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Instead of soccer and horses, South Africans are now betting millions on simulated sports
18th April, 07:46But gambling companies say their traditional punters are a bit old-school to switch to that kind of action - and nothing will be the same until football returns.
In a normal year South Africans bet billions of rands on the outcomes of horse races, football matches, and numbers games. By 2023, one report estimated this number would hit R11.1 billion.
But Covid-19 has brought most traditional forms of betting to a grinding halt. All but the most mundane or obscure sporting events and races are off the cards, and retail outlets that traded in offline numbers games are shuttered.
Although the link between a lockdown-induced boredom and gambling seems like good news for the betting industry, there's little out there to stimulate sizeable spending from the loyal local punters - unless they're into Belarusian soccer, the odd table tennis duel, darts, or Australian horse racing.
Pre-Covid19, South Africa's betting landscape was fairly predictable, and it relied mainly on fixed retail outlets to pull in bets.
Rob Scott, who oversees sports betting at Phumelela Gaming, says there are traditionally two main betting activities in South Africa: number and lottery-type draws, and live sports.
"Horse racing is significant too," says Scott. "But numbers and sport - in particular soccer - is where the action is. So obviously there are very few companies that wouldn't be impacted across the industry [by Covid-19]."
Keith Bolton, digital manager at Betting World, says the company has seen turnover take a knock through this period. This has forced them to introduce new products that don't rely on live sporting events.
Esports betting in particular has grown around the world in the wake of Covid-19. US sports betting provider Draft Kings says fantasy esports contests in that country increased by a multiple of 50 in March.
South African esports are still some way off the international trends, but it's now possible to bet on the outcomes of games like Defence of the Ancients (DOTA), League of Legends, and StarCraft, on most local online betting platforms.
It's also becoming increasingly popular to take a punt on football matches played on the multi-platform game FIFA, Bolton says.
Esports, and esports betting, is still a relatively new market in South Africa, though. Instead, Bolton says their emphasis is also on keeping the traditional sports and horse racing betters involved until things can return to normal.
To do this, most betting platforms in South Africa have introduced sporting simulations, and even animated matches. These produce results based on a random database draw or algorithm.
Betting World launched the product Jika, which is essentially an animated horse race that Bolton says "looks exactly how you'd see it in real life." It's also available to watch on betting television stations as you would a normal race.
They've also introduced animated soccer which uses the same underlying technology - with a match 'played' every six minutes.
But for loyal soccer punters - who know their teams and want to predict the outcome of specific matchups - many outlets have now introduced "simulated" sports.
These run according to the cancelled soccer schedules around the world - but instead of betting on the outcome of actual unplayed matches, punters are betting on a random result pulled from a vast database of historical encounters between the two teams.
This at least allows football fans to experience some degree of anticipation - and to claim they're drawing on their superior football knowledge when things go their way.
Other more traditional games, like online simulated roulette and various lottery-type number draws, have also found online homes on local betting sites, and are pulling in significant bets.
Bolton says all of these products were in the pipeline at Betting World, but they had to introduce them a lot sooner than anticipated.
"I don't think they'd have seen the light of day this quickly if it wasn't for Covid-19, but they were all products that were going to be introduced," he says.
The new games forced on local companies by Covid-19 closures do have some long-term positive elements for the local betting industry.
Scott says the move towards online was inevitable: "At the end of the day [Covid-19] is going to force people online, and it's going to force us to think about online betting differently. I guess that's a good thing over time."
Betting World has also seen a new line of customers that weren't previously in their database.
"Previously we never had esports betting, so this is a world we never tapped into," says Bolton. "But we are seeing new customers sign up specifically to play games like DOTA or League of Legends."
What is proving difficult, though, is getting those customers who bet on actual horse races and soccer matches excited about simulations and animations.
"Our punters are old school and have their favourites," says Bolton. "So to introduce new products is difficult. But we're getting there."
The rapid reinvention of betting in South Africa under Covid-19 is unlikely to see the volume of bets pulled in through traditional sporting events, but Bolton says it's starting to pick up.
Although it's impossible to put an exact number on how much the betting industry is pulling in on simulated, animated and electronic sports, Bolton says it's not an insignificant amount. "Across all betting platforms in South Africa it's definitely in the millions."
Even so, until football returns to the real world, Scott says the new games are unlikely to fill the gap.
"Football is the biggest bet-on sport in the world," he says. "So the reality is that you can do whatever you want, but until football returns, every betting company is going to struggle."