In March 2020, a change in betting habits began. As the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled sporting events around the world, esports engagement rocketed. CEO of esports betting platform Luckbox, Quentin Martin, noted seeing a 54% rise in new player registrations after it was announced that the English Premier League would be postponed. Later, the Gambling Commission would confirm these findings – reporting an 88% increase in online virtual sports betting in March - when national lockdown was first imposed. But can esports really sustain this trajectory once it’s back to business-as-usual? And what does it need to do to become a staple of the betting industry?
What’s the current state of the esports industry?
The last year has seen phenomenal growth in the esports industry. Hamstrung by an inability to host physical events, many sporting organisations – including The Grand National, Formula 1, Moto GP, La Liga and NASCAR and The Premier League - went online. And amazingly, the fans followed. A study by PwC found that over half of under 35s were open to watching gaming or esports in the absence of traditional sport.
But this enthusiasm has also leaked into the general online gaming industry, turning esports mainstream. The ESL Pro League Season 11 (a CS: GO professional esports league) was met with a 27% increase in online viewings on its live Twitch stream on the first day it aired in March, compared to the previous season. CS: GO also achieved 1,000,000 concurrent players for the first time in the same month – showing that people weren’t just watching; they were getting involved. And this goes for the wider gaming industry. According to the same PwC study, just under half of respondents reported playing or watching gaming content every week, including two-thirds of under 35s.
Meanwhile, analytics firm Stream Hatchet reported that ‘watch hours’ for gaming streams on Twitch, YouTube, Facebook and Mixer grew from 4.8bn in Q1 to 7.6bn in Q2 last year.
All of this has teed the esports industry up nicely for future success, with the industry now predicted to surpass $1.5 billion by 2023, with total esports viewership growing by 9% over the next four years.
What does this mean for betting?
Betting was another industry that felt the shock of COVID-19 shutting down its physical operations. While spending in casinos and betting shops plummeting over lockdown, online gambling in the form of online slots, poker, casinos, and, of course, esports, all shot up.
According to the Gambling Commission, online poker was up 53% in March year-on-year, but it was virtual sports betting – up by 88% - that would cement esports as a great revenue stream for the betting industry. In fact, the gross gambling yield for esports betting in the UK was up by a mind-blowing 2,922% in March 2020 compared to the previous year. Then, in April it rose by 124% again, and in May, it went up month-on-month again by 35%.
With 52% of esports fans likely to gamble on tournaments according to US consumer research firm Interpret, this is a sizeable growth market – especially when compared to the wider sporting industry. In 2019, just 6.7% of Britons reported betting on sports at least once in the last year.
It’s important to say here that a rise in betting is not necessarily healthy. Luckily, research from the Gambling Commission in July 2020 suggests that while gambling habits have changed over lockdown, people do not seem to be gambling more. The report, which also features insight from YouGov research between 20-21 May, reveals that only 0.4% of all adults surveyed began gambling for the first time in the last four weeks.
What does the future of esports look like?
My view is that esports engagement can only go up. With more broadcasting stations and professional sports leagues showing interest, esports will earn a well-deserved profile boost. As it becomes more mainstream, and as media and advertising businesses emerge from pandemic budget cuts, it will also open the door for more paid partnerships.
And this will be key to esport’s ongoing success. Currently, esports has less monetisation per viewer than traditional sports, and finding ways to secure additional funding – either through sponsorships, advertising, media or through opening up potential in other lucrative industries such as betting – will be important for the industry’s growth.
Luckily, key players in esports and esports betting have had a phenomenal year for growth. Bragg Gaming Group announced a Q3 2020 revenue growth of 72%, while Luckbox reported a 500% increase in year-over-year growth. And there were some significant developments in the market – including acquisitions by Esports Entertainment Group, the launch of RGS Services on the ORYX Hub platform for Bragg Gaming Group and Betway, and Flutter Entertainment’s $4.2 billion deal with FanDuel.
Success will also be tied to high viewership numbers, which will naturally bring more awareness, more funding, and more revenue to the industry. The pandemic has injected esports with cultural and economic relevance, and it’s unlikely to be forgotten about now.
It’s also important to note that esports, despite the name, isn’t all online either. New interest could pave the way for more physical tournaments, helping the industry to continue growing post-pandemic. Unfortunately, quite a few physical gaming tournaments, such as the Fortnite World Cup, League of Legends, Call of Duty and FIFA 20, couldn’t go ahead this year, and were replaced by online alternatives. Physical as well as online events could be important for sustaining interest post-lockdown.
Esports had been a growing market pre-pandemic, but with more time spent indoors and the obliteration of physical sporting events, the last year has undoubtedly put esports on the map in terms of mainstream growth. The real question is what happens when lockdown is finally lifted. For now, the investment flooding into the sector, the skyrocketing viewership numbers and the take-up of sporting organisations and pro-gamers, suggests that the sector is onto big things – and betting businesses know it.
Do you think esports betting will continue to grow after the pandemic? I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you’re currently investing in this space. And if you’re interested in putting your skills into this fast-growing sector, please also reach out – you can find me at firstname.lastname@example.org.