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Esportsbook betting sits somewhere between fantasy esports and skin betting in terms of size and prominence in the market, but arguably has the greatest upside...
Now, there are a great many people of my generation and the millennials who came after who have found employment in that industry, whether developing games themselves, providing quality assurance services, working in games journalism, or even teaching game-related subjects at colleges and universities.
All these jobs require one to have played and to continue to play those same games that were once generally regarded as a waste of time.
Of course, most jobs in the digital entertainment world involve developing, testing, reviewing or analyzing the games in question, but most recently, a few of the very most talented players have achieved that which was considered a joke just 20 years ago, making their living by playing these games at the highest level of competition.
Given the extent of the dedication and training necessary to play at that level, it would be unfair to continue referring to these activities at games; thus, the term “esports” has entered the lexicon to describe specifically those digital games that pit players against one another, and which feature enough challenge and tactical depth for world class talents to develop.
There’s plenty of precedent for this terminology, since high-skill traditional games – chess, go, bridge, poker and Scrabble, to name a few – have for a while now been referred to as “mind sports” when played in organized competitions.
What makes esports different from (and, arguably, more sport-like than) mind sports is that they incorporate a real-time element and thus require reflexes and physical dexterity as well as thinking. In terms of skill set, then, they fall somewhere between blitz chess and fencing: more physical than the former, but less athletic than the latter, but like both in that the emphasis is on well-honed instincts and rapid decision-making.
Of course, any time people start taking an activity with uncertain outcomes seriously, there will be other people wanting to put money on it.
For the gambler, the leap between wondering how something will turn out and wanting a personal stake in the outcome is often so short as to be non-existent. Thus, from the first time someone said “esports,” it was inevitable that these competitions would find their way into the gambling mainstream.
Now, most major online betting platforms offer lines on at least some esports competitions, although the amount of choice available to bettors is still relatively limited. As those competitions become bigger, more commonplace, and with increasing amounts of money and prestige on the line, esports betting as a sector of the larger sports betting industry can be expected to grow.
One of the driving forces behind esports betting is a B2B company called Ultraplay. Companies like Ultraplay are by and large invisible to sports bettors themselves, yet most small to medium betting sites would not exist without them. Their relationship to the sites is in many ways similar to the network-skin model seen so often in the poker world.
Not only do companies like Ultraplay provide the back-end software the sites need to run their operations, but they also supply a number of services including analytics, fraud detection, risk management… and the setting of esports betting odds.
This last service is critical when it comes to emerging sectors like esports betting, as one of the biggest dangers sites can face when offering lines on a new, weakly-analyzed market is the risk that two sites are using different models to set their lines and consequently end up offering odds that differ by more than the juice they’re charging.
That opens the door to so-called “arbitrage” betting, where the bettor takes the more favorable line at one site and the other line at another site, and guarantees himself a net profit whatever the actual outcome. Technically, this is only a problem for whichever site set the line incorrectly, but without a way to tell which site that is, it’s bad for both.
This is where companies like Ultraplay come in with esports specifically, as the company bills itself as the world’s leading esports feed provider, meaning that most of the lines you’ll see offered for esports, particularly on smaller sites, are based on Ultraplay’s models rather than being set in-house.
What specific esports games are being offered, then, largely depends on what Ultraplay decides to cover; if they haven’t yet started setting lines for a particular game, you’re unlikely to find it offered anywhere, unless a site with the resources to do so opts to start setting their own lines to get the jump on the competition.
So far, the games you’re most likely to see offered are so-called MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) games, including League of Legends (LoL), Defense of the Ancients 2 (Dota 2) and the recent mobile addition, Vainglory.
Also commonly available are CounterStrike: Global Offensive (CS:GO – a squad-based first-person shooter) and StarCraft 2 (a real-time strategy game, part of an older genre that served as a precursor to today’s MOBAs). Other games like Call of Duty, Hearthstone, World of Tanks, etc. are usually not offered on a regular basis, but appear occasionally when large events happen.
Not all esportsbooks offer every one of these games, and there are still plenty of sites that don’t offer esports at all, including, as a few prominent examples, BetFred, BetOnline and Intertops.
It has, however, become widespread enough that presenting a complete list of which games are offered where is both impractical and probably not very useful. Users looking for straight money-line wagers on match outcomes for one of those games will find it quite easy to locate a site offering the bet they’re looking for.
Alternative markets, however, like handicapped lines, correct score markets and proposition bets are much harder to find.
Bet365 currently offers the most variety in this regard, with numerous betting options for CS:GO and Dota 2 events, including winners of individual maps, number of maps played to determine a winner, handicapped lines, shutouts, and so forth.
BetStars likewise offers multiple bet types for larger events, particularly in CS:GO, and other sites offer a few options here and there. Ladbrokes allows for correct score betting in LoL, for instance, and BookMaker offers handicap lines.
The nature of the games in question lends itself to a wide variety of proposition bets in the long term, though it may take time for the necessary depth of understanding of the games to develop both among the oddsmakers and bettors.
Examples of bets that would likely be appealing to bettors and not particularly difficult to set lines for would be an over/under for “Time of First Kill” in a first-person shooter, or “Race to Level [N]” for MOBA-type games.
Another potential axis of development, since most esports games are played by teams of more than one player, would be the introduction of player-specific wagers, such as which individual player scores the most kills. Here, too, considerable sophistication will be required, understanding the stylistic matchups between the teams and the probable role of each team member.
Unfortunately but inevitably, as esports grows in popularity, it has begun to encounter some of the same problems as conventional sports, including drug use, cheating and rules controversies. Although these problems haven’t stopped conventional sports betting from being as popular as it is, they are nonetheless factors to consider when looking at the future growth of esports as a gambling alternative.
Last summer, controversy ensued when Kory Frisen, a former member of esports team Cloud9, admitted in an interview that he habitually used Adderall – an amphetamine – in top competition, and expressed the belief that essentially all of his teammates and opponents were doing likewise.
The Electronic Sports League (ESL) responded by implementing randomized drug testing going forward, as there are proven performance-enhancing effects to Adderall and other psychostimulants, yet also health consequences and potential for addiction when used outside prescribed dosages and purposes.
Another controversy from around the same time involved so-called “map glitching” by the team Fnatic at the Dreamhack Counter-Strike tournament. Members of Fnatic had discovered a glitch in one particular map which allowed an unintended vantage point to be reachable through exploitation of another glitch, called “boosting.”
Boosting is well-known and accepted within esports as “part of the game,” although it was probably not a deliberate part of the game design on the part of the developers. What made Fnatic’s actions questionable is that exploiting the map glitch in question made the game effectively unwinnable for the other side, so it surely would have been deemed illegal, or the map in question removed from competitive play until patched by the developer.
Once it became apparent how they’d won the match, the league initially decided that it should be replayed, but eventually Fnatic themselves recanted and conceded to their opponents to make things right.
It’s this latter sort of scandal that has the most potential to cause problems for sportsbooks and bettors.
What if the glitch in question had been more subtle and only discovered after the tournament was complete and bets had been settled? What if members of Fnatic had tipped off friends that they had secret knowledge of the glitch and told those friends to bet on them to win? What if someone working on a game with potential for esports success deliberately left such a subtle but exploitable glitch in place, and leaked it to a specific team, either in return for direct payment or with the intention of betting on them?
The more money starts being wagered on esports, the more likely such messy scenarios become, and as the daily fantasy sports world is currently discovering, it doesn’t take much to cause a crisis in the legal status and public image of a young but booming gambling industry.
But despite the unique risks involved in esports betting, there are some equally interesting potential advantages to be leveraged as it begins to catch on.
For one thing, esports are by nature much easier to broadcast than conventional sports; the action takes place in digital space and is already rendered for on-screen display by the game itself. There’s therefore no need for cameras or, indeed, much infrastructure at all.
A delay is required for most games, in order to avoid secret information being relayed to the players by outside parties, and someone needs to select which player’s screen to show at any given time, but the actual “footage” comes naturally packaged for digital distribution from the get-go.
That would seem to offer a lot of potential for integrated platforms for both online betting and spectating. Although the need for delays would somewhat limit the possibilities for in-play betting, the advantages of being able to browse, bet on and watch major esports events through a single service are obvious for both the user and the business.
The digital nature of the games also creates ample opportunity for the collection of statistics, and gamblers love statistics. After all, one of the reasons that baseball is so popular among bettors is that the nature of the game lends itself to detailed record-keeping and statistical analysis. That, in turn, makes betting on it a more analytical, less feel-based endeavor.
Baseball has nothing on esports in that regard, however, particularly as developers become more aware of their games’ potential for use as esports. After all, everything that takes place over the course of a match is already encoded as binary data within the computer – whatever statistics people care about are right there to be captured and saved without any need for additional equipment or human involvement.
Aside from providing tables of data for bettors and oddsmakers to pore over, this abundance of statistics is one of the reasons that, as mentioned above, esports have vast potential for unusual proposition bets. If it’s part of the game, the numbers are there, and if the numbers are there, people can bet on them.
One thing that all of these potential problems and advantages have in common is that they’re not intrinsic to game developers, esports leagues or sportsbooks themselves, but rather to the interfaces between these various industries.
The situation at the moment is mostly that developers produce games for commercial sale, then esports leagues decide which games to adopt, and now sportsbooks pick and choose which league events to offer betting for. Each of these steps is carried out with minimal, if any involvement by the other parties in the chain, which means that the risks loom large while much of the potential is being wasted.
The future of esports betting, then, depends a lot on how developers and leagues feel about it. On the one hand, the stigma around gambling presents a PR risk for both, so betting on esports may be something they’d rather discourage. On the other hand, gambling can increase esports viewership, which increases awareness of and enthusiasm for the games themselves, which increases sales for the developer.
Thus, existence of esports betting isn’t inherently problematic to digital games developers and could in fact be beneficial in the long run, but only if they decide to embrace it and work with the leagues, betting providers and – eventually – lawmakers. That way, they could maximize the unique advantages of their games as sports, while doing what they can to minimize the potential problems, which will likely involve tighter quality assurance standards for games slated to be used as esports, and probably some regulatory oversight as well.