Garena Free Fire saw 2.1 million downloads within four days of PUBG Mobile’s ban in India. Following the ban of the country’s most popular mobile battle royale, there was significant growth in the number of players for both Free Fire and Call of Duty: Mobile. The rise of Free Fire esports in the country indicates that Garena wants to take full advantage of the absence of one of its biggest rivals. While viewership numbers for Free Fire have been growing since 2018, it could not compete with PUBG Mobile’s numbers for both tournaments and YouTube views. However, the numbers have been rising steadily since 2019, and 2020 was the biggest year for Garena’s battle royale yet. We compare Free Fire and PUBG Mobile in 2019’s viewership and see how 2020 changed things for the two in India. Has Free Fire esports’ popularity overtaken PUBG Mobile in India?
Even in 2019, Free Fire was making waves and overtaking PUBG Mobile's viewership count in some of their biggest tournaments. The Free Fire World Cup 2019 had more viewers than the PUBG Mobile Star Challenge World Cup 2019, according to Esports Charts. FFWC averaged 630,931 viewers and peaked at 1,003,946 viewers. The PMSC World Cup 2019 finals had an average view count of 174,992 which peaked at 418,340 viewers despite being the battle royale’s biggest tournament of the year.
Free Fire World Series 2019 saw a whopping 3.2 million views for its Hindi stream. The Hindi FFCS stream had 1.5 million peak viewers on the stream and contributed to 47.7% of the total watched hours from across the world for the tournament. The 2020 version of the event ended up canceled due to global lockdowns and was replaced with ‘Free Fire Continental Series 2020’ (FFCS). It was divided into three online international competitions which happened simultaneously in the Americas, Asia, and EMEA. FFCS Asia saw a peak viewership of 2.5 concurrent viewers and an average viewership of 828,986.
Free Fire India Championship 2020 Fall saw 3,36,724 peak viewership while PMCO 2020 Fall India had an 87,424 viewership peak last year. The PMCO Fall Split Global Finals viewership also declined in 2019 from the previous year. The Spring Split Global Finals in Berlin peaked at 596,824 viewers and had a concurrent viewership of 221,491 people. While the peak viewership didn’t see much of a fall, the concurrent viewership of the Fall Split was over 18 percent less than the previous split.
While one of the biggest PUBG Mobile events of 2020, the PUBG Mobile World League - East, saw 1.1 million peak viewers with an average of 413,648, far below FFCS Asia’s numbers, however, PUBG Mobile Global Championship drew a whopping 3.8 million peak views but a lower average viewership of 528,822. So while PUBG Mobile Pro League’s viewership dropped by 85% due to the ban in India, PMGC Season Zero broke the last viewership record of the game’s esports scene in just the first week.
In terms of YouTube popularity, Free Fire became YouTube’s fourth most-viewed game in 2019 and YouTube's monthly viewership for videos related to Free Fire hit an all-time high in October 2020 and its greatest leaps actually coming in 2020. Videos related to Free Fire have been viewed over 100 billion times since 2017.
Last year, Free Fire broke its all-time record for daily players with over 80 million daily active players, and views of Free Fire videos have managed to eclipse their already phenomenal 2019 highs. Described by Elizabeth Del Valle, Global Marketing Lead for YouTube Gaming, as “a strong community of Free Fire fans and creators, such as TheDonato, LOUD, and Nobru, who continue to be invested in the game since its launch back in 2017 -- playing, watching, and creating Free Fire content." Total Gaming, a dedicated Indian Free Fire channel, is among the top viewed channels globally and has gotten 2.8 billion lifetime views. While no one comes close to Total Gaming in terms of views, many smaller channels like Desi Gamers and Two-Side Gamers are slowly picking up subscribers and views. As the Indian player base grows, Free Fire YouTube tutorials, content, and esports are seeing a corresponding rise.
“When you look at emerging markets, like Brazil and India, many people own mobile devices with low specifications -- typically in the $100 - $150 USD price range," said Del Valle. "Garena developed a game specifically for game enthusiasts who owned such devices."
Free Fire after the PUBG Mobile ban in India
While Free Fire hasn’t exactly gotten the same love and attention from Indian media that PUBG Mobile has, it has made a remarkable difference in the viewership that it attracted over just a span of a few months since PUBG Mobile’s ban. In addition, Garena has been catering to the Indian audience for quite some time now. The recent addition of Jai, an in-game character based on Hrithik Roshan, is an excellent example. Moreover, its downloads even saw a spike during Operation Chrono given Ronaldo’s popularity in the country.
As Free Fire continues to surge, it seems like PUBG Mobile pros don’t want to be left behind. Many popular pros from the Indian PUBG Mobile scene such as Scout, Team SouL, and 8Bit were streaming with Total Gaming trying to learn Free Fire. Their collaborations eventually stopped only because they were participating in the Free Fire Titan Invitational. Free Fire also has events like the Streamer Kombat series and the recently announced Streamer Sangram shows their continued efforts to attract content creators and pro players to the game.
In addition, Free Fire will be hosting 4 major tournaments across two pro circuits this year including the Free Fire India Championship 2021 Spring, Free Fire Pro League 2021 Summer, Free Fire India Championship 2021 Fall, and the Free Fire Pro League 2021 Winter. With an action-packed season announced by Garena so far and not forgetting the many other local tournaments that are bound to happen, it seems like Free Fire just might be able to edge PUBG Mobile away from India, and it even has the chance to continue growing in popularity even if PUBG Mobile does come back to the country.
While players have had several issues with Free Fire including graphics, gameplay, and hackers, Garena is taking steps to resolve them. In December 2020, Garena announced Free Fire Max, a visual upgrade to the current game.
The new app features higher quality visuals which can go up to 4k resolution if your device supports it. It also includes a new user interface, better controls, and latency as well as smoother gameplay. Free Fire is also filtering hackers out of the game and bringing this to the player’s notice with reports similar to PUBG Mobile’s Ban Pan updates. Despite this, certain aspects of the core gameplay and mechanics will need to change if Free Fire wants to retain some of its newer PUBG Mobile audiences and attract more of them. The more PUBG Mobile’s return is delayed, Free Fire has the chance to capitalize on the absence of its biggest competitor in India.