I've been known to have the occasional flutter on a sports ball match or an equine quickness test. But while I was perusing some of the major betting sites recently, looking for an intriguing offer or some half-decent odds, I stumbled upon something curious. The world of eSports has quietly worked its way into betting markets. But is either industry ready for the coming together of slapping cash down in hope of complete strangers outperforming rivals and these little things called video games?
William Hill is amongst the first bookies to offer odds on eSports events. "[The idea] was actually from a couple of young guys who work down in the Darwin office, in Australia," Rupert Adams, International PR Manager at the company, tells me. Two 20 year olds, gamers in their spare time, got in contact with compilers at William Hill's head office in Leeds – compilers are responsible for deciding whether a new market is going to be created for people to bet on. The two Australians go to gaming tournaments every now and then, and wondered why there wasn't a way to combine work with pleasure. Would it be possible to bet on video games?
That was a few months ago – and today, you most certainly can bet on eSports. Which makes perfect sense, as the audience is there. According to SuperData Research, there are over 134 million eSports viewers worldwide as of May 2015. The market in Europe is worth (US)$72 million, North America $143 million, and Asia is the biggest at $374 million. A lot of people are watching, and a growing number of sponsors are pumping money into the eSports industry. So it was never a matter of if eSports would be getting betting markets, merely a matter of when.
We are still in the early days though. William Hill is neither losing nor gaining money from its eSports markets right now. Rupert tells me this is always the way for new markets at the start. "If you had told me ten years ago that people would be betting on the winner of The X Factor, I wouldn't have believed you. But now we make £1 million from the final."
I was interested to learn about which new markets get picked up – after all, it's not every day that an entirely new sport comes around. "Other than one-off markets, like whether we'll have a white Christmas, or who's going to win The X Factor, it just doesn't happen often," Rupert says. "I guess the last big one I can remember was for WWE Wrestling." (Which seems odd to me, considering there are a group of people who actually know the outcomes of those bouts ahead of time.) Betting on eSports is certain to increase over time, but whether it will ever get as big as gambling on football matches and horse races remains to be seen.
I decided it was time to speak to someone who had experience from the other side of things. Stephen "Snoopeh" Ellis is a former professional League of Legends player. As the jungler for Counter Logic Gaming Europe, he played in the Season 2 World Championships against some of the world's best. With his playing days behind him, he is now Vice President of Business Development at Unikrn, a company dedicated to offering eSports betting.
"We aim to provide a safe, legal and responsible environment for people to bet on eSports," he tells me. "During my tenure as a professional gamer I was always passionate about the business aspects of eSports, and when making the transition into the next chapter of my career I had the opportunity to visit Unikrn's founders Rahul Sood and Karl Flores, as well as the rest of the team in Seattle, and knew these were the guys I wanted to work with."
"Also, there is a wealth of evidence out there which points to betting increasing engagement and viewership in sports," he continues. "There are some examples already happening in eSports, despite there not being a platform dedicated to it like ours. I see Unikrn as one of the catalysts in helping eSports grow and bridge the gap between the mainstream and hardcore audiences."
I ask if he sees the mainstream sites, such as Bet365 and William Hill, as competition for Unikrn, or whether he thinks gamers were more likely to turn to his company, since it's a dedicated eSports platform.
"The difference between those mentioned and ourselves is that we are completely vertically integrated in eSports. We are also hardcore gamers – you'll often find our CEO squeezing in as many games of League of Legends as he can. We seek to bring the level of legality and safety that these mainstream sites bring, at the same time as being gamer focused and re-investing into the eSports scene."
With the eSports industry growing all the time, I've always thought that betting was an obvious step in its development into the mainstream. Stephen agrees. "Betting is one of the next logical steps in eSports. There is an emerging body of research in traditional sports which if you've ever betted on traditional sports, you will know about. For one thing, betting increases engagement. People are more likely to watch to the end of games, people are more likely to watch less-significant games, and this is already very evident at some eSports tournaments." I know all about that, having added an extra dimension to Argentina against Iran in the 2014 football World Cup by putting a little of my own money on the line.
I wanted to get Stephen's views on whether the eSports industry was ready for betting, both in terms of it still being in its infancy, and the fact that many eSports fans are not of legal age for gambling.
"It's a good question, and we should all be wary of younger people betting in any sport, never mind eSports. That is why we've partnered with TabCorp, which is one of the largest wagering firms in the world and, for the past nine out of ten years, has been recognised as the most responsible wagering platform in the world. They have strict verification processes, so betting goes through us on the front end but is completely checked by them on the back end."
After leaving the professional gaming scene and moving over to Unikrn, Stephen posted an AMA on Reddit, answering questions and concerns that his fans had. In it, he spoke about a strong desire to combat match fixing, something that has been a massive problem in the past. I ask him to elaborate.
"Competitive integrity is something I am very aware of as a former professional gamer, and the team here at Unikrn is making that a top priority. Not only will we blacklist anyone who is directly or indirectly involved in the competition – that's coaches, analysts, players, owners, league organisers, admins, whoever – but we are also working on a comprehensive competitive integrity certificate which leagues and tournaments that we offer betting on must adhere to, or else we will not offering betting on their tournaments."
Unikrn has measures in place to prevent any sort of foul play. "We're also monitored by LuxBet, and they have decades of experience to catch irregular betting patterns that we can flag on our system. There are various other checks and balances we will be implementing, but I can assure you we are taking competitive integrity very seriously."
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Having spent so many years in the eSports industry before getting into the betting side of things, Stephen believes that gambling won't have a negative impact. "I believe that betting will create more engagement, not only for the hardcore gamer but also for the casual. I love eSports – it's given me so much, and I wouldn't have joined Unikrn if I thought its practices were detrimental to the health and prosperity of the scene."
It appears, then, that the eSports industry and the gambling industry are ready for each other. Some may scoff now, but in ten years it's pretty likely that we'll be just as ready to bet on who's going to win the 2025 League of Legends World Championships as we are on whether we'll be getting snow on Christmas Day. And if the right measures are in place to protect young people and prevent cheating, then I know I don't see a problem with it. Now, to find the Dota equivalent of the Honduran national football team and make their matches all the more exciting.
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