US sports betting a hot topic in London

Five Things We Learned At ICE And LAC Gaming Expos

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Dreary old February isn’t exactly the ideal time to visit London. Unless, of course, you were among the tens of thousands of gaming industry folks at ExCel London this month for ICE Totally Gaming and its sister event, the London Affiliate Conference (LAC).

Veteran attendees were quick to note that this year’s ICE and LAC carried a different tone than previous iterations. For the first time in a long time, the neglected US online gambling market received considerable attention at the Europe-centric shows. Sports betting, of course, took center stage.

For a first-time ICE/LAC attendee from the US, there was a lot to take in. Here are the five key takeaways.

1. Compared to US conferences, ICE is a shock

The Global Gaming Expo (G2E) is the largest conference in the US, and it likely rivals ICE in attendance numbers (edge: ICE) and floor space (edge: G2E).

The two shows, however, are opposites in tone and atmosphere. If they were Las Vegas casinos, ICE would be Cosmopolitan and G2E would be Flamingo.

The major differences between the two mega-shows are:

  • ICE is forward-looking, while G2E tends to be stuck in the past and present.
  • G2E is largely a land-based show with slot machines and table games as far as the eye can see. ICE is a mixture of land-based and online products, with the latter occupying more floor space.
  • The overall vibes are in contrast to the cities that host them. ICE has more of a trendy, Vegas feel to it. G2E better resembles old-world London.

We aren’t saying that ICE is the better show; it’s just different.

With so many US attendees, ICE 2019 was a record-setter. The LAC, held in conjunction, also set new high-water marks. According to the show’s host, Clarion Gaming, “[It] beat all previous editions regarding pre-registration, onsite attendance, exhibitors, sponsors, speakers and hours of content.”

It will be interesting to see if the numerous North American attendees cause any ICE spillover at G2E in October.

2. The DOJ opinion isn’t scaring anyone

To a person, the industry is taking a business-as-usual approach in the wake of the recent Wire Act opinion from the US Department of Justice.

No operator is officially pulling back the reins, and it’s apparent that the industry on both sides of the Atlantic believes the opinion stands on a dubious legal footing. Many have doubts it will stick.

That said, the opinion was a hot topic of conversation, with reminders set for the April expiration of the 90-day compliance window.

Outwardly, everyone had on their poker faces. Inwardly, though, heart rates were likely elevated.

3. Everyone is a sportsbook now

The opening of the US sports betting market is the gaming industry’s new golden goose.

Alun Bowden, senior consultant for European markets for research firm Eilers & Krejcik, counted no less than 30 sports betting platform suppliers spread across the ICE showroom floor. Bowden estimated that sports betting accounted for a quarter of the total floor space.

Several suppliers expanded their footprints this year, including SBTech and Kambi. Both companies are key players in the fledgling US market, and their booths at ICE provided a clear indication of their scaling up.

The dawn of US sports betting is also fueling an increase in ancillary products and suppliers — from self-service kiosks to virtual sports. The latter had a significant presence at ICE; it was hard to look in any direction and not see a virtual sports product.

Virtuals and kiosks will likely be an integral part of the shifting US sports betting landscape as markets mature and operators look to new products and amenities to sustain growth. Both are already on the radar of US operators, in fact.

Ed Andrewes, the head of Resorts online gaming in New Jersey, thinks sports betting will drive interest in virtual sports — a product Resorts and several other NJ online casinos already offer.

Self-service kiosks are so far proving their worth in New Jersey. In its recent earnings call, Kambi CEO Kristian Nylén indicated that more than half of the company’s in-person bets in the US are booked via terminals.

“We believe a high-quality kiosk is a must for any operator in or looking at the market,” Nylén said.

4. US market is a riddle wrapped in a mystery

With few exceptions, conversations concerning the US market felt frenetic. It was as if everyone knows they’re supposed to be doing something — and quickly — but they’re not sure what they’re supposed to be doing.

Outward confidence and top-level talking points often masked a lack of understanding regarding the intricacies of the US market. Successful European operators and affiliates are in for a surprise if they think success in the US is as easy as airdropping in their existing business model — even if it’s superior to what is currently available in the market.

To understand why, let’s turn to poker.

Online poker players will tell you that thinking on Level 4 (What does my opponent think I think he has?) doesn’t do you much good against opponents who are thinking on Level 1 (What do I have?). European gaming companies targeting the US would be wise to understand why that is the case.

The US market is nascent. Potential customers aren’t familiar with intricate products and are seeking out a different kind of content than the more experienced European bettors. Even when a product or business model might be more sophisticated, it may be too much for the US market as currently constituted.

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5. The show behind the show

The gaming conference itself (exhibitors, sponsors, panel discussions) is just one aspect of the overall experience of a show like ICE or G2E. There’s also a show behind the show, which can often be more interesting than the main program.

You never know who you’re going to meet at a major gaming conference, or what kind of idea someone is promoting — from running into the CEO of a popular men’s lifestyle blog to interacting with members of an esports betting startup like Luckbox, which counts multiple former PokerStars employees among its founders and leadership team.

The startup approach to ICE

Setting up a booth at ICE might not be the best use of time and resources as Luckbox approaches launch, but there’s a lot of value in simply attending.

For a company like Luckbox, ICE provides:

  • An opportunity to network and make the first contact with possible vendors.
  • A firsthand look at competitors and competing products.
  • Insights into the latest trends and innovations.
  • A temperature gauge of the gaming world.

“It’s where we see the competition,” Luckbox COO Quentin Martin said. “It’s where we meet our partners and how we build our business.”

Here’s more from Martin:

“Luckbox is good at esports. That’s what we’re focusing on, but esports betting is so much more than that. There’s player account management, responsible gaming, odds providers, servers, licensing — and each of these requires a good relationship, finding the best partner to work with, and touching base with your existing partners. And that’s what ICE is all about.”

The big booths and big companies may capture the attention, but it’s always a good idea to keep your eyes and ears — and most importantly, your mind — open. As Martin noted, you never know when you’re going to be looking at the potential “next big thing” in gaming.

“A few years ago, there were just a few people talking about [esports] and a bit of a buzz, and this year there’s a CSGO tournament, multiple companies focusing on esports — it’s just there.

“It’s crossed tipping point right now, and it’s already the fastest-growing betting sport. It’s really starting to get the attention of the betting world.”

- Steve covers nearly every angle of online poker in his job as a full-time freelance poker writer. His primary focus for OPR is the developing legal and legislative picture for regulated US online poker and gambling.
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