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IN-DEPTH 18 July 2018
Renato Ascoli: Mapping out the path ahead
Renato Ascoli heads up IGT’s highly successful North American operations, and during his tenure has overseen critical acquisitions, divestments and marquee product launches. Gambling Insider caught up with him to discuss the firm’s recent accolades and its future product map
By Gambling Insider

A large part of your career has been spent in the transport sector before moving into gaming. What was your first impression of this industry and how did your previous experience prepare you for the move?

Given the highly regulated nature of the railway industry in Europe, my transition from the transportation sector to the gaming sector was relatively seamless. Building and maintaining positive relationships with regulators, and being mindful that the consumer experience is dependent on an entire ecosystem of products, services and touch points, are fundamental commonalities that are shared across both sectors.

IGT has been the first supplier to be awarded the Responsible Gaming Certificate from the Global Gambling Guidance Group. How important is this kind of accolade to IGT?

Providing technology and services to our customers that supports responsible gaming has always been immensely important to IGT. The recent Global Gambling Guidance Group (G4) certification was further validation of IGT’s leadership and commitment to this meaningful topic.

You recently accepted two Global Gaming Awards for Land-Based Product of the Year for Cardless Connect and Land-Based Innovation for Sphinx 4D – do you feel this is a result of your product strategy paying off?

Yes, I believe we are seeing early signs that IGT’s commitment to innovation, market research and our ‘quality over quantity’ approach are being recognised by our customers and their players. Having SPHINX 4D and Cardless Connect honored in the Global Gaming Awards was a reaffirmation that the gaming industry values IGT’s commitment to evolving the slot experience, and to developing intuitive mobile technology that can enhance the land-based casino environment.

The full-scale roll-out of 4D gaming technology should be a game-changer for the company, how does IGT plan to make the most of this?

We believe we have something very special with 4D; a product that can generate wide and varied demand, and something that is both familiar and unique for players. We view TRUE 4D as the natural evolution of our TRUE 3D product line; a game family that launched as a niche slot experience and quickly matured into a widely-placed product line with more than 3,000 units in the field.

We are inspired by the customer feedback and early results that we have seen from SPHINX 4D. We have engaged our product, sales and marketing teams in educating operators about the depth of the game’s content and the many ‘hidden’ features within it to help ensure the success of this important launch. We also grant our customers advanced visibility to our TRUE 4D roadmap - when they place an IGT game on their floor, they can be confident in the content pipeline to follow.

With the increasing number of US states looking to legalise online gaming, does IGT plan to put more resources behind the interactive side of the business?

We are closely monitoring discussions surrounding the expansion of the US online gaming market and have a leadership team and organisational structure in place that can quickly respond to new market opportunities. Through our experience as a B2C operator with Lottomatica in Italy, we have gained a deep understanding of the online betting ecosystem, and amassed valuable insights into online player preferences and behaviours. Furthermore, our content delivery mechanism, the Remote Game Server (RGS), currently serves more than 90 operators in 13 countries and enables us to be very agile and swiftly service new customers with a compelling online portfolio.

How has the sale of Double Down benefited the group?

It was an important development in supporting our strategy of leveraging our substantial content catalogue across multiple distribution platforms. Through this partnership with DoubleU, we continue to participate in the social casino market, and are collecting ongoing royalties on our casino game content. Inherent in our relationship with DoubleU Games Co. is our true vested interest in their success and growth through strong, profitable game content.

A number of US gaming companies are readying themselves for the repeal of PASPA by acquiring sports betting companies. Will IGT be looking to make a similar move? Or is IGT preparingin a different way?

IGT has not announced the acquisition of any sports betting companies. We are very experienced in sports betting and would be well-positioned for opportunities that could arise from US legalisation. I identify our PlaySpot mobile technology as a solution that our customers could leverage to give their players a proven, easy-to-operate mobile sports wagering solution.

You signed a cross-licensing agreement with Scientific Games this year, what does this bring to the company, and are there further such agreements in the pipeline?

We have worked with most of the major slot manufacturers to execute game feature IP cross-licensing agreements. This enables the entire industry to benefit from IGT’s game patent portfolio, which is the largest in North America, and also the portfolios of our cross-licensing partners. We’re very pleased that this program has come to fruition and delivered such significant results for IGT.

With growing interest in skill-based games, how will IGT respond to this?

The impact of skill-based games on the gaming industry still remains to be seen. We have introduced several slot games with skill-based components and are actively analysing those early performance results. We have a number of skill-based solutions on our roadmap and we are working with our partners at Chill Gaming to bring their skill-based games to market. We remain attentive to this space and inspired to gain continued insights from our customers.

IGT was recently recognised by the CDP for its commitment to the environment, is this the result of a long campaign?

IGT’s impact on the environment and the communities that our employees call home is something we consider at every turn, and at sites throughout the world. IGT views environmental stewardship as an ongoing commitment and something that we are continuously assessing and improving – even the smallest adjustment can yield big results over time.

What advice would you give to a rising CEO in the gaming world?

The first piece of advice that I would offer up is to remain passionate about serving the customer, and maintaining a customer first approach. I believe it’s critical to wake up each day with that target in mind and constantly work towards that goal. My second piece of advice is more personal in nature: Never rest on one’s laurels. I believe it is wise to destroy your past glories, or as Yoda wisely suggested years ago, “You must unlearn what you have learned.”
DISCUSS THIS ARTICLE
IN-DEPTH 16 August 2019
Roundtable: David vs Goliath – Can startups really disrupt the industry?

(AL) Alexander Levchenko – CEO, Evoplay Entertainment

Alexander Levchenko is CEO of innovative game development studio Evoplay Entertainment. He has overseen the rapid expansion of the company since it was founded in early 2017 with the vision of revolutionising the player experience.

(RL) Ruben Loeches – CMO, R Franco

Rubén Loeches is CMO at R. Franco Group, Spain’s most established multinational gaming supplier and solutions provider. With over 10 years working in the gambling, betting and online gaming industries, he is skilled in operations management and marketing strategy.

(JB) Julian Buhagiar – Co-Founder, RB Capital:

Julian Buhagiar is an investor, CEO & board director to multiple ventures in gaming, fintech & media markets. He has lead investments, M & As and exits to date in excess of $370m.

(DM) Dominic Mansour – CEO, Bragg Gaming Group:

Dominic Mansour has an extensive background of nearly 20 years in the gaming and lottery industry. He has a deep understanding of the lottery secto,r having been CEO at the UK-based Health Lottery, as well as building bingos.com from scratch, which he sold to NetPlay TV plc.

What does it take for a startup to make waves in gaming?

DM: On the one hand, it’s a bit like brand marketing; you build an identity, a reputation and a strategy. When you know what you stand for, you then do your best to get heard. That doesn’t necessarily require a TV commercial but ensuring whatever you do stands out from the crowd. Then you have to get out there and talk to people about it. 

AL: Being better than the competition is no longer enough; if you’re small, new and want to make a difference – you have to turn the industry on its head. Those looking to make waves need to come up with a new concept or a ground-breaking solution. Take Elon Musk, he didn’t found Tesla to improve the existing electric cars on the market, he founded it to create the industry’s first mass-market electric sports car. It’s the same for online gaming; if you want to make waves as a startup, you have to bring something revolutionary to the table.

JB: Unique IP is key, particularly in emerging (non-EU) markets. As does the ability to release products on time, with minimal downtime and/or turnaround time when issues inevitably occur. A good salesforce capable of rapidly striking partnerships with the right players is vital, as is not getting bogged down too early on in legal, operational and admin red tape.

How easy it for startups to bring their ideas to life? How do they attract capital?

AL: It depends on the people and ideas behind the startup. Of course – the wave of ‘unicorns’ is not what it used to be. Some time ago the hype was a lot greater in terms of investing in startups, but that’s changed now. Investors now want more detail – and even more importantly, to evaluate whether the startup has the capacity (as well as the vision) to solve the problem it set out to address. That’s not to say investors are no longer interested in startups – they certainly are – but now more than ever, it’s important for startups to understand their audience as well as dreaming big.

JB: To get to market quickly, you need a great but small, team. If slots or sportsbook, the mathematical engine and UX/UI are crucial. Having a lean, agile dev team that can rapidly turn wire framing and mathematical logic into product is essential. Paying more for the right team is sometimes necessary, especially when good resources are scarce (here’s looking at you, Malta and Gibraltar).

Building capital is a different beast altogether. You won’t be able to secure any funding until you have a working proof of concept and, even then, capital is likely to be drip fed. Be prepared to get a family and friends round early on to deliver a ‘kick-ass’ demo, then start looking at early-stage VCs that specialise in growth-stage assets.

How do you react when you see startups coming in with their plan for disruption?

RL: We welcome the innovation and fresh thinking startups bring. This is particularly the case in Latin America, with a market still in its infancy. One area we’d especially like to see startups making waves is in the slot development sector. Latin America is a young market that needs local innovation suited to its unique conditions – especially in regard to mobile gaming.

Operators eyeing the market have Europe‐focused core products, which creates a struggle to work to the requirements of players and regulators. To succeed there, it has become more important than ever to work with those with a knowhow of the local area to adapt products and games to besuitable from the off; we welcome the chance for local talent to develop and grow.

Do you think it’s easier for established companies to innovate and establish new ideas? 

AL: From a financial perspective, yes. It is without a doubt easier for incumbent companies to establish a pipeline of innovation via their R & D departments, as well as having the tools to hand for data gathering and analysis.

But it stops there. Startups hold court in every other way. Not only are they flexible, they can easily switch from one idea to another, change strategy instantly as the market demands and easily move team members around. Established companies know this – and this is why we’re seeing an emerging trend for established companies to acquire small, innovative online gaming start-ups. They have the right resources and unique ideas, as well as the ability to bring a fresh approach to businesses’ thinking.

RL: For me, it’s always going to be established companies. Only with the resources, industry experience and know‐how can a company apply technology and services that truly make a difference. Of course there are exceptions. But when it comes to providing a platform that can be approved by regulators across multiple markets – as well as suiting an operators’ multiple jurisdictions – it is simply impossible for a couple of young bright minds with a few million behind them to get this done.

DM: I actually think it’s harder for established companies. It’s key to differentiate between having a good idea and executing one. That’s where the big corporates struggle most. They’re full of amazing people with all sorts of great ideas but getting them through systems and processes is nearly impossible.

Is it essential to patent-protect innovative products?

AL: It’s a very interesting subject. If we take IT for example – patents can actually become a block to the evolutionary process within the industry. Of course, getting a patent future proofs yourself from the competition copying your concept but, having said that, if you’re looking to protect yourself from someone more creative, smarter and agile, you’ve probably lost the battle already!

In our industry everything is moving faster and research takes less time than the development itself. No matter how good you are at copy pasting, you can’t copy Google or Netflix. The most important thing is not the tech itself but rather its ‘use-case’ – or in other words, does it solve what it’s meant to solve? Competition is healthy and the key to innovation. If you spend your whole time looking behind you, you’ll never be able move forwards.

JB: Tricky question, and one that depends on what and where you launch this IP. It can be difficult to patent mathematical engines and logic, mostly because they’re re-treading prior art. Branding, artwork and UX is more important and can easily be copied, but the territories you launch will determine how protectable your IP will be once patented. US/EU/Japan is easy but expensive to protect in. But China/South East Asia is a nightmare to cover adequately. Specialised patent lawyers with experience in software, and ideally gaming, can help you better.

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