COVID-19 is Wiping Out Sports Betting—but Odds Look Good for Esports

byGraham Ashton  April 7, 2020 Reading Time: 6min read

Pictured: ESL Pro League 2019 finals in Odense, Denmark, taken before the day’s matches. Credit: ESL/Helena Kristiansson

Esports was one of the first entertainment sectors to see mass event cancellations, but now it is ironically one of the last standing competitive endeavors on Earth. Mass social distancing has minimized betting opportunities for sport, but in their place, some video game competitions are seeing higher viewership, and data demand, than ever before.

“All the fence-sitters have been pushed off the fence into esports,” Mark Balch told The Esports Observer. He is head of product and partnership for Berlin-based data company Bayes Esports Solutions, which recently estimated that sports betting was down over 60%, and as much as 90% for some bookmakers. “It really is a scramble to find any content anywhere in the world for pretty much everyone involved in the business.”

On betting sites, the last sports standing includes Belarusian soccer and Russian table tennis, which are sitting on borrowed time. In place of the Premier League or LaLiga, FIFA 20 is seeing odd demands unprecedented for the soccer simulator series. Many are just random competitions thrown together by sports stars with little else to do; essentially creating an endless cycle of content.

Sports sims have typically played second fiddle to core esports—shooters and strategy titles—which are, admittedly, confusing to most people. What might help certain games is legacy; Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), is part of a twenty-year-old tactical shooter franchise. Still considered a tier-one esport today, it may bring in lapsed players to view and bet more so than games with high learning curves, like Dota 2 and League of Legends.

“There are a lot of sports that have been discovered through the betting lane,” said Flavien Guillocheau, CEO of esports data and odds provider Pandascore. “I expect large tier esports or very easy-to-watch esports like CS:GO, for example, to get people from sports as new fans, potentially.”

Pictured: Riot Games lead engineer’s home setup for League of Legends production. Credit: Carlos Castillo, Riot Games North America

At the same time, he added, there is a bigger structural problem with CS:GO, because of the stream latency imposed by ESL and other tournament organizers. “For people who bet, it’s not a very good experience because the bookmaker is moving the odds one minute before the action you see on stream.” Last week the Nevada Gaming Control Board approved wagering on various CS:GO leagues, but only pre-match odds.

Changes to tournament format can also have a knock-on effect for betting. Several multi-day tournaments have had to recalibrate to league structures to accommodate teams now scattered across the globe, and programming gaps created by canceled arena events. These format changes may actually increase the number of matches available for bookmakers to buy. Usually online tournaments carry a lower value, but more volume is offsetting this.

What might hurt a bit is when tournament organizers make last-minute changes, such as which server the games are played on. A bigger problem is viewer experience. While some CS:GO athletes have spent years playing from their bedrooms, organizers like Riot Games invested millions in studio tech, and are now producing piece-meal broadcasts from dozens of locations.

“This does impact the bottom line. At the end of the day, betting is a reflection of how much people are invested,” said Balch. “When it comes to these issues, people can turn it off and watch something else.”

A good portion of the lapsed sports viewership is currently focused on racing simulations. The NASCAR Pro Invitational Series, which features current and hall of fame drivers on an iRacing track, earned a 0.81 Nielsen rating and 1.33 million viewers for its races on March 22. Formula One also gathered racing drivers, professional simulation drivers, and content creators for the “Not the AUS GP,” organized by Veloce Esports.

This phenomenon is not wholly unheard of in sports. When a 1967 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease brought UK horse racing to a sudden halt, the BBC proudly staged the first computer-simulated horse race. Details on the riders, course, and random variables were given to machines to work out the odds, with commentary provided on British radio.