Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, when asked who his biggest competitor was in 2017, had famously quoted “sleep” as the answer. Come January 2019, and Hastings’ quarterly letter to investors would have a new contender as Netflix’s biggest competitor—Fortnite. The now oft-quoted line read, “We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO.” This makes sense because as of 2019, the game had 200 million registered users globally, with almost 80 million people logging in to play every month, and it had raked in a cool $3 billion in profit for its makers Epic Games!

Let’s take a few steps back to look at the macro picture: as of 2020, the global gaming industry stands at a whopping $148.8 billion, according to global gaming insights firm Newzoo’s latest report. Mobile is the largest gaming segment and accounts for $68.2 billion, which is roughly about 46% of the global market. Closer home, the online gaming segment grew 40% in 2019 to reach $887 million and is expected to reach $2.5 billion by 2022 at a CAGR of 43%, according to the latest EY Media & Entertainment report 2020. In stark contrast, television was at a paltry CAGR of 4% and print at 1%.

If one were to look at the potential reasons for this phenomenal growth, the rise of smartphones and affordable data charges would be No. 1 on the list. India had a little over 500 million smartphone users as of 2019 and the number is expected to touch 750 million as of 2025. According to the same EY report, 5.6 billion mobile game applications were downloaded in India in 2019, the highest worldwide. In fact, gaming was one of the lucky benefactors of the global pandemic. According to reports from BARC India and Nielsen, the time Indians spent on online gaming grew by 44% in mid-May from around 11% in mid-March.

Online gaming the world over is poised for a disruption with the advent of 5G. It has the potential to turn this once ‘niche entertainment’ into an even bigger mass market phenomenon.

Level up

5G will enable the growth of cloud gaming; its low latency coupled with the convenience of smartphones will make the mobile phone the device of choice for many gamers. In fact, today’s average mobile-first gamer, who has been gravitating towards immersive and competitive gaming experiences, will be able to access more of these premium game titles on mobile. As a result, mobile gaming hardware will have to reflect 5G’s advancements, providing a compelling business case for manufacturers of devices and gaming peripherals to up their game—innovate larger screen sizes, longer lasting batteries, and fast-charging efficient solutions to ensure longer play sessions and high-definition streaming.

We are already seeing this happen with mobile brands now building high-end flagship devices that feature pressure-sensitive displays, front-firing stereo speakers or left and right triggers. In the future, 5G could make such gaming-driven features par for the course across devices of all shapes and sizes. Also, with graphics being rendered on the cloud, consumers can access game content on any screen of their choice, be it a smartphone, a PC monitor, or a TV, thus, making gaming truly platform agnostic.

One step closer

Among the many charms of mobile innovations is the rise of virtual reality (VR), moving us inexorably into a three-dimensional reality and changing the way we learn, work, and play. Its integration with 5G could change the face of game streaming, service, and development. While VR has always required seamless latency to ensure that the experience is as immersive as possible, 5G technology could help solve VR’s current obstacles, bringing un-tethered experiences to the platform. With its high bandwidth and low latency, 5G can enable VR gamers to play with and against others across all platforms (via online multiplayer modes), thereby making cross-play a mainstream phenomenon.

Like cloud gaming, cloud VR could also largely reduce consumers’ investment in hardware, further lowering the entry barrier to VR gaming. Another promising technology is the advent of augmented reality (AR). With its data-intensive properties requiring real-time processing, converging artificial intelligence (AI) with 5G can upgrade our gaming experience to the next level, with more immersive experiences and multiplayer modes. Also, the intersection of 5G and AR will make gaming much more than a visual proposition. For example, in the coming days, we might see our sense of touch and smell leapfrog through binaural audio, tactile experiences through vibrations, flight simulators, and perhaps even smell and taste.

The next frontier

In 2014, nearly 1.2 million people came together to make Twitch Plays Pokémon hit the Guinness World Records for having “the most participants on a single player online videogame”. Thanks to low bandwidth and latencies, interactive live streaming on the mobile is still in its infancy; 5G is slated to change that. 5G will also bring down stalling and buffering significantly, and enable high-resolution mobile video content, especially 4K. With 5G, the data intensive 3D holograms will potentially become commonplace, meeting increasing consumer demand for immersive and interactive experiences in gaming, e-sports, interactive live streaming, and more. 5G will also lead to more gamification and the rise of hybrid sports events and experiences. Finally, 5G-enabled XR (extended reality) will elevate the viewing experience of sports and e-sports, making it more immersive, offering views from multiple angles, and thus bringing home the much-sought-after stadium feel. Thanks to 5G, gaming can truly become a multi-sensory experience in future, inviting an unprecedented number of loyalists to its fold.

The ‘Make in India’ angle

That said, challenges around a scaleable, robust 5G infrastructure remain. While game makers, tech players and startups continue to lead the gaming innovation, there is a compelling case for the larger ecosystem to work together to ensure a robust and reliant infrastructure which enhances the ‘convenience factor’ for the end users. This could come through collaborations between different stakeholders (like telecom companies) to not only actively invest in building the right ecosystem and rolling out network upgrades, but also address low latency and competitive data costs. The recent announcement by Reliance Jio to design and develop a complete ‘Make in India’ 5G solution is indeed a momentous occasion for India’s mobile gaming industry and promises to propel India as a global gaming hub.

In 2012, Angry Birds made Finnish game developer Rovio $200 million; in 2014, it broke two billion downloads; and by 2016, the game—which had gripped the world in its frenzy—had been turned into a major Hollywood film franchise and a bustling empire replete with global merchandise, theme parks, and much more. Can you imagine where the manic frenzy of Angry Birds would’ve reached if live 3D birds leapt out of the screen to dance to the tune of your clicks? With 5G, the day is not far when we may see this play out in modest living rooms of this billion-plus populace whose favourite companion today is that ubiquitous mobile phone.

Views are personal. The author is vice chairman and managing director, JetSynthesys, a digital entertainment and tech company.

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