Sport betting during Covid-19: Scoff all you want, e-sports surges in popularity

Manchester derby at Old Trafford (Getty Images)
Manchester derby at Old Trafford (Getty Images)

The purists among us scoff when 'e-sports' is mentioned.

"It's just not sport," they say, even though those strong feelings gradually become more conflicted the longer live sport remains absent from stadiums and screens.

One group of sport fans though has rapidly shed their prejudice for sports played on gaming consoles: betters.

"It's been really interesting how quickly people have warmed to e-sports," Warren Tannous, founder and chief executive of World Sports Betting (WSB), told Sport24.

"There's been a significant up-tick in interest. We can safely say that an English Premier League punter will invariably start betting on a FIFA e-soccer match or even tournament. That's certainly the trend we've seen."

The sports betting industry hasn't been spared from the economic fall-out of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is obvious given its relative reliance on live matches.

However, companies have also avoided facing the full wrath of the virus due to other events remaining steadfastly intact: e-sports and virtual gaming.

"It's been tough and challenging," admitted Tannous.

"We've had to make some adjustments to the stress in the market, but it's allowed us to market some nice add-ons."

Braamfontein-based BetXchange also recently touted its e-sports offering, in particular highlighting the growing popularity of electronic soccer leagues.

Punters can wager on no less than six different products.

"The games are quick and action-packed, lasting 12 minutes per match and six minutes each half, although some leagues' match times do differ, as well as rules stipulated per league. Teams are made up of a range of players including professional soccer players and e-sports professionals to represent the teams," the company said in a statement.

Tannous added that there was also a surge in interest on live casino-based games such as roulette and poker.

For those who still crave actual humans performing on-field deeds, WSB is cautiously exploring "simulated sport" as a value-adding offering, though Tannous admitted that discussions with the Gauteng Gambling Board over legality issues were still ongoing.

"What it basically entails is we take a past game - say a Merseyside or Manchester derby - and allow betting on it. However, punters won't know the year in question until it's screened," said Tannous.

"We're trying to get this back."

WSB's commercial considerations aren't restricted to merely adapting their core business model.

It's left a decent footprint in the South African sports sponsorship market, notably as the Cape Cobras' name sponsor, an associate sponsor of the Lions and EFC's official betting partner.

But Covid-19 has necessitated robust talks over some of those associations.

"To date, we're not terminating any of our agreements," said Tannous.

"We know exactly where we stand with our partners and we’re also very much aware that the lack of activity is something out of their control. We'll make decisions when there are clearer outcomes available."

WSB's contract with the Cobras has run out, but there's no concrete indications yet that the agreement can't be renewed. 

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