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All Bets Are On: How Virtual Sports Are Feeding Gambling Addiction During The Coronavirus Crisis
7th April, 09:11I am a consumer tech expert writing about Windows, PCs, laptops, Mac, broadband and more.
They're under starter's orders for the 15:56 from Puntwell Park. There's a large field of 15 horses and the slight favorite is Laughing Lola, ridden by Simon Schuster, at 11/2.
Lola's slow away. She immediately gets bunched at the back of the pack and her name's not even mentioned in the opening few furlongs by the race commentator. But then he doesn't mention any horse by name, impersonally referring to each of the runners and riders by their number alone. Still, it's his 20 race this hour alone - he can hardly be expected to remember all of the horse's names.
Lola makes a strong recovery in the second half of the race, but she can't get close to the runaway leader, Loveit, who storms home by three or four lengths, delighting punters who backed him at 20-1.
There's no time for photos in the winner's circle, however, as there's a new race starting in just a few seconds. And if the jump racing doesn't take your fancy, there's live World Cup soccer, motor racing, greyhounds and more all taking place now, on this Monday afternoon at the beginning of April, in the midst of a global pandemic that has all but eliminated live sport across the world.
But who needs real sports when virtual sports can keep the punters' money rolling in?
Yes, lest anyone think that one of the few side benefits of a global lockdown would be fewer opportunities for gamblers to blow their money, virtual sports have filled the vacuum. Whether that be betting on the computerized thoroughbreds at Puntwell Park on sites such as Betfair, or betting on real human players in esports tournaments. The gambling industry doesn't need actual sport to part punters from their cash.
That's why, with Betfair listing only four real live events on Monday afternoon - two tennis matches, one darts, one volleyball - the gambling sites have become increasingly dependent on providing their own entertainment. Almost all of the major betting sites in the U.K. are hosting these virtual sports events and they run around the clock, every two minutes, like clockwork. No virus is going to wipe out Ecuador vs Ivory Coast in the PaddyPower virtual soccer World Cup or cycling from the Michaux Velodrome on Betway. Well, only a computer virus.
What's striking is how these virtual events give punters even less chance of beating the bookmakers then the real events do. Take the race mentioned at the top, for example, which inicdentally was listed as "race 70,879,877" on Betfair's graphics, giving you some indication of the frequency of these virtual events.
The runners and odds of winning are listed on the site for a just a couple minutes before each race, but the punters are otherwise starved of information to make any kind of informed judgement about which virtual horse might win. Graphics showing each horse's recent form are briefly flashed up before the race, but that's as close as punters get to actual form and they have no time to study or compare it to the other horses in the race, as they would with regular racing. Gamblers are effectively betting blind.
It's the same with the Monaco Kings vs Barcelona Braves football match being played out on Betway. There are loads of markets to bet on - match winner, total goals, correct score, away team goals and so on - but no information on which to base a bet other than the bald odds. Even before the 'match' kicks-off, "no more bets" is announced - as it is before the start of all the virtual sports I've watched on betting sites - meaning the player has no chance to change their bet once the action gets underway and they can see which way the wind is blowing. And when I say matches, I mean a short set of FIFA-style match highlights. There's no way these sites would leave 90 whole minutes between opportunities to place wagers. The next one kicks off in no more than three minutes.
Charles Ritchie from Gambling with Lives, which was set up by families bereaved by gambling related suicide, worries that people who might normally gamble on regular sports will be drawn to these much more frequent, much less predictable virtual sports during the coronavirus crisis. "While virtual sports betting has so far accounted for only a small proportion of overall betting activity, they have become increasingly popular amongst regular online bettors," he says.
"But these are not real sports events - these are 'events' constructed entirely to provide an opportunity to bet, indeed multiple and frequent bets. No one is interested in the result per se. There is no 'form' to be studied, no skill in picking a 'winner'. They owe more to so-called 'slots' and casino games, based on high speed random number generators, which are associated with incredibly high addiction rates. And that's where the worry lies. Will more people who either don't bet or bet on traditional sports be drawn into this dangerous activity, essentially through boredom?"
Virtual sports aren't mere sideshows on the gambling sites, tucked away from general public view. They've been turned into televised substitutes for mainstream sporting events during this crisis.
ITV, the U.K.'s second biggest television channel, last weekend broadcast The Virtual Grand National - an AI version of the country's biggest horse race, at the exact same time the real race was meant to be held. The virtual race included all 40 of the horses and jockeys who were most likely to have qualified for The Grand National and viewers were encouraged to place wagers on the race, with bookmakers donating profits to National Health Service charities.
The race was won by 18-1 shot Potters Corner, but Charles Ritchie fears the losers won't only be the punters who backed the other 39 virtual nags, but anyone who registered with a gambling site to bet on the charity race in the first place. "The worry for campaigners for gambling reform is that this was just a Trojan Horse for gambling companies, with people having to sign up for an online account in order to place their bet... who will now be subjected to the relentless marketing by this voracious industry," he says.
"Of course, it will have also introduced many people to the whole concept of betting on a virtual 'sport', which is the only 'sport' to bet on in these days of lockdown. The event raised £2.6m for charities - a tiny proportion of the industry's £14.5bn winnings (and punters' losses). But for how many people was this the first step on the path to addiction? That £2.6m will be swamped by the costs of harms caused by gambling and the deaths by suicide to add to the estimated 500 gambling related suicides every year in the UK."
The gambling companies aren't purely relying on virtual sports to entertain bored punters. Look at any of the major bookmakers' sites over the past couple of weeks and you will have noticed eSports climbing up the menus and appearing in the "in-play" screens much more prominently than they were pre-coronavirus.
Betfair alone is taking bets on tournaments in games such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, League of Legends, Dead or Alive 2, NBA2K and Starcraft 2. Though figures on the volume of bets being placed on such events are hard to come by, there are signs of a huge upswing in eSports gambling. The Online Betting Guide claims it has seen a 943% increase in traffic to its esports betting tips page, suggesting gamblers are seeking out new ways to spend their money. Dead or Alive 2 alone saw a 245% month-on-month increase in betting tips placed on the site from February to March.
"The Covid-19 crisis is potentially going to be disastrous for problem gambling in the UK and across the world," Charles Ritchie warns.