Computer-vs.-computer games of FIFA livestream to gamblers on Twitch. Fantasy contests carry League of Legends lineups. In the coronavirus age, video games have grown into a darling for casinos.
Marco Blume, trading director for the sports book Pinnacle, remembers when betting on the competitive video games known as esports was an exotic concept.
"When we started with esports in 2010, we got maybe $100 in wagers in a week and got excited," Blume said over videoconference from London. "We would watch the screen and cheer as each individual bet came in. When I first pitched esports wagering to my board, they either said, 'What are you talking about?' or they laughed."
Now, in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic, with traditional sports moribund and casinos reeling, no one in the half-trillion-dollar global gambling industry is laughing at esports. Instead, they are rushing to offer more betting on it.
Even as overall wagering has declined, betting companies have been buoyed by an enduring casino truism: Gamblers find things to gamble on. Since March, bettors have flocked to computer games and easily understood digital simulacrums of soccer, basketball and football.
Many video game publishers are struggling to respond to the surge, and industry reports in Europe, where sports betting is ubiquitous, indicate that half of all such wagering since early March has been on esports. Some bookmakers have had increases in esports betting of more than 40 times during that time.
"Esports is king now," Blume said. "Since March, esports has been our No. 1 category globally, and the overall majority of total wagering for us. Every significant bookmaker now offers esports. If you didn't before, you certainly do now." (Global online bookmakers like Pinnacle, based in Curaçao, are illegal in the United States but generally legal and popular in much of the rest of the world. Blume's job of trading director is comparable to running trading and risk exposure for a medium-size Wall Street firm.)
Overall, worldwide esports gambling revenue is expected to double this year to about US$14 billion. And as sports gambling spreads across the United States in the wake of a 2018 Supreme Court ruling, states including Colorado, Nevada and New Jersey are vying to get ahead of others in esports offerings. In Nevada, sports betting has been regulated since 1949. The state approved its first legal esports bet in 2016. It approved two additional tournaments in 2017, and then no more until the pandemic began. Since March, Nevada regulators have approved betting on 13 esports leagues and tournaments.
"People out there want to bet on something, and our licensees want to offer betting opportunities for their customers, and by the nature of how esports work, the players can sit in their house and still compete," James Taylor, chief of the enforcement division of the Nevada Gaming Control Board, said in an interview.
By mid-March, Taylor said, casino operators were filing esports wagering applications at a rate of "almost one a day." He said his team had approved all of the applications except two, for wagers on leagues that did not satisfy investigators that proper anti-corruption protocols were in place. "As a regulator, we want to make sure things are done properly with the correct oversight so the entire industry can grow," Taylor said.
Many of the applications have come from the Nevada subsidiary of William Hill, a British gambling giant, which operates more than 100 sports books in the state.
Joe Asher, chief executive of William Hill's US operation, said in an interview from Las Vegas that the growth in esports reminded him of his childhood experience playing Pac-Man. "I had the patterns memorised," he said. "I used to wrap bandages around my fingers because I got calluses from the joystick. People would give me quarters to watch me play."
He added, "Esports are here to stay, esports betting is here to stay, and now we can just see that more clearly."
Seth Schorr, chief executive of the casino management company Fifth Street Gaming and founder of the Nevada Esports Alliance, said of the growth: "I expect that within the next five to 10 years in North America, esports will be third after the NFL and the NBA in terms of total wagering."
Existing trends 'are being accelerated by coronavirus'
Offerings have already gone beyond simple bets on whether one world-class video game player can beat another.
While football and basketball wagers still rely on living athletes (usually), humans have become optional to generating action. Some global sports books now offer betting on completely automated soccer matches within the FIFA 20 game made by Electronic Arts — computer versus computer. In the United States, DraftKings and FanDuel (which offer legal fantasy contests in around 40 states) have each offered new free contests based on automated games of Madden NFL 20, another Electronic Arts title.
FanDuel and DraftKings, which went public in April, also offer paid fantasy contests for real money based on traditional top esports, including League of Legends, by Riot Games, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, by Valve Corp. A DraftKings spokesman said that paid esports contests are now attracting 20 times more customers and 50 times more entries than they did before March.
"As with so many things, these trends that have existed for a long time, especially on the internet, are being accelerated by coronavirus," said Cory Fox, a vice president for government affairs at FanDuel, which is controlled by Flutter, an international gambling company based in Dublin.
States that have embraced sports betting are adjusting yet again
With so many states struggling financially, some lobbyists believe that more governments will embrace online gambling — and esports specifically — as a source of taxable income.
"I was originally hopeful for three or four more states coming online for sports betting this year," said Bill Pascrell III, a partner at Princeton Public Affairs Group who has represented the lobbying interests of bookmakers and gambling technology companies. "Now I think you could double that as we see legislatures come back."
In Nevada, the next big step for esports betting would be regulatory pre approval of wagering on certain leagues, just like with the NFL and other traditional sports leagues, rather than a requirement of case-by-case petitions.
"It may take a year or two, but I think now it's inevitable that we will see a whitelist of esports events pre approved for betting in Nevada," said Blaine Graboyes, chief executive of GameCo, which develops games for casinos and sells esports data to bookmakers. "This period has cemented esports as part of the core conversation and offerings for casinos and sports books."
After leading the Supreme Court fight to expand sports betting, New Jersey finds itself trying to catch up on esports.
Its initial law explicitly banned wagers on video games. Under prodding from casinos, that was quickly changed, but only if all those playing the games were 18 or older. Few esports leagues can make that promise (or answer just to one state), so now Assemblyman Ralph R. Caputo, a Democrat and the chair of the New Jersey state Assembly's tourism, gaming and arts committee, is shepherding a bill that would allow betting on esports as long as at least half of the competitors are 18 or older, while banning bets on high school events.
Overall, more than 15 states allow some form of legal sports betting. For the moment, gambling executives say that Colorado, which opened sports gambling on May 1, appears to have the nation's most liberal esports gambling rules.
The US$160 billion video game industry is uncertain how to respond
Gambling and fantasy sports companies have operated under the belief that they do not need legal permission from any video game's publisher to offer bets or contests on esports. And unlike the large sporting leagues that opposed expanded betting on their games before the Supreme Court ruling, no major publishers have tried extensively to block gambling on their products (though casino executives said that a Nevada application to offer betting on Activision Blizzard's Overwatch League in 2018 was rejected by regulators partly because the company opposed betting at that time).
Outside the United States, bookmakers can generally offer new wagers quickly and without specific regulatory approval, helping fuel a boom that has left the US$160 billion global video game industry scrambling to respond.
Some publishers are appearing to embrace betting by hiring integrity monitors that also sell data and betting services to bookmakers. For example, in mid-April, Nevada regulators approved Activision Blizzard's Call of Duty League and Overwatch League for betting. Three weeks later, the leagues announced an "integrity services" deal with the Swiss company Sportradar, modelled on similar deals that Sportradar has with traditional sports organizations like the NFL and the esports pioneer Riot Games, the creator of League of Legends, one of the most popular esports.
"When we first looked at esports, it was the Wild West," said Doug Watson, head of esports insights for Riot, which is owned by the Chinese media and gaming behemoth Tencent. "Sports betting is a big part of the ecosystem and was going to happen regardless of whether we said it should happen or not. So we decided to invest to protect the sport and ensure its longevity and legitimacy."
Andy Cunningham, head of integrity and league relations for North America at Sportradar, said that traditional and esports leagues paid his company to monitor betting for suspicious patterns, investigate possible corruption, educate players and officials on proper behavior and establish anti-corruption procedures. He said those integrity services were separated from the company's other divisions, which sell sports data and betting services to bookmakers. "There is absolutely no conflict in what we do,'' he said, though some gambling executives, like Blume at Pinnacle, disagree.
Days after Riot announced its integrity deal with Sportradar last summer, the companies announced a separate deal under which a Sportradar joint venture pays Riot for exclusive access to data from the company's League of Legends esports tournaments. The Sportradar venture, Bayes Esports Solutions, then sells that data to other companies, including bookmakers. Sportradar's relationship with the NFL is similar.
Activision Blizzard has not announced a data distribution deal with Sportradar to follow on last month's integrity deal. But such an arrangement is being negotiated, according to two people close to the companies who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the deal before it was publicly announced.
A separate path for integrity monitoring is also emerging for esports
Gambling regulators in Nevada, Britain and Malta, as well as betting companies including William Hill, have strengthened their ties to the Esports Integrity Commission, a group in Britain that is attempting to become a central authority to help stop match-fixing and other corruption — helping to legitimise the competitions for bettors, fans and sponsors.
But major game publishers have been reluctant to sign up. Game industry executives explained that publishers may want to avoid giving the impression that they actively support gambling or that their games need an international integrity commission in the first place. In Asia, the original home of big-money esports, match-fixing scandals have toppled careers, teams and entire leagues.
The issue is clearly uncomfortable for major American video game companies. Electronic Arts (FIFA, Madden) and Take-Two Interactive (NBA 2K) each declined to comment on gambling issues. Activision Blizzard refused an interview and offered only a cursory statement from Pete Vlastelica, chief executive of the company's esports division: "Activision Blizzard Esports is interested in safeguarding the integrity of our competition, as this is our highest priority and the reason for the announced partnership with Sportradar."
Regardless of how the video game industry responds, the US gambling industry's embrace of esports may be only beginning as top companies grow beyond their focus on brick-and-mortar resorts.
"They were slow to online table gaming, they were slow in sports betting and they were slow to understand esports," said Pascrell, the New Jersey lobbyist. "But now, people are recognising that esports is a legitimate industry and it provides real jobs and real money and people enjoy it. Esports isn't going anywhere."
Written by: Seth Schiesel
Photographs by: Jeenah Moon and Dale Crosby Close
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES