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.
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.
There’s something distinctively dystopian about spending money on sports fixtures that are fixed and don’t exist
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.
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.”
There’s football, NFL, basketball, baseball, horse racing, greyhounds, cricket, tennis, motor racing, cycling, speedway and – in case you’ve truly lost them – marbles
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.”
“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.”@KyleMacneill