At the recent 2018 Betting on Sports conference in London GBGC attended several of the sessions in the Esports Insider (ESI) track. The sense of optimism, enthusiasm and confidence was noticeable and in contrast to the mood at some of the sessions in the e-gaming and sports betting conferences. It was like e-gaming conferences used to be going back 15 years. But to the jaded e-gaming observer there was a naivety to some of the speakers’ views that could hamper the development of the UK esports sector.

One session was titled “UK esports – it’s coming home” and was a discussion about what the UK is doing to grow esports locally. Some of the topics and comments could have been drawn entirely from the debate that has previously been had about internet gambling in the UK.

The UK can be a world leader
The statement was made that the UK can be a world leader in esports. 

This sentiment was echoed away from the conference by Ed Vaizey MP, vice chair of the British eSports Association, “esports is one of the fastest growing entertainment mediums in the world, and anything that can help the UK establish itself as a centre for this exciting industry should be celebrated.”

Surprisingly, the UK’s Labour government was once of a similar view about internet gambling in 2006: “It is government-wide policy, and that includes HMT (Her Majesty’s Treasury), that Britain should become a world leader in the field of online gambling, in order to provide our citizens with the opportunity to gamble in a safe, well-regulated environment.”

But over a decade, the creep of regulation, compliance and consultations, alongside sustained media campaigns has cooled government’s attitude to gambling.

One element for making the UK a leader in esports is suitable venues for hosting tournaments. Of course, the UK does have venues capable of hosting tournaments but the Las Vegas-style regional casino proposed for the UK in 2007 would have been an iconic venue to be the home of UK esports. 

The super casino was awarded to Manchester but scrapped in 2008 because of media pressure and the new prime minister Gordon Brown.

Over in the Nevada, the Las Vegas Esports Arena opened at the Luxor Hotel and Casino in March 2018, boasting a 30,000 sq ft dedicated arena, broadcast facilities and 50-foot LED video wall.  In Japan, Melco Resorts has said that an esports stadium will likely be a “key component” of its planned integrated resort. Melco already runs the Macau EStadium at its Studio City resort.

Not too much governance
There was consensus on the panel that too much governance would not be good for the development of esports. A prescribed set of laws would lessen the accessibility of esports it was felt. 

If only that was how governance works. Unfortunately a sector does not really get to decide how much governance is imposed upon it. Once an emerging sector pokes above the parapet, the arrows of governance come flying towards it. QED gambling.

Unhelpful media stories

The panellists also bemoaned the “unhelpful” stories published by the media about video games, loot boxes and, inevitably, addiction.

The gambling sector knows all too well the struggle to get balanced stories based on evidence rather than anecdote.

One example cited was a BBC suggestion that playing video games for 20 hours a week constituted an addiction. A panellist argued that his partner watches 20 hours of Netflix a week, and no-one suggests she has an addiction. A not unreasonable argument but a naïve one that will simply be brushed aside by the vehement anti-gaming crusaders. 

One advantage that esports enjoys is that its participants and fans are fully supportive advocates of the sector, in a way that gamblers are not. That support must be harnessed and quantified.

When the regulators and critics come for you, you have to be ready and work together as one united sector. Gambling has failed in this regard and paid for it. In the UK the different gambling sectors have not worked together for the most part, at times have actively attacked each other, and in general had too many trade bodies supposedly speaking for “gambling”. It has been easy for critics and government to divide and conquer.

The various elements in UK esports need to be united behind a single trade association and marshal their arguments.  

One might argue that esports is not like gambling and will not face the same scrutiny and public disapproval. But when a sector becomes big and successful (or a perceived success), people want to feed off it. 

Esports is emerging but the seeds of what has happened to UK gambling are already there in esports:

Perceived risk of harm: The designation of video gaming addiction as a mental health condition, allowing for NHS treatment, means that at the some point the esports sector will be expected to fund treatment, research and charitable help lines. There is already a proposal for a scale to determine how addictive a game is.

Social responsibility – esports has a young audience, often under 18. That will bring specific advertising regulation on the promotion of certain products and sponsorship by certain brands e.g. 
(1) energy drinks: associated with gaming and already banned for sale to under 18s.
(2) gambling: some betting firms already sponsoring esports events and teams.

Public perception – gambling in the UK has lost the media battle, which influences public perception. Esports is already experiencing some negative press around certain games.

Regulation – never underestimate the government’s desire for other people’s money. If esports becomes a major sector in the UK, there will inevitably be a regulator and esports teams might need licences (with an annual licence fee) to operate. Don’t discount an esports tax on a team’s worldwide winnings either.
(1) loot boxes – the UK Gambling Commission and other regulators are already looking to regulate elements of video games. Once it starts, it doesn’t stop.

In order to make esports a success in the UK, the sector can earn some useful XP by looking at e-gaming’s experience and avoid some of its mistakes.