The 2020 World Gaming Executive Summit (WGES), which was held online in December 2020, mirrored the main trend of 2020 – going digital.

The summit is usually held in the summer sunshine at the W Hotel in Barcelona. WGES was initially postponed in March, as the virus spread through Europe, with a new December date. But as the year progressed, it became clear no events were going to be possible, so WGES morphed into a digital summit.

Gambling, too, saw the shift from ‘physical’ to ‘virtual’. GBGC’s provisional calculations suggest that online gambling increased its share of global revenues by three to four percentage points in 2020, taking its share to almost 15%, as gambling venues were forced to close.

But some WGES speakers highlighted the fact that not all countries have the infrastructure in place to facilitate this digital switch. This happens in the places where one would expect it, like parts of Africa, but also in some more unlikely locations, such as Eastern European regions of the EU. Having a good Internet signal during ‘normal’ times does not mean you will have a good connection when suddenly everyone migrates to working from home and people use a lot of bandwidth for video meetings and streaming. This impacts not only our daily lives, but also the way we gamble and place bets.

African sports betting is one of the gambling sectors most dependent on retail. WGES attendees heard that retail still dominates the sector, with mobile betting growing in importance, but still a couple of years away. The situation on the continent is varied, so experience depends on country, or even province when talking about markets like South Africa. Retail shops are what conveys trust in the brand, which is the most important factor determining success. Betting shops have huge TVs and free Wi-Fi and are places to gather, have drinks and bet.

Other sessions discussed the role of new events stepping in to fill the void when top-level live sport was cancelled. We also found that people need something to bet on. During Q2 and Q3 2020, betting on virtual sports and esports did receive a boost. In some African countries, operators even went as far as launching virtual sports without graphics, with the outcome determined by RNG.

There was discussion about the specifics of esports, which consist of many different sports and is constantly changing, with Asia being the main market.

US horse racing also profited from the postponement in other sports, with handle increasing. In New Jersey, Monmouth Park started offering fixed-odds betting on horse racing, which also helped increase its handle. Fixed-odds betting on horses was common in the US before 1930, when it switched to a pari-mutuel model because of the high takeout.

Horseracing in the US now faces further competition from sports betting. One of the features of trying to enter the nascent US sports betting market is that it is very expensive. Companies are having to invest heavily in marketing – sometimes more than their annual revenues. The US is now where Europe was a decade ago, with a focus on customer acquisition, not retention.

But US operators who spoke at WGES said that some ‘old technology’ – namely email – was still a useful marketing tool to attract customers back to venues after reopening.

By Tihana Jurican