With sports seasons suspended, the billion-dollar betting industry has set its sights on digital arenas.
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.