If there’s one word to describe hardcore sports fanatics right now, it’s “desperation.” With coronavirus-related season suspensions hitting the NBA, NCAA, MLB, NHL, and more, habitual sports-watchers are turning to marble racing, binge-watching Netflix, and asking sportscaster Joe Buck to narrate their sex tapes. (Unsuccessfully. He is, however, providing play-by-plays of people’s backyard chicken coops and dog-exercising.)
If it’s doom-and-gloom for sports, you can be certain the billion-dollar sports betting industry isn’t faring much better. Log in to any of the dozens of sports betting websites with an Andrew Jackson burning a hole in your pocket and you’ll find your pants singed; there’s barely anything live to bet on.
“It’s been a bloodbath,” says Ebbe Groes, CEO of sports betting software company EveryMatrix. “The betting volume for regular sports events dropped about 80 percent as there was nothing left to bet on. That’s when we turned to esports.”
Over the past four years, online betting sites have been slowly welcoming fans of the volatile but growing industry of livestreamed competitive gaming into their pools and brackets. As two teams of pro gamers go head to head in a League of Legends match live on Twitch, risk-loving viewers tab onto websites like DraftKings, Betway, and Loot.bet hoping to earn a bit of cash from their savvy projections. Now, these sites are describing an exponential surge in betting spurred by the dearth of traditional sports content—despite some of the risks involved with the Wild West esports industry.
In less than a month, the volume of dollars Groes has seen bet on esports has gone up by a factor of 10. EveryMatrix offers software facilitating esports betting on everything from Fortnite and FIFA to dozens of online betting sites, from Germany’s Mybet to Russia’s 1xBet. Before Covid-19 hit, esports bets constituted just 1 percent of bets he saw. Now, it’s 35 percent. The typical bet, he says, remains $25 between sports and esports betters.
“Especially now with this kind of downtime with sports, esports have stepped up and become the number one offering on DraftKings,” says Matt Kalish, cofounder and president of DraftKings North America, which facilitates fantasy sports drafting. Esports fantasy contests are 20 times more popular than they were prior to the pandemic, he says.
For dedicated esports betting site Loot.bet, daily bet volume has grown by 20 percent. “In 2019, live bets accounted for 75 percent of volume, but in March 2020 that had grown to 83 percent,” says a Loot.bet representative. “We’re putting this down to the huge number of fans in lockdown, who are watching more live esports streams, and hence placing more live bets.”
Seasoned sports betters looking for an easy onboarding into digital gaming are slowly finding their way onto sites that allow betting on sports sims. Fans of Nascar are betting on eNascar, a racing league built on the iRacing simulator. In March, a Pro Invitational Series cropped up; one night drew 1.6 million unique viewers, some of whom were keeping things spicy on betting sites. (DraftKings has a $10,000 winner-take-all Sportsbook Pools contest.) On March 31, 2K Gaming, the NBA, and the NBPA announced the NBA 2K Players Tournament, which will feature competitions between 16 top NBA players, including Kevin Durant and Trae Young. The champion will receive $100,000, to be donated to a charity combating Covid-19. Standard sports betting sites like Bovada are publishing odds.
Although sports sims have the sexiest sell to desperate fans seeking a familiar thrill—a nearly one-to-one ratio of play to gameplay—betting sites say they’re seeing low betting volumes so far. However, Loot.bet says that over the past month, the volume of bets it has received on soccer sim FIFA 20 exceeded the combined total of bets placed on Starcraft 2, Call of Duty, and Overwatch—games that aren’t necessarily huge among esports betters but are popular to watch.
The transition to hard esports isn’t as simple as adding an “e.” Even for seasoned gamers, there’s a steep learning curve for high-level competitive games like League of Legends, Dota 2, and Overwatch. And when it comes to betting, non-endemics might struggle to wrap their heads around pros’ many-pronged strategies well enough to make lucid bets on live games. Everyone learned soccer, football, and basketball in school gym class; no gym teacher sat their students down on Alienware PCs to teach them the ins and outs of Starcraft 2.
There weren’t esports bookmakers, at least in the traditional sense, until around 2016. Experts say first-person shooter Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is leading this recent charge into esports betting. On April 1, Nevada’s Gaming Control Board approved betting on two Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournaments. Huge London-based bookmaker William Hill is now taking bets on Counter-Strike: Global Offensive games and season winners.
“A lot of people have played some kind of first-person shooter and can be dropped into a Counter-Strike match and more or less know what’s going on,” says Chris Grove, a gambling industry analyst at Eilers & Krejcik Gaming. “Obviously dropping someone with zero context into an elite League of Legends or Overwatch match is bonkers: zero comprehension of what’s going on.”
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is an excellent ambassador for esports in some ways, but it’s also had a series of high-profile gambling-related scandals. After the game introduced skins, or aesthetic mods, in 2013, a whole ecosystem of third-party sites developed to facilitate gambling, with the skins as virtual currency. Within years, players were placing billions of dollars in bets. An enormous controversy hit after journalists exposed that children as young as 11 were participating, and on top of that, some of the influencers promoting the sites were behind their creation. In 2017, two pro gamers behind the skin gambling site CSGO Lotto settled with the Federal Trade Commission, which ordered them to “disclose any material connections with an endorser or between an endorser and any promoted product or service.”
On top of that, a match-fixing scandal hit the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive esports scene late last year, resulting in the arrest of six people. Allegedly, players placed bets on matches they had arranged to win or lose in advance. Dota 2 also suffered its own match-fixing scandal during the February Minor qualifiers.
Asked whether underage gambling or match-fixing might impact the now-growing esports betting industry, EveryMatrix’s Ebbe Groes said that “Match-fixing is a problem that exists both in regular sports and esports,” citing tennis’s match-fixing scandals. Groes also believes this isn’t a rampant problem in larger, more professionalized esports leagues. “You have some esports in which the players themselves are stars, like a quarterback,” he says. “They’re well-paid and not doing match fixing.” On top of that, websites have strict systems and a huge legal incentive to prevent illegal gambling.
Esports and the esports betting industry have benefited from the new attention, but they aren't totally insulated from the global pandemic, either. Esports are primarily digital, yet to maintain quality control and prevent cheating, drug use, and collusion, in-person events generally need to have staff physically present to enforce checks and balances, similar to other sports leagues. Measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 also limit gatherings of esports professionals, and dozens of Overwatch League matches were canceled because of health concerns.
Then there’s the economy. Esports investors may hope that the industry will fill in the gap left by sports like baseball and basketball, but it’s not so simple. The global economy is in shambles, with a skyrocketing unemployment rate in the US. While viewership on Twitch was up 20 percent from February to March, according to Arsenal.gg, it’s hard to say whether this short-term growth is sustainable amid a global financial crisis.
“For a lot of people, the economic pressure brought about by coronavirus is causing them to take money they would have used to bet on sports and redirect to pressing needs,” says Grove, the sports gambling analyst. “If they’re feeling any sort of financial pressure, they’re likely to pull that spend back in entirely.”