An illustration of a racing car, racing horse, coinsm basketball and various sports equipment racing towards the viewer. The colours are edited red green and yellow.
Illustration: Sho Hanafusa

The Horse Isn't Real. People Are Betting on It Anyway.

In virtual sports betting, the house edge is insane, there’s even more stigma and the racing never stops.

It's 10AM in my local William Hill and the races are on at the picturesque Hilltop Gardens. Sugar Cube, 12-1, is doing the impossible: Having loitered at the back of the pack for most of the race, he’s advancing up the field as if he’s just snorted an entire bag of Silver Spoon. Leading horse Yes Ma Lady, ridden by Kieran Tyler, starts to slow, saddled by fatigue. No wonder, he’s been racing literally all day. Sugar Cube crystallises near the front; Council Gritter eats dust; Yoga Flame doggedly slips downward; the final stretch is in sight. It’s a photo finish – Sugar Cube takes it. It’s an instant classic.


It’s also completely, entirely, totally, absolutely, definitively not real.

Welcome to the world of virtual sports betting, where nothing exists, except for the cash you’re shredding. If you’ve not stumbled across them (and even a lot of regular gamblers haven’t), virtual sports are computer-generated animations showing simulated football games, tennis matches, F1 races or whatever you decide to click on. Think of it as a randomly-generated video game where every player, car or horse is controlled by a CPU and you’re a spectator. 

They all operate in the same way. Each competitor is weighted based on their imagined form and a Random Number Generator (RNG) is used to spice things up and create a sense of chance, so that the phoney pony that’s 2-1, say, doesn’t always win. 

Like all good things in life, you can bet on it. Online sports betting has been around for donkey's years, of course, but there’s something distinctively dystopian about spending money on sports fixtures that are fixed and don’t exist. 

See, unlike the seaside games, virtual sports are always on. As a potential gag could go: The virtual horse racing’s over… but not furlong! The bookmakers revel in the fact that you can play these games every minute.


“Not only are the races every couple of minutes, but the beauty of virtual racing is – unlike the live action –there’s no non-runners, no worrying over weather conditions or anything else from affecting your selections,” reads some sparky Betfred copy online. 

“The best bit is where it differs from the real thing. Where you might have to wait a few days for the next Premier League encounter to take place – international break anyone? – or it’s the NBA off-season, or the horse racing calendar is over for another year, well the virtual sports calendar never stops day or night,” reads BetVictor’s site.

Gambleaware declares that “When The Fun Stops, Stop”, but what happens when the fun, or what your brain still thinks is fun, never stops? In short, it means big profits for bookmakers and even bigger losses for betters.

There’s also a stigma attached to the sector. Steve Donoughue, founder of licensing and advisory service Gambling Consultant, explains there’s a hierarchy which sees “gamblers cast shade towards other types of gamblers”, with poker players at the top of the money tree. While sports betting suggests a sense of skill and in-the-know decision-making, virtual sports betting is seen by many in the community as a more tragic take on slots. The lack of open discussion surrounding it – when bundled in with new tech and the cost of living crisis fuelling betting – makes it a major issue, a behind-closed-doors game that never ends.

Even though it might all sound like a new thing, you can trace virtual sports way back to 1961, when IBM engineer John Burgeson created the first ever sports simulation game in 1961. It allowed players to choose from a roster of baseball stars with assigned forms and attributes, then imagined an outcome which it processed into match report style text for you to read. Of course, by this time, the earliest video games imitating sports had been developed – including two-player oscilloscope game Tennis for Two – but this involved actually controlling the players, or at the least, the racquets. 


There’s something distinctively dystopian about spending money on sports fixtures that are fixed and don’t exist

Equally, modern versions like FIFA or Football Manager, aren’t virtual sports in this sense – you’re still controlling the outcome of the game. Fantasy Football is probably the closest, most widespread equivalent, but while you’re not influencing what happens, you’re still having more of a say in which characters play. Plus, whatever your dodgy mate might tell you, the fixtures are not fixed or generated, the results are determined by humans, not a computer.

Well, how about eSports? Well, no, again. It’s a sport within itself, and even if you go all Christopher Nolan and look at eSports tournaments that revolve around sports games (like the FIFAe Nations Cup) it’s still based on human skill rather than fixed odds.

In the early 00s, with technology rapidly improving and online betting established, virtual sports started to be snapped-up by the bookies. Two decades ago, “cartoon racing” began to enter the mainstream. Expected to fall flat on its face at the first hurdle, betting shops were surprised by its instant popularity. 

“It’s been a stunning success that has exceeded even our most optimistic expectations,” said Andrew Drinkwater, spokesman for Victor Chandler, at the time.


“We thought punters wouldn't like it, but it has taken off big time,” echoed a spokesperson for Paddy Power.

The racing industry despised it, but Big Virtuals clapped back, with one unnamed betting company naming its CGI racecourse Portman Park – a dig at the racing regulator’s Portman Square HQ.

By 2007, The Guardian reported that nearly one in five bets on horse racing in bookmakers across the UK were on “plastic ponies”, making betting firms £700m a year. There were even claims that one undisclosed betting company was making 40 percent of its profits through virtual racing. Virtual greyhound racing for one franchise reportedly made more in the first two months than the real hounds had generated in an entire year. Now, you can head online to any bookmaker in the UK – or for many of them, in store – and wager your wages on virtual animals.

The real winners of this aren’t the players, obviously, or just the bookmakers, but the developers. Enter Inspired Entertainment – if you’ve ever played a quizzy at a boozer, it’s thanks to them. They own 50,000 betting machines across the UK and they also provide virtual sports for 32,000 retail channels including Betfred, Ladbrokes and Bet365. Hot on their heels are Playtech, who sort out Paddy Power, BetVictor and Coral. 


Both companies declined to speak to VICE about their virtual divisions. A 2022 roundtable with pro-industry title Gambling Insider, though, proves that business is booming. It’s in part thanks to the effect of the pandemic: With most real sports put on pause, betting companies turned to promoting betting on table tennis, the Belarusian football league and, of course, virtuals. The 2020 Virtual Grand National brought in five million viewers and over £3 million of profits for the NHS. 

“Virtual sports has seen extraordinary levels of business in the last two years, especially during the initial lockdowns of 2020,” confirmed Richard Andrew, Virtual Sports Director for Playtech, in the roundtable. “It is a vertical that can now stand on its own.”

Part of its growth is down to its dizzying array of games. The days of clunkily animated horses are over. Now there’s football (men's and women's), NFL, basketball, baseball, horse racing, greyhounds, cricket, tennis, motor racing, cycling, speedway and – in case you’ve truly lost them – marbles. While some of the more niche ones (again, marbles) are online-only, many major UK bookmakers feature them in store, too. 


But here’s the interesting thing: It’s virtually impossible to find people who admit they bet on virtual sports. There’s a total void in research. “Academically, there is absolutely nothing on this whatsoever,” Mark Griffiths, professor of behavioural addiction at Nottingham Trent University and the one of the UK’s leading gambling academics, tells VICE. “I’ve never seen any figures in terms of what the industry makes and, as far as I know, the Gambling Commission doesn’t include these statistics… but there’s obviously a market out there.” 

There’s football, NFL, basketball, baseball, horse racing, greyhounds, cricket, tennis, motor racing, cycling, speedway and – in case you’ve truly lost them – marbles

Clearly thousands are propping the UK industry up, but many are reluctant to speak about it in the same way as old school gambling. Scour forums, though, and you’ll find dire stories: A new dad who lost over fifteen thousand on virtual football, a guy who lost a grand in a day on plastic ponies or a gambler in recovery who relapsed on virtual racing. “Back to gambling silly amounts on stupid cartoon races,” he posted on the Gamcare Forums. “The beast inside me remains hungry and I'm feeding it.”

Another gambler on the forum feels the shame attached to it: “How do you feel when you hand your banknotes over the counter to bet on a virtual horse race? I've been there mate and I felt ashamed every time. Ashamed what the cashier must have thought of me to be betting such large sums on a cartoon horse race. Not ashamed enough to stop though, not back then.”


One of the few people to openly speak about their issues with virtual sports is Ellis Platten, head of popular football platform Away Days. “I loved it. I'd be at school with my mates and we'd just talk about it. We loved virtual football and put accas [accumulator bets] on virtual games when we were 15. They’ve made it more intuitive now with proper commentary and five highlights per game,” Platten says on the Happy Hour Podcast. “The appeal is that you can do it every minute, so it's literally just for addicts – it's horrible. A football match lasts 90 minutes but there could be 45 virtual games in that space of time."  

Outside the UK, the main market is in Nigeria: Newspapers, forums and social media posts are full of stories of addiction, with virtual football the main game of choice. It’s so prevalent it’s got a street slang name as if it were a drug – “Baby” – and its effects are just as strong. 

“We play online and in football shops,” Ife Diche, a Lagos-based virtual gambler who’s lost thousands, tells VICE. “It ends in tears. I've spent all my life earnings.” Scores of Nigerian men have lost their businesses, families and own children playing “Baby” – leading many to thoughts of suicide


Griffiths thinks that virtual sports appeal to those who’re into slots. “We know that slot machines are obviously incredibly attractive to individuals and this could be an activity akin to that,” he says. They’re potentially more moreish – Griffiths explains that slots players always know they’re going to lose, but aim to maximise the time spent on the machine and minimise the money spent.

“The fact that it might take a couple of minutes for each of the outcomes means you're actually stretching your money out longer,” Griffiths continues. The near-miss phenomenon is also stronger, since there’s a field of candidates and close outcomes rather than more binary casino games. “That near-win is psychologically reinforcing, your body is still producing those endorphins, serotonin and dopamine,” he adds.

I can see why it’s so addictive. Explaining my research to some mates at the pub, I slap a quid on Louis Edwards (8-1) on the Virtual Motor Racing at Highway Park and watch as his Cadbury purple car twirls around the circuit, willing the wheels to whizz quicker. With a second to go, he takes the lead and I win nine quid. I immediately put a pound back on Clerk (9-2) five minutes later and win again, this time just over a fiver. My jaw drops and immediately starts to clench. My mind turns to coke, something I’ve been abstinent from for two years. The dealer always wins.

They’re also more real than the slots I’ve indulged in before. Play a game for long enough and you forget that the horses you’re roaring on are predetermined or that the potential goalscorer will never, ever score, tangled in a net of algorithms. “You know objectively before it starts that it's all basically pre-programmed, but in the action phase that goes out the window and you become involved in what you see on the screen.” Griffiths believes you can become emotionally invested with the virtual version of the football team you support, too.

To top it all off, virtual sports aren’t just potentially more appealing and stimulating than traditional slots, they’re also more expensive. Like all casino games, Virtual Sports has an RTP (Return to Player) percentage, calculating the amount of wagered money you’re likely to win back. (So if there’s an RTP of 90 percent and you drop £100, you’ll probably win £90 of it back). The average RTP of an online casino game is 95-97 percent, but virtual sports can fall as low as 80 percent. The house edge is insane – it’s a total mug’s game, likely financed by a relatively small group of desperate gamblers.

What’s next? For Griffiths, more sophisticated AI and virtual reality versions – such as a first person jjockey experience where you “ride” the horse you’ve bet on – are likely to edge out older games. Perhaps, too, virtual sports will be able to show impossible or illegal events – like that episode of Nathan Barley where they bet on Russian peasants pulling out teeth online. Virtual cockfighting and camel racing have already been released, a mere shard of the potential Black Mirror ahead of us.

Donoughue isn’t convinced, though. “While gamblers can bet on live sports easily and watch the games I can’t see why virtual sport will increase dramatically in appeal,” he says. But even if virtual sports doesn’t ever truly kick off, it’s unlikely to ever stop. It costs almost nothing to run and once you’ve got the software going, it’s a case of running the code and letting the sports play out forever, ticking away like a knackered fruit machine in a tired pub. It does, however, cost big to those playing, who are also ostracised by their own gambling community.

Remember heading to the arcade as a kid with a burning hole in your pocket? Then you’ve burnt your whole pocket money, so you sit in the driver's seat of one of those racing games and pretend that you’re controlling the wheel? Virtual sports, I’ve realised, is basically the equivalent of that but you’re still putting coins in anyway – it’s the lowest, loneliest way to lose.

Searching for more stories, a post from the admin of Facebook group Gambling Addiction and Recovery sticks with me:

“I was trying to think of the most ridiculous thing about compulsive gambling. Could not find a better one in the memory banks than being sat up at 4AM gambling on virtual greyhounds, virtual motor bikes and virtual soccer as all the real sport had finished. Wow, and people think it's not an illness. Pretty sick, I think you will find.”