Roundtable: Virtual sports

By Gambling Insider
Gambling Insider speaks to Playtech’s Virtual Sports Director, Richard Andrew, Inspired Entertainment’s Chief Commercial Officer (CCO) – Virtual Sports, Steve Rogers, and Leap Gaming’s CEO Yariv Lissauer.

Covid-19, how has it affected virtual sports and what do you think will happen now things are opening up?

Richard Andrew, Playtech, Virtual Sports Director: Virtual sports has seen extraordinary levels of business in the last two years, especially during the initial lockdowns of 2020. This enabled many players to experience virtual betting for the first time, and more familiar players were able to further explore the entertainment on offer. Even when live sports resumed, players saw the benefits of virtual sports. This new exposure has elevated its value within the industry, it is a vertical that can now stand on its own. Playtech is well positioned to capitalise on this popularity by producing state-of-the-art content for sports and iGaming players.

Yariv Lissauer,  Leap Gaming, CEO: Virtual sports provided entertainment when there was no real sports action available. When Covid hit, the demand for virtual sports skyrocketed. The spike in demand for virtual sports both caused a short-term revenue boost and educated punters and operators on the quality of the product suites. It further embedded the vertical at the core offerings of sports betting and casino operators. The latter now recoginse this vertical as a revenue source for bad times, and as a risk mitigator for shake ups to the flow of real sports content.

Steve Rogers, Inspired Entertainment Chief Commercial Officer (CCO), Virtual Sports: Like any industry during the pandemic, Inspired experienced a wide range of Covid-based changes — how our staff work, how we develop our products and how we market our products. But unlike a lot of companies, we saw increased demand from customers and players for our virtual sports products given the disruption to live sporting events and the obvious move to mobile and online play as retail venues closed. Inspired’s virtual sports filled the live sports gap during the pandemic lockdown. Not only did the sales volumes increase dramatically with our existing clients, but the pipeline of new opportunities increased dramatically as well, given our experience in online and mobile play. The live Grand National, Melbourne Cup, Cox Plate and Kentucky Derby events were either cancelled or delayed in 2020, and Inspired’s races took centre stage with national television broadcasts across the UK, the US and Australia. They reached audiences worldwide and drew attention from NBC’s “Today” show, Newsweek, USA Today and other global media outlets. The Virtual Grand National drew an audience of over five million viewers in the UK and raised over £3m ($4m) for charitable causes. The virtual races not only offered passionate fans the opportunity to interact with the sport they love, but also made a whole new audience of players aware of Inspired’s virtual sports.

What are players looking for from virtual sports? Is your ultimate goal to recreate that real-life sports experience or are you aiming for something different?

Richard Andrew, Playtech Virtual, Sports Director: Some have the perception that players don’t invest time in the realistic nature of virtual content and just look for the thrill of a winning outcome. This desire overrides a want to replicate the ultra-realistic reproduction of sports betting experiences. Whatever the viewpoint, players are looking for a complete package. The most important aspects are content, usability, speed and quality stimulated entertainment. Whatever the stylised look, it is out with clunky web-based betting systems, and in with the quick downloadable app-based experiences. Here at Playtech, we believe there is room in the market for these different experiences and that wide demographic of users. We strive to make our simulations and content as engaging as possible and realism reinforces the trust element of betting. We are always seeking ways to further innovate our products and see a lot of opportunity in areas where sports and gaming collide. We are continuing to provide bespoke solutions for different licensees and their player bases, both real-life based graphics for sports-style betting, and unique gaming interfaces for on demand play. We don't put out interfaces lost ‘in the fog’ of reskinned casino slot games.

Yariv Lissauer, Leap Gaming, CEO: Players are looking for the same exact experience from virtual sports as they experience with real-world sports. They want to feel as if the game they’re viewing is taking place in front of their eyes at that moment. Therefore, our goal is to achieve as much realism as can be achieved, so the believability of the virtual space becomes equal to that of the real world. This is mostly important to our players during times when they cannot experience real-world sports. The virtual world can come into place to fill those voids.

Steve Rogers, Inspired Entertainment Chief Commercial Officer (CCO), Virtual Sports: Fundamentally, virtual sports players are looking for entertainment. A lot of virtual sports players also play slots, table games and lottery products, as well as betting on live sports. Different players seek different experiences, multiple complex sports bets or quick pick selections. Virtual sports can be tailored to appeal to all types of players. With today’s technology, Inspired’s virtual sports products are as close to the real thing as they can get. Players feel like they’re watching a live sporting event.

How have various technological innovations changed virtual sports?

Richard Andrew, Playtech Virtual, Sports Director: The advent of real-time technologies has become the de-facto technology for content creation. This has allowed more content to be produced in the same timeframe as the old pre-rendered content created in advance. Motion and facial capture technology has gone from demanding a ‘movie studio’ budget to being created in-house for a fraction of the price, even captured on mobile phones. The software that controls these new technologies has also drastically reduced in price from a few years ago. This has improved the time to market for our licensees and their players, and Playtech is utilising these game engines to speed up delivery and revenue return. In terms of the accessibility of games, while not exactly new, the continued advancement of mobile app-based betting continues to be so important. These app-based games can draw people in in creative ways, and when presented well, the risk and reward elements can change perceptions or attitudes to gaming on virtual sports products.

Yariv Lissauer, Leap Gaming, CEO: Using real-world data helps improve the believability of virtual sports taking place in a virtual environment. The more data we collect and use from the real world, the more our players can believe that the game they are viewing is real. The main technological innovation that we use is capturing the motion of our subjects (mocap) — which imitates the exact motion of our virtual actors (humans or animals) and applies it to the virtual realm. Before that, animators had to painstakingly attempt to imitate the motion of their subjects, which was very time consuming, costly and rarely achieved believable results. In addition, new lighting, shading and rendering techniques have been developed to help advance the look of our virtual worlds to become way more realistic than before. Physical light calculations take place these days and the outcome is much more convincing.

Steve Rogers, Inspired Entertainment Chief Commercial Officer (CCO), Virtual Sports: We’ve seen virtuals grow from a niche product to a global industry, driven primarily by player demand — for more sports, more innovation, more realism and more betting options. Again, creating that realistic experience for players is critically important to further growth and development for virtual sports. Advancements in graphic engines and motion capture technologies are speeding that process up, allowing us to create life-like virtual avatars and environments for players to immerse themselves in.

Five to 10 years down the road, what will virtual sports look like as an industry?

Richard Andrew, Playtech Virtual, Sports Director: One thing is certain, virtual content and its user experiences will grow in their own right. Perhaps we will see the arrival of the virtual sportsbook with esports providing an interesting opportunity for crossover products which will only grow as the gaming generation represent a bigger share of the market. Undoubtedly, we’ll also see the addition of many new and interesting variations of the current virtual sports games themselves, particularly as a result of the emergence of the huge US market. Where it develops technologically is more difficult to foresee. Many entertainment-based digital products are moving toward a streaming platform where content can be viewed or played at any time on a whole host of mobile devices. Previously, users were unable to interact with streaming videos, but now video games can be played in almost real time. As VR and AR improve to become more immersive and affordable, then we will see the same practices employed now but on a larger, more immersive scale. These interactive elements could be introduced along with bolder console and app game style features, as the gaming industry increases in popularity.

Yariv Lissauer, Leap Gaming, CEO: As technology improves its ability to deliver more realism with our products, I believe that over time we will probably witness the emergence of hyper-realistic content on the market. By this I mean virtual sports that don’t even exist yet. I think the acceptance of virtual sports will be much more widespread, with players seeking content that pushes the boundaries of their senses even further. Moreover, new uses of sensory stimulants will probably take place. Instead of just visual stimulations we might find other sense-triggers more widely used, as players will demand a much stronger sense of immersion into the games, such as audio, smell and even touch. Many advancements in those areas are already in development and it would be interesting to see if they’ll end up getting into the virtual sports arena as well.

Steve Rogers, Inspired Entertainment Chief Commercial Officer (CCO), Virtual Sports: With the improvements of technology and virtual sports becoming part of the norm within the entertainment and gaming industry, we see a bright future for any virtual format. The introduction of the metaverse should revolutionise how virtual sports are used. If this concept is as successful as expected, players will be doing everything in this new world — day-to-day work activities, socialising with friends, and entertainment.  What does this mean for virtual sports betting? Well, not only does it make our form of entertainment more acceptable within society, but it also takes us to the next step of our evolution. Players will move from simply experiencing the virtual realm by looking at content on screens or mobile devices, to living the experience in the virtual world.