eleven different feeds.

We expect to see some of these innovations make their way to US sporting events and other live streams. And we also expect far more “weird” innovations from India making their way to the US consumer internet world.