Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Animesh Agarwal (8bit Thug): Gaming has to be immersive and not interruptive

Animesh Agarwal better known as 8bit Thug, founder and CEO of 8bit Creatives and S8ul esports talks us through on his journey as an influencer turned entrepreneur, what it takes to run a gaming talent agency and an esports team and organization in today's times and what his views are on the Indian gaming scene and wheres it is going

Published: Feb 13, 2023 05:00:27 PM IST
Updated: Feb 13, 2023 05:45:14 PM IST

Animesh Agarwal (8bit Thug): Gaming has to be immersive and not interruptive"Over the last four years, what I have realized is that, the advantage I had in designing campaigns was that, we try to take into consideration the need and taste of the gamer and gamify the campaign", says Animesh Agarwal, founder of 8bit Creatives.

Gaming is all set to become one of the biggest industries in the future. It has today, established itself as a dependable and entertainment packed sector where creators and companies can successfully grow. The internet is filled with influencers and creators making gaming specific content. Live-streaming, gameplays and e-sports have experienced big booms over the past three to four years. Brands too are moving more and more towards sponsoring gaming influencers as it is one of the most popular spaces among target audiences today. Be it mobile gaming, PC gaming or console gaming, accessibility for this sector has grown rapidly. It should come as no surprise that there are a lot of gamers all around today, even in India. Thus, the need for a platform and agency dedicated to help these creators grow is essential to prove that gaming can be a dependable career path.

E-sports too has become popular in India in the recent past. Gamers from across the country form teams to compete nationally as well as on the international circuit for prize pools. Animesh Agarwal aka 8bit Thug is one of the early birds to have started out as a gaming influencer in India. Today he is the founder of 8bit Creatives, India's leading talent agency dedicated to gamers. He is also the co-owner of S8ul E-sports, an organisation that, with the help of a team of highly skilled gamers competes in e-sports tournaments across the world. Storyboard18 had the chance to talk to him about his journey as a gaming entrepreneur and what his thoughts are about the future of gaming in India. Read on to find out more.

Q. How do you juggle being a gamer and managing the responsibilities of your two ventures? What are the challenges that come your way?
Initially, I started off as a gamer and then ventured into entrepreneurship. The reason why I was able to juggle was because I started from scratch and my company grew at a very reasonable pace. If you look at my two ventures, 8bit Creatives (Talent agency) and S8ul Esports (esports and content company), a few key points which made the journey easier was that, majority of the talents we used to manage at 8bit Creatives were also a part of S8ul’s content group.

This made my communication on the talent side easier. If I look at myself as a YouTuber, gamer and running the two ventures, things got difficult over the last two years and that has been the reason why personally, I have not been able to focus much on streaming or gaming. Whenever I get the time, I spend it on gaming during the weekends.

With due course of time, the team I built at 8bit Creatives have seen me game and have played with me. Everybody, from within the industry understands gaming which helps us cater to the needs of the client and the influencers. The employees at the ventures started their career here and have been trained by me, where there has been less employee turnover rate. So, that has made juggling easier, although it does get difficult and there are insanely long working hours which extends till wee morning hours. Overall, being a gamer and building something for the Indian gaming ecosystem, I can say that I have been fortunate enough to pursue my passion.

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Q. Certain categories of content creators get a specific category to endorse. When it comes to gaming, a gaming creator can endorse even beauty, fitness or healthcare products. Even with this advantage, how difficult is it for a gaming creator to thrive?

Gaming has to be immersive and not interruptive. When a gamer starts his or her career on YouTube by creating content or by playing games, the only thing they are aware of is tech and gaming. There are very few creators I have come across in my career who get the hang of lifestyle, travel, beauty or fashion. Over the last four years, what I have realized is that, the advantage I had in designing campaigns was that, we try to take into consideration the need and taste of the gamer and gamify the campaign.

The key factor here is that, we can neither let the essence of the influencer leave nor ask the brand to have their messaging loud and clear. In 80 percent to 85 percent of cases, we have been able to gamify the experiences. We are working with beauty care brands like Mamaearth, Wow Skin Science etc. So, in those cases, gamers, who have been in the industry for two to three years have diversified into vlogging, which becomes easy.

If we speak about a gamer, who is still a gamer with a great following, and if a beauty brand wants to work with them, we would try to script something within the game, wherein the gamer gets a chance to immersively plug in the entire integration of what the brand requirement is. For example, when we worked with Mamaearth, one of our creator’s channels, we did an outdoor game, where, if he was stepping out, we made him say, “Main baahar jaa raha hoon game khelne. Agar baahar jaa rahe ho, so use the sunscreen.”

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The idea was to not make it abrupt but maintain the flow of the video and essence of the content, which gels in well towards the execution. The common point everyone needs to figure out is that it should not be interruptive. With the experience of working with creators and brands, you get the hang of how to mandate the content.

We are doing podcast shows with Gillette where the brand has had gaming ambassadors. Since I had mentioned that we are working with Mamaearth and Wow Skin Science, brands have understood that the reach and virality of gaming is huge, where agencies like 8bit Creatives help to gamify their campaign.

Q. How much more have brands begun to embrace gaming, now that it is a much bigger and a booming space?
At 8bitCreatives, where we are a gaming only centric agency, we have worked with close to 600 brands - 700 brands. We have had automobile brands, sports brands like Puma which signed up with a team called Revenant Esports, athleisure brand Nike collaborated with creator Ankit Panth. Every category of brand, including sarees, is trying to work with gamers.

Talking of the western brands, we have had luxury brand Gucci associate with a team named 100 Thieves Esports. Today, people and brands are realizing the potential of gaming. Moving on from sporting stars, people are looking up to gaming stars. They are being looked upon as fans and the next generation to come.

Also read: Move over OTT, gaming is the new advertising hotspot for brands

Q. What kind of marketing strategies do you use to increase your stance as a gaming centric talent agency and as an Esports organization?
I would like to divide this into two verticals. In 2018, there was no agency which focused on gaming. This worked to my advantage. In 2019, there weren't so many gamers or YouTubers. To establish 8bit Creatives, we did not really have to work on the marketing part because there were less number of gamers and the chunk lied with us. For S8ul, it was less about marketing and more about accomplishments where we got voted as the ‘Esports content of the year’ at a global level. We have dominated the mobile Esports scene over the last three years.

In both cases, it has been about the results and not really about the marketing efforts that we had to put into to generate more business.

Q. A talent agency’s growth is highly dependent on the growth of the talent bank it manages. What are the measures you have taken in order to ensure that each creator gets the best possible outcome from being managed by 8bit Creatives?
We went slow with the number of creatives we wanted to sign. If you visit our social media pages, you will realize that we take lots of breaks when we sign creators. The reason is that we want to work with premium creators, who have attained good numbers and want to ensure that they get adequate time and breathing space in our agency for us to help them grow.

Lesser number of talents working with us is a key USP that attracts a lot of other talents. We do an internal dissection of which creator we want to associate with which category. There are a lot of efforts and internal studies that keep going on and checking which creator is trending. We are not an open agency where we say, ‘Anybody who wants to join us can join us.’ It is an agency based on ‘invite’.

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Q. You said that you choose to work with more premium creators rather than onboarding hundreds of creators like a lot of other talent agencies. How do you pick and choose those premium creators? How do you know which creator has more potential than the rest and that this particular creator can grow well in the industry?
So, with regards to this, it is a very subjective rather than an objective answer. I, being a creator along with the talent I manage and my peers being creators as well, we follow content too. We keep surfing YouTube to see who is doing what and who has been working hard consistently for the past 5 to 6 months. Who has been constantly entertaining for that long and to whom the audience is being attracted to. Gaming is a very dicey industry. It’s all about who is trending. So, for ua a premium creator is the one who has had insane growth over the last 6 months. There are creators who have attained a lot of growth but their pace of growth has slowed down. Right now for us, the market trend is about creators who have grown really fast over the last one year. So the main criteria is the speed of growth. There are creators who have grown slowly over a span of 3 to 4 years but we generally hire very few such creators. This is because we began in 2019 so we had those creators who began in 2019 and have been working with us since. Right now what we’re looking at is fresh talent. We recently hired a creator called ‘Joker Ki Haveli.’ He doubled up on his subscribers from 220k to around 500k in the last 3 to 4 months. That’s what we see, who the audience is attracted towards.

I’m no one to judge who a premium creator is and who isn’t but we as an agency look at creators who attract a fresher audience. Every creator has a cycle. Their subscriber base dies off. They have to attract a fresh audience. So, it’s always better for us if we’re bringing on board fresh talent and are attaining and growing at a fast pace and whom we think can further grow. For me consistency is a bigger factor than quality because if you look at Youtube, 8bit specialises more in streaming talent rather than just VOD talent. It is important for creators to be consistent with their streams, to devote a certain number of days a month to their audiences. That is how we generally tend to shortlist. Apart from this, word of mouth also helps. Our eyes are always open. We have our boys always scouting for new talent all the time.

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Q. What are the challenges you face while attracting these gamers and building the required visibility they need?
I don’t think attracting gamers is a challenge at 8bit anymore. We’ve established ourselves as India’s most premium talent agency right now. Apart from us and I believe OprahFX, there are very few agencies working with creators as premium as us. To help them grow, we have a very strong PR team that works with them. We have in-house specialists, our older creators such as Mortal and Scout who are always available for guidance. There aren't a lot of professional relations in our company.

Our creators and us, the management gel very well. We have an establishment in Mumbai, the gaming house. It is 15000 sqft, approximately 20-25 creators stay under the same roof with each other for months together since the past 3 years, creating content. There is guidance from our creators, there is guidance from our team, there is guidance from me. A whole roadmap is laid out for them based on our experiences. We inform them about the goals they should set etc. It is a continuous process. We’ve barely had any creator leave us since we started. That in my opinion, is remarkable. It shows that creators are keen on working with us and what we’re doing with them is going in the right direction.

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Q. E-sports is obviously a whole different ball game when compared to 8bit Creatives. What is the experience like building an e-sports organisation as compared to a maybe more mainstream business?
Compared to 8bit Creatives, the biggest difference is the daily learning experience. I feel like I’m learning something new every day with the S8ul team, the e-sports team and the content team. Secondly, it’s a very very long term game. E-sports is also a very capital intensive game and you can easily sustain huge losses throughout a long period. Every e-sports organisation has two aspects. There is a content group and an e-sports group. We have a team that competes in different games and we have our creators creating content.

The e-sports account of any organisation is always running in losses because the prize pools are never sufficient. Also in India, there are barely any e-sports sponsorships except a few notable ones like streaming platforms and companies like Fanclash etc. However, these sponsorships aren’t sufficient to meet the demands and expenses that go behind building a top-tier e-sports team. As of now building e-sports is a long term game. We are waiting for the market to evolve a bit more. We are waiting for situations to balance wherein there aren’t any bans on hiccups from the government. Working with the e-sports team feels more like a startup in this sense.

Q. Why do you think sponsorships are fewer? You mentioned earlier that getting brands on board for gamers, even high profile brands like Nike voluntarily come on.
See, brands can always be there. But, are they able to justify and meet the monetary requirement and compensate accordingly? That’s what is most important. A top-tier BGMI team in India would require around 10-12 lacs just for salary per month, excluding extra costs like travel, stay, healthcare, providing boot camps etc. if you add up all of this, neither the sponsorship money nor the prize pool is enough to match it.

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Depends how you look at the business. If my talent bags a streaming deal and makes money from it, it is not a source of revenue from e-sports. For e-sports, the source of revenue comes from media rights, or if the team is playing and the media company offers money to my team to participate. Secondly, jersey sponsorships which should ideally be the biggest form of revenue. Third is the revenue share from the publishers. In India, there are merchandise sponsorships but there are no entry fees, there is no franchise system. So all the major sources of revenue for e-sports are missing. If I mix 8bit and S8ul then I could say that I am a profitable company. But, if I want to make different cost and profit centres then definitely e-sports makes no sense. E-sports has to be loss making because the core of sports be it cricket or football had to be jersey sponsorship, media rights. None of these exist in an e-sports scenario.

There could be some teams that are profitable but that depends on how you assign your revenue and which revenue head do you think are related directly to e-sports. If one of my streamers gets a deal then it's not an e-sports deal. Different organisations have different accounting methods. I do know that some organisations feel the same way I do and hence believe that e-sports is a loss making franchise. I think it will continue to be so. We may hit break even soon considering how we as an organisational performing. But, breakeven is the maximum point where we can reach. It is definitely a very long term game.

Q. E-sports has had a lot more time to evolve abroad than in India. What does it take to build an Indian team with lesser experience (in years) that can successfully compete with teams abroad?
To be honest, the success of Indian teams on the international circuit has no connection with how big e-sports is abroad. The best talent is between 17 to 21 and 21 to 23. What India is missing is the number of new talents coming in especially on PC is relatively weaker. Moreover, most people in India lie lower on the economic scale, lower middle class etc. Gaming PCs command a huge cost, it is difficult to get infrastructure to help them train. These are the reasons we lag behind. However, the boom India saw in the last four years is insane. I don’t think the evolution of e-sports is a reason for India not being able to compete. For a mobile gamer, if you are playing a game like BGMI, you need an iPhone 14 Pro or an iPhone 13 Pro Max, which starts at 1.2 lacs itself. How can you expect so many Indian households to have iPhones? Thus, at the grass-root level there is a problem which can be solved only with time. The infrastructure is definitely lacking.

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Q. What kind of perspective have you gained as an influencer that has helped you build with these businesses?
As an influencer, when I started, I started thinking of it as a long term game. I strongly believe that gaming is here to stay in both forms - VOD (Video on Demand) and livestreams. E-sports is definitely getting segregated where eventually it will have a completely different audience. One audience watching e-sports and one watching games by streamers and one who watches just for entertainment. We see tournaments getting viewership in lakhs and the numbers have definitely come down but that’s happening globally. YouTube states that views are down by 60 percent.

As an influencer, I believe it's time to be a little more consistent. The market is slowing down but that’s the result of the global recession that’s setting in. But again, it is a long term game. As an influencer, we just have to be passionate about what we’re doing and be fortunate that we’re able to do something which might be better than a 9 to 5 job. Influencer marketing is growing incredibly. There is so much money that influencers are making. It is a great time to be in this field.

Q. You said that there is a separate audience for streamers and e-sports competitors. But, if a streamer is also a competitor won’t their audience also want to watch them competing in e-sports?
In my team, there are two players: Mortal and Goblin. Goblin plays BGMI competitively. Mortal doesn’t play BGMI competitively. But both play the same game and both stream the same game. Goblin will have the set of audience who wants to see more intense gameplays, notice the details of fights, understand the technicalities etc. On the other hand, there is a set of audience who watches Mortal because they want to just unwind and chill. They want casual vibes where the influencer is conversing and talking to the audience. That segregation has started happening.

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Q. How do you view the Indian gaming scene now after having established two businesses as opposed to when you started out in this space?
When I started out, it was nothing to be honest. I started gaming and streaming myself, looking at foreign streamers such as Ninja. I started gaming in July 2018 when we barely had any streamers. If I’m not wrong I may be one of the second or third PUBG gamers in India to stream. Fast forward to four year later to today, we see groups streaming together. Today, everyone is streaming, everyone is a gamer. There are close to 400 million gamers in Indian households playing games on a daily basis be it casual, hyper casual or hardcore gaming. The industry has grown very well. There is an audience, there are users. There are people who want to get into competitions, there are people who want to be a part of my organisation. There are people who even wish to represent India.

There are brands who want to throw insane amounts of money and set up their separate gaming verticals. A lot is happening right now. This is the best time to be in gaming in India. However, the economic situation globally is not the same. We cannot blame gaming for this slowdown. We cannot blame gaming for government policies. Overall, if you look at the industry, everyone is super optimistic and I have no different opinion. I believe that we’ve seen tremendous growth and the growth is only going to continue in 2023 and further in 2024 and onwards. Until 2025, we are going to see more booms and expansions and hyperbolic growth in gaming.