Differentiation key as virtual sports steps into pandemic spotlight

Differentiation key as virtual sports steps into pandemic spotlight

Day two of the SBC Digital Summit North America saw panellists look at the ‘new world order’ of sports betting in a post-COVID landscape, and how alternative markets on virtual sports and esports have cemented themselves as key offerings for US sportsbooks.

The ‘Time to Shine? The New Sporting Outlook’ panel, sponsored by Sporting Solutions, tackled the challenges for the betting industry over the last few months due to the cancellation of live sports, looking at what has taken bettors’ fancy and the pitfalls that have surrounded ‘unusual sports’.

The panel brought together Paris Smith, CEO of Pinnacle; Bryan Bennett, COO of Betfred USA Sports; Edward Moed, CEO of HPL Digital Sports; Simon Trim, CEO of Sporting Solutions; and was moderated by Dustin Gouker, Head of Content, US at Catena Media.

While the pandemic has undoubtedly been a challenging period, Smith explained that the last few months have given Pinnacle the opportunity to refine its offering and strengthen its commitment to integrity.

She said: “For Pinnacle, we’ve placed more of a focus on esports. It was certainly a good time to have rest-of-world business. The interesting part about seeing a growth of interest in table tennis was that it was so labor intensive, which made it possible to offer a market on that.

“We did take the time to really refine our modelling for esports and product offering. Obviously virtual sports and casino have also seen considerable growth, and became more of a forefront for Pinnacle than it has done previously.

“With esports, hopefully the way that people view the sport will change. I think that it’s going to gain a lot more openings in places like Las Vegas, maybe New Jersey. The one thing that I have found interesting from the US perspective is that they were prohibiting some of the table tennis sports [due to integrity concerns].

“On the esports side, from all of the different leagues that we had and having so many more eyes on it, it actually improved the integrity side of things for us – it improved our ability to manage that better and put in new models and systems in place to help strengthen our integrity. Moving forward, that will be hugely helpful for us.”

But as more sportsbooks consider offering markets on esports and virtual sports, legislation has often made it difficult to offer this to punters according to Bennett, with many state regulators considering virtual sports a ‘machine sport’.

He added: “I really had high hopes for esports. You’re right, in the US it really hasn’t taken off yet, and I think that there are a number of reasons for that. Our UK division does a fair bit of business on esports and virtual racing. From the US state-by-state regulatory perspective, most state regulators consider esports to be machine gaming.

“Allowing a sportsbook to offer virtual sports or virtual racing is not something included in the regulations right now and wasn’t something they were willing to introduce quickly either. It was a prime opportunity for virtual sports in the US if ever there was one, it just wasn’t possible from a regulatory standpoint and so we’re left waiting for that to happen.”

Echoing Bennett’s idea that regulatory differences have hindered the growth of virtual sports, Gouker said: “To some extent, New Jersey already classifies virtual sports as a casino product rather than a sportsbook product. I think everyone would agree that virtuals would have done really well over here in the US if they had been adapted and gone live here a little earlier – but hopefully we’re going to have real sports back here soon.”

Trim took somewhat of a different approach to offering esports markets however, warning operators that the target demographic differs somewhat from the traditional sports bettor. According to him, offering markets on esports can also be much more difficult to generate a profit.

He explained: “With esports in particular, what we find is that you don’t get a lot of recreational clients in the same way that you do for soccer or American sports. What you do get are sharper clients which know the fastest streams, and they’re essentially trying to pick you off. So if you do supply a market on this, you need the very best traders, prices.

“It is good for turnover. But in the same way that turnover is vanity and profit is sanity, for sportsbooks esports is much harder to make money on than other sports out there.”

The hiatus has offered fresh insights into the bettor experience in US sportsbooks, shining a fresh light on building trust and engagement with customers, said Moed. The key to this is to avoid the ‘sea of sameness’ and innovate when it comes to marketing strategies.

He said: “I would say that the number one thing that sports bettors are telling us is that the experience has to change. This crosses over from sportsbooks to fantasy, where there is a 90% crossover. They’re feeling more of a sea of sameness in a lot of sportsbooks. And the way that they look at it is that pre-COVID was the ‘first wave’ of going to see sportsbooks, experience it, visiting different sportsbooks, but to build our trust and our engagement, that experience must become much better.

“This can happen in a few ways. We do a lot in the marketing and brand communications area. It really is about brand awareness to grab their attention and build trust. Coming out of the gates as sports make a return in the US, there’s undoubtedly going to be so much marketing. But most players do the same thing, with look-alike campaigns on social media. So do something different, whether it’s podcasts or how you work with affiliate partners, what concept you provide.”

SBC Digital Summit North America is running this week July 14-16. To register or obtain more information visit the event’s event’s official website.

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