The Extra Word on … the e-sports betting revolution

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Updated: July 13, 2015

Welcome to this regular TIW column, highlighting some of the stories and results that have caught the punting eye of our editor-in-chief Sean Callander.

How many kids were/are told by their parents that they’re wasting their lives playing video games? In the pre-home consol world of my youth (well, the old man did fork out for an original version of pong to plug into my black and white TV), pinball and video game arcades ruled. I’d hate to think how many 20¢ coins I ploughed into Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Frogger and Galaga during my high school years. And I can just imagine the outcome of the conversation after informing my parents that I wished to become a professional Galaga player.

 

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So there’s been almost a sense of vindication to watch the world of e-sports become such huge business over the past five years, with professional video gaming tournaments offering more prize money than some of sport’s biggest events. This year’s Defence of the Ancients (DOTA) 2 prizepool is expected to reach USD $15 million by the time the tournament kicks-off. To put that into perspective, the prizemoney for winning the Superbowl is USD $8.5 million while the ICC Cricket World Cup offers USD $10 million and UEFA’s Europa League USD $9 million.

“We’re in this really interesting space, the convergence of eSports with the mainstream is pretty significant.” – UNIKRN CEO, Rahul Sood.

The popularity of e-sports, in particular the game League of Legends in countries like South Korea, is staggering. Just last year, Chung-Ang University, one of South Korea’s top 10 universities, announced it would allow gamers to apply for athletic scholarships. The 2014 League of Legends championship was watched by more than 27 million people when broadcast on ESPN. Those numbers eclipsed the audiences for both Game 7 of last year’s baseball World Series (23.5 million viewers) and the decider of the 2014 NBA Finals (18 million). So, much to my parents’ dismay, more and more people across the world can consider pro-gaming as a genuine career.

While some gamers have been making a living off their skills since the late 1990s, it wasn’t until 2010’s Starcraft II that things really changed. One of the first games built with e-sports squarely as its focus, Starcraft II became a true spectator sport. With the launch of video streaming services such as Twitch, e-sports were catapulted into the mainstream. Pro-gaming teams have even created their own “frat houses” at which gamers can spend their time honing their skills and training, both digitally and physically. Yes, physically – most pro-gamers spend at least an hour or two a day exercising and keeping themselves in shape for big tournaments.

 

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Call of Duty 2015 world champions Chris ‘Replays’ Crowder, Jordan ‘JKap’ Kaplan, James ‘Clayster’ Eubanks and Dillon ‘Attach’ Price of team Denial eSports

If your reflexes and focus slacken during a big tournament, there’s no way you will win, so being fit and eating well is crucial. Gamers live and work together, devising tactics, working with coaches and preparing as diligently as any other traditional professional sporting team. But there are obstacles in the path of e-sports reaching their full potential in the professional realm. Countries like South Korea and the USA have high-speed broadband that allows competitors to play and practice without the limitations of Australia’s relatively slow connection speeds. As more money is brought into the sport, it’s hoped traditional media companies and sponsors will invest money to help bring world-class facilities to Australia’s shores.

Even if that does happen — will e-sports be able to truly claim it is a “sport”? Fans argue that e-sports have all the spectacle, skill and competition of a basketball game. On top of that, e-sports have teams, star players, sponsors and millions of dedicated fans across the world. Even the US government grants professional athlete visas to top e-sports players. The argument remains – e-sports require a significant amount of physical and mental skill to play, but lacks the athletic aspects of other professional sports. As sports bettors, do we care about such questions relating to athleticism? We do not.

 

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Betting on professional video game contests has not just become a reality, but it looms as a serious long-term threat to other traditional forms of betting. One of the ongoing obstacles for horse racing is that the more we urbanise, the further we leave behind those eras when everyone rode horses for transport or work, and eras that followed when people kept horses for recreation, and the harder it becomes for people to identify with them as sport. From this growing disconnect with the animals in a working or everyday capacity come the animal welfare debates affecting racing in many traditional jurisdictions.

One business has stolen a massive edge on the rest of the field by positioning itself as the world’s premier destination for e-sports betting. In a marriage of the old and new worlds of sports betting, Seattle-based company Unikrn has joined partnership with Tabcorp in Australia to facilitate that aim and any other countries that permit that kind of gambling. Tabcorp was set up 50 years ago by seed money from Australian horse-racing clubs as an off-course betting organisation to combat illegal SP bookmaking and to act as a funding mechanism for racing. It is now prospering greatly from cartoon racing and is clearly looking to its future.

 

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We shouldn’t be surprised to see Tabcorp entering such a space (via its corporate sports betting arm Luxbet). Walk into any TAB retail outlet around the country and you’ll find people betting on computer-generated (read: cartoon) racing games such as Trackside (pictured above). You’ll even hear people bemoaning their bad luck and/or the poor form of their selections! At launch, UNIKRN was only available to residents of Australia. But, because of the partnership with Tabcorp, UNIKRN has access to global gaming licenses, and it’s anticipated that it will be available in new jurisdictions in the coming weeks and months, including Europe.

UNIKRN CEO, Rahul Sood, believe that betting on eSports will help expand the rapidly growing market. “We’re in this really interesting space, the convergence of eSports with the mainstream is pretty significant. The idea for us, bringing betting into it and being able to create a live environment where people can gather, game, bet, collaborate, learn about the games … it’s a way to increase engagement. We thought that if we did this in a proper way — proper meaning legal, making sure we’re well-backed, making sure we have the right partners, and bringing the gaming DNA we have to the space, we’d be successful,” Sood said.

Note: In the coming weeks, The Inside Word will be adding major e-sports tournament to our portfolio of content.

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