Debate: Are free-to-play games an effective tool for operators?

By Gambling Insider

Owain Flanders, Iqbal Johal and Tim Poole debate whether free-to-play games are a useful tool for acquisition and retention. This article originally appeared in the October edition of Trafficology.

Owain Flanders – Yes – Combat potential consumer apathy

For me, the real value of free-to-play (FTP) comes in its ability to entice those who might otherwise be apathetic to that specific form of betting, or even gambling in general. In my argument for this, I would like to share a couple of personal experiences in which I have witnessed this being particularly successful.

The first instance involves the use of Sky Bet’s Super Six game. The FTP game requires players to guess the exact results of six games in the English Football Leagues. A correct guess means points, and the owner of the highest point tally is guaranteed £5,000 ($6,460) each week. If a player guesses all six of the scores correctly then they can net a prize of £250,000 (as long as they are the only player to have guessed the scores correctly that week).

Personally, I am a big fan of football, making Super Six the perfect weekend FTP game. However, I have an old friend who truly couldn’t care less about the outcome of the week’s football fixtures. In betting terms, he is more of an online casino punter, and would much rather absorb himself in Netflix than watch the football scores roll in on Gillette Soccer Saturday.

Despite this, each week without fail, that same friend will make his six score predictions in Sky Bet’s FTP app. The question is why would someone with no interest in football do this? The answer is simple. This is a free app offering a jackpot of £250,000. Regardless of a lack of football knowledge, he feels like he would be stupid not to get involved – and rightly so. If the app asked him to predict scores for the weekend’s synchronised swimming, he would still probably take a punt, as would I as a matter of fact.

In my opinion, companies not making use of FTPs are missing out on an incredibly valuable acquisition tool

That being said, the real key to FTP lies in its ability to create new customers. After all, how else would operators make money from apps boasting significant jackpots. Once someone apathetic to a form of gambling has been enticed into making a free bet, it’s no great leap for them to begin betting with real money. My friend’s eventual dabble into real-money sports betting is evidence enough of this fact.

Although the UK is generally a football-loving nation, it’s important to mention that the same football apathy is shared by a significant portion of the population. These FTP apps offer a foot in the door, a way to tap into that otherwise inaccessible revenue stream. No amount of TV advertisements, football team sponsorships or smart pricing can convince these potentially profitable customers to suddenly engage with a vertical like an FTP can.

This tactic doesn’t just apply to sports betting, as my second example demonstrates. Sky Betting and Gaming offers another FTP game on its Sky Vegas app. The Prize Machine offers players a chance to win a prize every day, whether it be free spins on certain slots or the opportunity to enter raffles. Although slightly less glamorous than the £250,000 offered by Super Six, the FTP offers the chance of prizes each day as opposed to once per week.

As a sports bettor, I would rarely venture into the world of online casino. However, these free spins are a great way for me to have a spin or two on slot machines free of charge. On occasion, that has enticed me to deposit some of my own money, and I’m sure it has had the same effect for a lot of other gamblers. Again, the role of an FTP in attracting new customers is very clear to see.

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need to attract and retain customers, perhaps greater than ever before. That goes for all operators, from casinos, to bookmakers and everything in-between. In my opinion, companies that are not making use of FTPs are missing out on an incredibly valuable acquisition tool.

Iqbal Johal – No – Put time and resources to better use

On the face of it, FTP games make a lot of sense. They can be used as a clever marketing strategy to entice players to sign-up to an operator they might not have played with before, with the intention of turning them into paying customers.

From an operator and affiliates point of view, it’s getting players familiar with its website and game offering. From the customer’s perspective, there’s no risk attached to losing any money on a free roll, with the likelihood of winning a prize, however small, always tempting.

The risk the operator has of course, is losing big money to a player who may not convert that into real money deposits. Take Sky Bet’s Super Six game for example. In order to win the £250,000 jackpot – or £1m in some cases – you must correctly predict the results of all six of the selected matches, but the player with the most points each week will win a consolation prize of £5,000.

For Sky Bet, that’s a small price to pay when you consider thousands of players enter each week. The issue of course is when a player wins the £250,000 jackpot, as we saw last September, and perhaps is never seen again on the platform. That’s a large amount of money to risk on the off chance a percentage of customers end up parting with their cash.

Perhaps operators are better off spending their entire time and resources in promoting games and markets that will actually earn them some money

Even if an operator the size of Sky Bet can get away with losing a jackpot sum every so often, it’s not viable for smaller operators. For some, the risk of losing even the £5,000 consolation prize Sky Bet gives away every week may be too steep. Any money given away on prizes in their freerolls is always going to be small fish in comparison, which begs the question: Is it worth the time and effort for them?

While my colleagues make some very credible points, first-hand experience leads me to disagree with them. During my previous role, working on a marketing team for a start-up operator, it seemed like we spent a lot of time promoting freeroll games for very little reward. Daily horse racing prediction freerolls might receive hundreds of entries daily, but players were fighting it out for around £10 in total prizes and the amount of those customers who had ever made a deposit was minimal.

It was the same freebie hunters playing each free game, who might win the odd bet here and there, but nothing to make them deposit. Usually, any half decent win they enjoyed was instantly withdrawn. From this perspective, the amount of time it takes to set up and promote these games for smaller operators hardly seems worth it if the end result is negligible and if there’s barely any conversion from freeroll players to cash customers.

It seems the question depends on the size of the operator, but even then, to win any decent prize is usually nigh on impossible, save for the odd stroke of good fortune as highlighted with Sky Bet’s Super Six. That could lead to customers getting frustrated with the operator’s product. Perhaps operators are better off spending their entire time and resources in promoting games and markets that will actually earn them some money.

Tim Poole – Yes - Finding the line

If you’re an avid follower of the gambling industry, you’ll have probably read a lot on FTP games already. They are all the rage, one of the sector’s latest trends and touted as one of the next big things in B2B circles. We’ve heard similar about esports, virtuals and cryptocurrencies in the past – with varying degrees of success. But where proponents of FTP have been proven right is on the homepages of major UK sports betting operators.

Esports has boomed recently, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, but still serves a dedicated audience and is nowhere near a mainstream revenue source for big-name operators yet. Virtuals, too, is on the rise but is still viewed by many as an add-on. Cryptocurrencies, frankly, have been the biggest letdown for anyone who believed the hype crypto advocates were pedalling two years or so ago. Those pushing FTP, however, can point to tangible evidence of the category’s breakthrough.

Take big names such as Ladbrokes Coral, Sky Betting & Gaming and 888Sport. Each has an FTP product that offers jackpots and encourages players to create an account to play – even if it doesn’t force them to bet. As a sports bettor myself, I recently tried the 888 Up for 8 game (and as a football fan I’ve always been an admirer of Sky Bet’s Super Six). I thought the concept of Up for 8 was great – it got me playing with the site more for the appeal of winning free bets, although those seeking lottery-style big wins will obviously be drawn to the jackpot element of the product too.

The rules are simple: pick eight win-loss-draws correctly (888 selects which games qualify) and there’s an £8,000 prize if you get all eight right. This aspect is free to play every week, so it’s a guaranteed positive in the fact it’ll draw players in to create accounts even if they don’t want to spend money. In the more likely event that you get some picks wrong, you get £1 in free bets for every pick you get right (so if you get four right, it’s a £4 free bet). Here, though, after two free plays, you must wager at least £25 a week to qualify for the free bet element of the game.

If a balance is achieved, FTP games are a significant plus in my book

In my opinion, this is where operators looking for conversion need to find the line between making FTP games a hit or a barren wasteland that will never lead to any real-money gaming. While certain players won’t blink an eye at £25 a week, in my opinion, this is too much of a leap for someone just looking to play an FTP game. For me, a simple £10 bet per week would suffice and be far more effective in attracting a genuinely paying audience from this initially free product.

There are two main reasons behind my argument here: first, players who play with 888 are likely to already be familiar with Sky Bet Club – an ongoing offer with a brand where you secure a free weekly £5 bet if you stake £25. This guarantees a player a weekly £5 bet, as opposed to potentially earning £1-7 in free bets depending on the success of their predictions. In essence, this means you can find better value for money elsewhere.

Second, if a player is willing to wager £25 a week already, they are probably part of the central target market. This target market (a casual weekend punter at the very least) may actually have no interest in FTP games or free bets, and will go straight to their betslip anyway. That means FTP games aren’t needed to encourage them to place a sports bet, as opposed to a player specifically interested in FTP and willing to bet once a week if it can win them a small free-bet reward.

But if that balance is achieved, FTP games are a significant plus in my book. After all, operators like Sky Bet take a completely different approach, presumably completely separating its Super Six game from its conversion metrics. While marketing is used to encourage players to place accumulator bets – and players have to set up an account to play in the first place – there’s a certain family feel about playing the game without having to bet. Ultimately, while that FTP game may not directly lead to deposits or wagers, the entertainment value gained from the product boosts the brand’s reputation to no end among the sports betting community.


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