The coronavirus pandemic: A test of character for the gaming industry

By Tim Poole

As Tim Poole approaches two years at Gambling Insider, he reflects on how the gaming sector has continually adapted to an ever-growing list of challenges. This article appears in the July/August edition of Gambling Insider magazine.

Our industry looks a lot different now from when I started at Gambling Insider two years ago. That’s true of any industry, of course, given the unprecedented circumstances facing the global economy during the coronavirus pandemic. But the overarching lesson I’ve learned about this sector so far is that it is extremely resilient – the perfect quality for facing this pandemic head on.

That’s why I’m completely unsurprised to have seen the gaming industry come together more than ever during this incredibly arduous time, rather than counterproductively dissipating into individual factions. With regulatory pressure, media scrutiny, and religious and ethical opposition practically written into the gaming sector’s DNA, dealing with external forces has become a well-practised industry habit.

Obviously, the current crisis – especially for land-based suppliers and operators – tops anything that has come before. To call overcoming it the industry’s Everest would be inappropriate, as summiting the world’s highest peak would bring a sense of achievement, joy and relief. Persevering beyond the COVID-19 pandemic in our case, however, is more about charging up an incline that never summits and never puts you in a position to stop, plant a flag and savour the view. As we’ve been reading about recently, those who slow down are quickly outpaced, and those who stop are soon forgotten.

In terms of sheer scale alone, though, Everest would be a fair comparison. This is by far the greatest challenge the industry – and all industries – has faced. But that aforementioned resilience is on show now more than ever. Certain online verticals have thrived in the absence of others, industry conferences have gone virtual and retail companies have been quick to design equipment that will indeed keep players socially distanced when casinos return. Yes, many have lost their jobs, many have been furloughed, and whole companies and casinos have been hit too hard by this pandemic to continue thereafter.

And yet, while the pandemic has taken its victims even in a business sense, the gaming sector has maintained unity with its back against the wall. This is perhaps no coincidence given its second nature of being put in this position. Stigma and negative press, which have maintained during the pandemic, have always plagued gaming and companies have had to stand strong in the face of criticism – both justified and unjustified.

So as I look back on covering the industry with Gambling Insider, it seems perfectly logical to me that the sector remains so resilient against such a difficult backdrop. Whether it’s fixed-odds betting terminals in the UK or political opposition to mobile wagering in New York, it’s never been plain sailing for gaming. Given the nature of the product it sells and the default anti-gambling stance of many on the outside, it never will.

Naturally, however, the coronavirus pandemic has particularly exacerbated the physical restrictions facing casinos and sports betting firms to a previously unseen degree. But as live sport gradually returns and casinos slowly re-open, we face new beginnings in gaming. There will be a greater onus on having a digital presence, for instance, and anyone still in denial about online’s benefits simply won’t be around if another crisis is to hit further down the line.

But if there’s one silver lining, it’s that the creativity and togetherness this industry has nurtured will keep it fighting fit for the long haul. Though it may not be what the critics want to hear, numerous executives have told me over these last two years there will always be a demand and, therefore, an industry for gambling. At a time like this, the entertainment value it provides is an undoubted positive, especially in the face of COVID-19.

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