Sports betting is hotter than the surface of the sun these days, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to repeal a federal ban on sportsbooks outside of Nevada. Thanks to that landmark ruling from May, nearly 15 percent of American states – Delaware, New Jersey, Mississippi, West Virginia, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island – have decided to launch legal sports betting industries of their own.
With millions of Americans visiting their local casino or racetrack sportsbook facility, or even loading up online options on their laptop or smartphone, the majority are looking to back their favorite basketball or football teams. But if you take a deeper dive into your favorite sportsbooks list of betting markets, you might just find an exciting and entertaining alternative to traditional sports.
The world of competitive video games is more commonly known as “esports”- a catchall term used to describe video game tournaments and other events. Teams of professional gamers take one another on in heated matches of Fortnite, League of Legends, Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CSGO), Call of Duty, Hearthstone, Overwatch and other popular games. And when the dust has settled, winning teams take home championship titles, trophies, and hefty cash prizes.
If you’re not very familiar with the concept of esports, check out this two-minute tour of the sights and sounds from a major tournament courtesy of the Danish CSGO team Astralis.
As you can see, esports have come a long way from those heated Halo or Mario Kart 64 sessions you enjoyed back in the day. Thanks to backing by billionaire patrons like tech guru and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, the biggest tournaments pack arenas to the rafters. Production values are top-notch, professional teams take the latest games apart like a puzzle, and adoring fans turn out to cheer for beloved pros like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins.
All things considered, esports has blossomed from a niche activity into a full-fledged industry, so it’s no surprise to see major sportsbooks set lines for the biggest events.
Last year, the Downtown Grand casino in Las Vegas became the first venue in the Silver State to accept esports wagers. And the League of Legends World Championships proved to be so popular with bettors that the proverbial floodgates from there. Over the last year, the Luxor casino constructed a multimillion dollar esports arena, while the Nevada Gaming Control Board (NGCB) reached an understanding with local operators to classify video gaming as a sport for betting purposes.
This growth isn’t limited to the brick and mortar sportsbooks in Las Vegas – or in the seven newly legal states listed above – by any means. Leading online boomakers like Bovada, 5Dimes, and Pinnacle all offer a full suite of esports betting markets, an emerging vertical which has quickly overtaken more established traditional sports.
In an interview with the local KTNV news outlet, Brett Abarbanel – who serves as Director of Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) International Gaming Institute – discussed the impact esports has had on the Pinnacle online sportsbook’s bottom line:
“Betting on people playing video games may be more popular than you think.Pinnacle, which is a large sports book in Curacao, announced esports had overtaken golf and rugby in terms of popularity on their site.
They are looking at 100% growth numbers year over year.” (Quote)
And this year, respected gaming industry firm Eilers & Krejcik Gaming collaborated with software analytics company Narus to compile a report on the rapid growth of esports betting. According to their report, global wagering activity on esports accounted for $6.7 billion in 2018 alone. That total is projected to reach $13 billion by 2020, which isn’t a far cry from the $50 billion baseline for soccer betting estimated by the BBC in 2013.
Simply put, the fusion between esports and sportsbooks might just be the next big thing, especially for folks who consider themselves avid bettors already.
But before you head out to lay a dime down on the next Dota 2 tournament, it’s important to study the intricacies of esports betting a little more closely. An abundance of wagers might be right there for the taking, but as any sharp bettor will tell you, that doesn’t mean you have to risk your hard-earned dough on them.
If you’re currently exploring the idea of betting on esports, but you aren’t sure which way to lean just yet, read on to learn about five reasons why it might not be the best idea. From there, we’ll balance things out by offering three reasons why you might just take your chances and fire off a few tickets on your favorite video games, pro gamers, or tournament teams.
First and foremost, succeeding as a sports bettor is all about consistency. The most respected sharps out there don’t splash money around on wagers which leave the outcome largely up to random chance. Instead, they hone in on hard data to identify sides which offer a slightly higher likelihood of success than the sportsbook’s line dictates. All of which is to say esports might just be too random for serious sports betting.
Just take a look at the tables below – which highlight the podium finishers from the Apex fighting game tournament’s Super Smash Bros. Melee competitions in 2015 and 2016 – to get a better idea:
2016 Apex Tournament Super Smash Bros. Melee Results
2015 Apex Tournament Super Smash Bros. Melee Results
As you can see, not a single one of the seven Super Smash Bros. pros who placed at Apex in 2015 managed to repeat the feat the following year.
Just imagine how hard betting on the National Football League (NFL) would be if the entire 16-team playoff field was replaced from year to the next. Without a certain sense of consistency in terms of performance, bettors just don’t have the same bearings to work with when assessing esports lines.
And those Super Smash Bros. results aren’t an outlier by any means either. You can see the same level of variance when scanning the Champions list from the FIFA eWorld Cup online soccer competition:
Once again, even with 14 years’ worth of results in the books, this particular esports tournament managed to produce unique winners and runners-up nearly across the board.
The import of seemingly randomized results like those above should be readily apparent to any sports bettor worth their salt. When the games are continually tinkered with and updated, and players move from one area of focus to another, betting on esports will usually offer a veritable crapshoot.
On a more pragmatic level, betting on esports – at least through a legal, regulated sportsbook – isn’t even possible unless you happen to live in Nevada.
Despite several states participating in sports betting legalization “gold rush” of sorts, only Nevada offers legal wagering on esports. And even that extension of the law granted by the Nevada Gaming Control Board (NGCB) is just a few years old, so the legal industry is still in its infancy to say the least.
In New Jersey – the state which spearheaded efforts to repeal a federal ban on sports betting – the law specifically bans esports altogether thanks to the following language:
“A prohibited sports event includes all high school sports events, electronic sports, and competitive video games but does not include international sports events in which persons under age 18 make up a minority of the participants.” (Quote)
That ban was inserted by Garden State legislators at the last minute, but according to renowned gaming and sports attorney Daniel Wallach, their intent was simply to get traditional sports betting up and running as soon as possible:
“I think the goal is not to stamp out esports betting, but to just confine the current law to traditional sports betting, as was the intent of the 2014 law. This was wholly unique to New Jersey’s history of litigation and to replace what was an obsolete law. The goal here is speed and expedition, and to treat or to focus on sports betting, not to think of all these other forms of betting that they can add in.”
Even so, until lawmakers in New Jersey decide to amend their sports betting law, wagering on esports will remain illegal there. Pennsylvania recently launched its first legal sportsbooks, and while gaming regulators there are at least amenable to offering esports, the situation in the Keystone State remains the same. Unless a carveout for esports is introduced and passed, bettors in Pennsylvania won’t see their favorite esports tournaments up on the betting board anytime soon.
And even residents of Nevada lack for options where esports is concerned, as the only bookmaker there posting odds is William Hill U.S. Granted, the company is the largest sportsbook operator in the state, but William Hill U.S. specializes in self-service betting kiosks for the most part. That means gamblers hitting The Strip or Downtown Las Vegas only have a handful of sportsbooks to choose from if they want to take a flier on their favorite gamer.
On the same note, even if you’re perfectly willing to wager through an offshore sportsbook like Bovada or Pinnacle that isn’t exactly legal, you’ll still find a dearth of options.
Take a look below to get a glimpse at the esports offerings posted by Bovada, only America’s most prevalent and popular online bookmaker:
Esports Section on Bovada
While the site does spread its fair share of betting markets linked to esports competitions, pay close attention to the right-hand column listing available wagers.
As you can see, many of the betting markets – such as the Rocket League eLeague Cup or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (WESG Q) – offer just a single wager. Compare that to Bovada’s massive selection on any given NFL Sunday – which can see hundreds of wagers tied to just one game – and you’ll get an idea of how consolidated the esports betting boards can be.
Unfortunately, despite the creation of oversight agencies like the esports Integrity Coalition (ESIC) in 2016, competitive video gaming is rife with cheating, collusion, and match fixing.
One year before the EIC was founded, a group of 21 gamers who played Counter-Strike: Global Offensive professionally were caught colluding to throw their matches. The cheaters were banned from participating in sanctioned esports events, but their lasting legacy is a cloud of suspicion that still hangs over the entire industry.
Just this past March, two Korean men were arrested for their roles in a Starcraft match fixing scheme. That incident followed an infamous Starcraft scandal from 2016, when legendary pro Lee Seung-Hyun was prosecuted for throwing a pair of high-profile matches. As punishment for his crimes, Seung-Hyun was handed an 18-month prison sentence and a lifetime ban from South Korean esports.
Ian Smith – a lawyer out of the U.K. who also serves as Integrity Commissioner for the ESIC – recently told The Guardian that cheating and esports go hand in hand:
“If you’re looking at sporting integrity … in esports you’ve really got to look at betting fraud and match-fixing as the biggest threats. In broad terms, it’s exactly the same as any other sport and it operates in the same way. It’s incredibly widespread.The epicentres of esports … are south-east Asia, so China and South Korea in particular, and the US – the two biggest illegal gambling places in the world.And all the evidence I get through from suspicious bet alerts indicates that fixing in China is rife.”
For its part, Blizzard – the video game designer behind esports staples like Starcraft, Hearthstone, and World of Warcraft – is taking a hardline approach to handling cheats.
After yet another esports collusion scandal broke out during a tournament sponsored by Harvard University, Blizzard issued a statement condemning the cheaters to a lifetime ban:
“We have zero tolerance for cheating in our tournaments.The rules are in place to ensure a fair playing field for all participants – when these rules are abused, they put the integrity of the competition at risk.
The students found to be sharing their Battle.net accounts and the players with whom they were sharing will be banned indefinitely from participation in any future Tespa tournaments.”(Quote)
But when you consider how that incident went down – one player let a top-ranked pro who wasn’t listed on the team roster man the controls in secret – the idea of enforcing lifetime bans in esports becomes laughable to say the least.
Unless you’re wagering on the most prominent and prestigious sanctioned esports events, you’ll never really know if the eventual results are on the level.
On a final note, the primary barrier preventing bettors from backing esports competitors is a lack of familiarity. Much like avid Major League Baseball (MLB) enthusiasts might not know the ins and outs of the minor leagues, traditional sports fans can be forgiven for not following the latest esports developments.
New teams are constantly being created, while others are rendered defunct through lack of funding. Professional players dominate one game before moving on to another. And major tournament series designed to become schedule staples simply vanish when organizers decide to call it quits.
For these reasons, navigating the world of esports betting can often become a quest akin to Link scouring the Earth for Princess Zelda. Until you develop a firm knowledge of the top performing teams, most popular pros, and the significant tournament series, trying your hand as an esports bettor is nothing but a pure gamble.
Even if you’re not a gamer yourself, there’s just something special about watching the best players in the world do their thing. Fighting games like Super Smash Bros. and Street Fighter create frantic races to kill off an opponent’s health meter. Strategy based card games like Hearthstone involve mental gymnastics on par with poker. And battle royale games like Fortnite turn into a free-for-all of resource gathering and battleground hunting.
No matter which of these concepts you prefer, having a little skin in the game can make watching esports a genuine thrill.
Whereas the bookmakers have had decades of experience setting lines for sports like football and basketball, they’re still learning the esports ropes.
That means thinking bettors can shop around for poorly conceived lines and hammer the books for making a mistake. Winning wagers are always nice, but when you get one over on the bet shop by pouncing on a bad line, it can feel like cashing two tickets for the price of one.
No need to kid yourself on this one… if you read this far into a post about esports and sports betting, you’re already thinking about firing off a few choice wagers.
If the sportsbooks post lines for anything – be it political races or celebrity award shows – the betting public will always line up to take a shot. And you will too – now that you know a little more about the ins and outs of esports wagering that is.
No matter where you stand on the esports betting debate, however, savvy bettors will surely keep an eye on this industry in the years to come.
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