Justin Shriram Keeling is the Founding General Partner of Lumkai, India’s first gaming and interactive media VC. Lumikai’s State of India Gaming report says that the country’s game companies in India raised $513 million this year, and projects that India’s game industry willl quadruple in value by 2027. A long-time founder and builder, Keeling has worked in the gaming, media and technology sectors in Japan, the U.S. and U.K. for the BBC, Comcast and News Corporation’s Fox Interactive Media. He was also the Head of Product & Strategy for UTV Games in India before co-founding Lumikai in 2019.

Lumikai is India’s first gaming and interactive media VC. What challenges did you encounter as the first of your kind in the country?

Like with anything new, when we were started, some folks thought we were crazy. There were all these established narratives around gaming, and gaming in India, especially. People said that there are lots of Indian gamers — more than 500 million at last count, the second highest in the world — but no one here pays for games. Or that there aren’t enough good founders. Or no exits for investors. 

Fast forward two years, and India is the fastest monetising market for games in the world. The market crossed $2.6 billion in value and is growing 30% year on year. We’ve spoken with over 1,200 founders in the last 18 months. And in the last year, India has generated three gaming unicorns, gaming M&A worth over $600 million, and its first gaming IPO in Nazara. We’re humbled to be the tip of the spear in a market that’s hit a major inflection point.

India’s gaming market isn’t as well-known outside the country as Japan or China. How does the market in India differ to what we see elsewhere?

The biggest difference is that India is a mobile-first market. India didn’t see the evolution of gaming from 2D to 3D, to consoles and PC, and then to mobile like Japan or China. Four years ago, an Indian telco called Jio launched basically free 4G data to hundreds of millions of people. It was a supernova moment for India’s entire digital economy, including games. 

Today we have over 800 million smartphone users in India, and half a billion of them play games. It’s an insanely deep market, but most of it is on mobile.

How have restrictions on Chinese companies affected India’s gaming sector?

There have been two major knock-on effects. The first is that the Indian government outright banned games (and apps) from a large number of Chinese developers in 2021, even popular mobile games like Free Fire and PUBG that have hundreds of millions of Indian players. If you had perceived links to China, you were banned. The second has been on the investment side. Partly due to political border tensions in 2020, the Indian government decided to limit all Chinese foreign direct investment into India without advance approval. 

By that point, a lot of Chinese tech conglomerates were all-in on India and very active investors in the market. That has all come to an end. On the flipside, it opened a huge white space for non-Chinese developers and investors in the gaming market, including those based domestically.

Do you see Indian gaming companies expanding outside the country?

Absolutely. At one point during the pandemic, an Indian mobile game called Ludo King had over 50 million players a day — more than Fortnite. We’re invested in a studio called Bombay Play that has over 40 million players, and 90% are outside of India. We’re seeing studios in India constantly break out globally. 

India has such a rich culture and mythology, with a massive interconnected pantheon of gods and heroes. You see some of this crop up in games like Final Fantasy, but we’re seeing a lot of Indian developers now build games to export this rich culture to the world. You’re going to see India become a much bigger net exporter of gaming content over the next 3-4 years.