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Selling hope: A brief look at the advertising of online sports betting

(Please note that this article was co-written with Dr. Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez).

Marketing strategies are essential in a market environment such as online sports betting wherein product differentiation is minimal and price inelasticity robust. Business insiders widely accept that product innovation is instantly replicated across competitors, which are permanently seeking to generate, so far unfruitfully, a disruptive competitive edge. In a context where the number of licensed bookmakers is constantly growing, advertising plays a big part in luring customers who cannot tell the difference between companies. Advertising and marketing spend on sports betting has increased exponentially over the last five years in Europe and that is mirrored on the exposure to betting commercial messages of sports fans.

For instance, a 2014 report published by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation estimated that viewers of the Australian Football League and the National Rugby League – the two most followed sport codes in Australia – are exposed to 10 to 15 minutes of gambling advertisements per game. Similarly, Dr. Sophie Lindsay and colleagues in a 2013 issue of BMC Public Health looked further into the environmental impact of gambling advertising in sport events. They calculated that in three rugby league matches the public had been exposed to ‘322 episodes’ of betting marketing – for example, considering an episode every time an electronic banner advertised a gambling site – which is somewhat paradoxical given in-play betting is illegal in Australia (as of mid-2016).

Online_Sports_Betting_Australia

One of the marketing tricks is the use of the psychological bias known as the ‘representativeness heuristic’ (coined by Dr. Amos Tversky and Dr. Daniel Kahneman). Imagine the following two betting propositions concerning a soccer game: (a) FC Barcelona will lose the next match against the bottom team in the league (an extremely unlikely event, say 0.01 probability); (b) FC Barcelona will lose the next match against the bottom team in the league but (i.e. AND) Leo Messi will score at least one goal (this one an extremely likely event, for the sake of the argument, 0.99 probability). Mathematically speaking, proposition B can never be a better choice than proposition A, since P(A)=0.01 as opposed to P(B)=0.01×0.99= 0.0099. However, bookmakers understand that Messi scoring a goal is a highly representative event that can be effortlessly be retrieved from memory, transferring the representativeness to the whole betting proposition. In addition, it is plausible that representative heuristics work in conjunction with wishful thinking, overestimating the likelihood of an event based on one’s own preferences, as anecdotal evidence from betting advertisements concerning national teams participating in international competitions appear to suggest.

In a recent paper in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, I and my colleagues (Dr. Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez and Dr. Ana Estevez) discussed two of most utilized master narratives in online betting promotions are discussed, namely skill-enhancing narratives – in which there is an overemphasis on the capacities and knowledge of the bettor – and, at the other end of the spectrum, risk-lowering narratives – which underemphasise the risks involved in betting and typically overestimate the probability of winning.

Skill-enhancing narratives: In a 2016 issue of iGaming Business magazine, Vahe Baloulian, CEO of the betting software company BetConstruct, declared that new features were there to give customers ‘a chance to feel more in control by engaging more often and making decisions’ with ‘feel’ and ‘control’ being the keywords here. The ‘feel’ component refers to a perceived non-factual sensation that lies at the heart of the advertising endeavour. The perception of control over the betting activity has been found to be a common attribute of gambling narratives in Swedish research by Dr. Per Binde, in which elements of skill have been exaggerated, as well as in televised commercials from Canada (in a 2008 paper by John McMullan and Delthia Miller in the Journal of Gambling Issues), wherein betting has been associated with the imagery of media sport communication, skills, and long-meditated strategies, while luck was downplayed.

Many betting features newly added to online platforms are said by commercials to enhance the control of the user over the outcome of the event bet upon, including more gamified experiences (where passive bettors supposedly become players), immersive betting experiences, and fantasy sports (where the player actively recruits a team). In these examples, the betting experience demands a higher involvement from the bettor, arguably resulting in a psychological transference between the active role of a bettor executing actions and the actual influence a bettor’s actions may have on the outcome of an external event. In essence, betting advertising contributes to the myth of gambling as a sport, an activity that is healthy, harmless, and that can be mastered with practice and talent.

Among the most used selling points that enhance the self-efficacy and control of the sports bettor are the narratives of masculinity. Attributes such as loyalty to the team, being a real man, and being brave enough to prove sporting knowledge have been implicit in some sports betting messages, including stereotyped gender depictions and sexualized imagery. According to recent research by Dr. Nerilee Hing and colleagues (in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction), the prototype sports bettor is male, young, tech-savvy, and professional, which aligns with the target audience of betting advertising. This reinforces the idea of male providers that sublimates in gambling their manly instincts for aggression, competition, and combat, as was observed in the behaviour of horserace bettors as identified in early studies.

Risk-lowering advertising: In parallel to the skill-enhancing strategies, advertising diminishes the harmful consequences of excessive betting by representing it as a risk-free activity. The combined narrative would be that of a safe environment where intelligent people possess the tools to succeed. In an attempt to lower the perceived risk inherently embedded in any betting activity, three major messages have been emphasized by advertisers: (i) betting is a perfectly normal activity; (ii) errors in betting predictions are not fatal; and (iii) betting is a social activity.

Advertising has been frequently proposed as a significant mechanism of gambling normalisation including new social media channels (see Dr. Sally Gainsbury and colleagues 2016 research in the Journal of Gambling Studies). The portrayal of gambling attitudes and behaviours in media representations as well as in real life environments promotes the idea of gambling as an intrinsic form of entertainment. This is true for all forms of gambling but sports betting presents some singular intensifiers. Unlike any other gambling form, sport instils in betting its health and sanitization attributes. Attributes such as fair competition, success through talent and perseverance, equal opportunities and big rewards, respect for nature, green and healthy habits are transmitted to betting behaviour. Celebrities deepen that connection as they have been proven to reduce the perceived risk by the public of the products they endorse. Sportspeople tell the story of young, talented risk-takers who challenged the odds but emerged successful in the end, arguably a perfect incarnation of the bettor’s own aspirational narrative.

Another marketing technique broadly employed by betting operators concerns the provision of risk-free bets. Advertisements typically offer welcome bonuses for new customers, free bonuses for loyal clientele, and money-back exceptions in multiple complex accumulated bets. All of these free offers pose a dual threat. On the one hand, the so-called free money requires bettors to engage in further betting in order to reclaim their benefits (leading to money losses in the process). On the other hand, even if it is a bona fide free bonus, problem gamblers might conceptualise betting as a riskless activity that entails no responsibilities even when done excessively.

A third main risk-lowering technique used in commercials is the representation of betting as a social form of entertainment to be conducted alongside other people. Solitary gambling, like solitary drinking, has been thought to be a determinant and/or consequence of problem gambling. However, some studies have raised the alarm about the misconception that gambling, when done in group, cannot be problematic (see the recent work of Emily Deans and her colleagues in ‘Further reading’ below). In fact, peer facilitation has been identified as a fundamental contributing factor to impulse betting, with excessive betting being more plausible when sport matches are viewed in the company of others (as shown by Mattew Lamont and colleagues in a 2016 qualitative study in Sport Management Review). Sport is a cultural product, socially consumed (watched, practiced, discussed, and bet upon). The social stigma attached to gambling habits might be shifting towards its naturalisation, a long-term process that advertising cannot carry out on its own but can certainly facilitate.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Binde, P. (2009). ‘You could become a millionaire’: Truth, deception, and imagination in gambling advertising. In: Kingma S (ed.), Global Gambling: Cultural Perspectives on Gambling Organizations, (pp. 171-194). London: Routledge.

Deans, E.G., Thomas, S.L,. Derevensky, J. & Daube, M. (2017) The influence of marketing on the sports betting attitudes and consumption behaviours of young men: implications for harm reduction and prevention strategies. Harm Reduction Journal, 14(5). doi:10.1186/s12954-017-0131-8.

Deans, E.G., Thomas, S.L,. Daube, M., Derevensky, J., et al. (2016) Creating symbolic cultures of consumption: an analysis of the content of sports wagering advertisements in Australia. BMC Public Health, 16(1), 208.

Deans, E.G., Thomas, S.L,. Daube, M. & Derevensky J (2016) The role of peer influences on the normalisation of sports wagering: a qualitative study of Australian men. Addiction Research & Theory. doi: 10.1080/16066359.2016.1205042.

Gainsbury, S.M., Delfabbro, P., King, D.L., et al. (2016) An exploratory study of gambling operators’ use of social media and the latent messages conveyed. Journal of Gambling Studies, 32, 125–141.

Gordon, R. & Chapman, M. (2014). Brand community and sports betting in Australia. Victoria, Australia: Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation.

Guerrero-Solé, F., Lopez-Gonzalez, H., Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Online gambling advertising and the Third-Person Effect: A pilot study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 7(2), 15-30.

Hing, N. (2014). Sports betting and advertising (AGRC Discussion Paper No. 4). Melbourne: Australian Gambling Research Centre.

Hing, N., Lamont, M., Vitartas, P., et al. (2015). Sports-embedded gambling promotions: A study of exposure, sports betting intention and problem gambling amongst adults. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 13(1), 115–135.

Lamont, M., Hing, N. & Vitartas, P. (2016). Affective response to gambling promotions during televised sport: A qualitative analysis. Sport Management Review, 19(3), 319-331.

Lindsay, S., Thomas, S., Lewis, S., et al. (2013) Eat, drink and gamble: marketing messages about ‘risky’ products in an Australian major sporting series. BMC Public Health 13(1), 719.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H., Estevez, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Marketing and advertising online sports betting: A problem gambling perspective. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 41, 256-272.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. Estevez, A., Jimenez-Murcia, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Alcohol drinking and low nutritional value food eating behaviour of sports bettors in gambling adverts. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, in press.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Is European online gambling regulation adequately addressing in-play betting advertising? Gaming Law Review and Economics, 20, 495-503.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Understanding the convergence of online sports betting markets. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, in press.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). ‘Cashing out’ in sports betting: Implications for problem gambling and regulation. Gaming Law Review and Economics, in press.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H.. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Betting, forex trading, and fantasy gaming sponsorships – A responsible marketing inquiry into the ‘gamblification’ of English football. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, in press.

McMullan, J.L. & Miller, D. (2008). All in! The commercial advertising of offshore gambling on television. Journal of Gambling Issues, 22, 230-251.

Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1983) Extensional versus intuitive reasoning: The conjunction fallacy in probability judgment. Psychological Review, 90(4), 293–315.

It takes all sports: A brief look at sport-related betting

Over the past year I have been carrying out research with my Spanish colleague – Dr. Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez – into problematic sports betting and sports betting advertising which has already produced a number of papers (see ‘Further reading’ below) and with many more to come. One of the issues we have faced in contextualising our work is that there is no such concept as sport-related problem gambling in prevalence surveys because problem gambling is assessed on the totality of gambling experiences rather than a single activity. For instance, in the three British Gambling Prevalence Surveys (BGPSs) conducted since 1999, sport-related gambling is subsumed within a number of different gambling forms: ‘football pools and fixed odds coupons’, ‘private betting’, and ‘other events with a bookmaker’. The 2010 BGPS (which I co-authored) included ‘sports betting’ as a category, along with ‘football pools’ (no coupons), ‘private betting’, ‘spread betting’ (which can include both sports or financial trading). In addition, the 2010 BGPS added a new category under online gambling activities to include ‘any online betting’. More recently, the Health Survey for England also introduced a new category: ‘gambling on sports events (not online)’.

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Despite these limitations, some evidence can be inferred from gambling activity by gambling type. In 2014, Heather Wardle and her colleagues combined the gambling data from the Health Survey for England and the Scottish Health Survey. They reported that among adult males aged 16 years and over during a 12-month period, 5% participated in offline football pools, 8% engaged in online betting (although no indication was made about whether this only involved sport), and 8% engaged in sports events (not online). The categories were not mutually exclusive so an overlapping of respondents across categories was very likely. A similar rate was found in South Australia in a 2013 report the Social Research Centre with those betting on sports over the past year accounting for 6.1% of the adult population, an increase from the 4.2% reported in 2005.

In Spain, the Spanish Gambling Commission (Direccion General de Ordenacion del Juego [DGOJ] reported that 1.5% of the adult (male and female) population had gambled online on sports in 2015. This is a significantly lower proportion compared with the British data, although the methodological variations cannot be underestimated. Spanish data also shows that, among those who have gambled online on a single gambling type only, betting on sports is the more prevalent form with up to 66% of those adults.

In France, the data on the topic only focuses on those who gamble rather than examining the general population of gamblers and non-gamblers. Among online gamblers, Dr. Jean-Michel Costes and colleagues reported in a 2011 issue of the journal Tendances that 35.1% had bet on sports during the last 12 months. In another French study by Costes and colleagues published in a 2016 issue of the Journal of Gambling Studies, sports betting represented 16.4% of the gambling cohort, although again, the representativeness of sports betting behaviour among the general gambling and non-gambling population could not be determined.

Due to the aforementioned shortcomings in the definition of sport-related gambling, there is only fragmented empirical evidence concerning the impact of sports-related problem gambling behaviour. For instance, in 2014, Dr. Nerilee Hing noted that clinical reports indicate that treatment seeking for sports-related problem gambling had grown in Australia. In British Columbia (Canada), a 2014 survey by Malatests & Associates for the Ministry of Finance reported that 23.6% of at-risk or problem gamblers had gambled on sports either offline or online. A smaller proportion (16.2%) was found in the Spanish population screened in the national gambling DGOJ survey, except this subgroup was entirely composed of online bettors.

In a 2011 study published in International Gambling Studies with patients from a pathological gambling unit within a community hospital in Barcelona, Dr. Susana Jiménez-Murcia and her colleagues found that among those who had developed the disorder gambling online only (as opposed to those who gamble both online/offline or offline only), just over half (50.8%) were sport bettors. Those who gambled online only (on any activity) and those that only gambled online on sports events represented a small minority of the total number of problem gamblers. Overall, there is relatively little research on this sub-group of gamblers therefore I and others will be monitoring the evolution of this trend as the online gambling population grows.

(Note: This blog was co-written with input from Dr. Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez).

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Costes, J-M, Kairouz, S., Eroukmanoff, V., et al. (2016) Gambling patterns and problems of gamblers on licensed and unlicensed sites in France. Journal of Gambling Studies 32(1), 79–91.

Costes, J., Pousset, M., Eroukmanoff, V., et al. (2010). Gambling prevalence and practices in France in 2010. Tendances, 77, 1–8.

DGOJ (2016a) Análisis del perfil del jugador online. Madrid: Ministerio de Hacienda y Administraciones Públicas.

DGOJ (2016b) Estudio sobre prevalencia, comportamiento y características de los usuarios de juegos de azar en España 2015. Madrid: Ministerio de Hacienda y Administraciones Públicas.

Hing, N. (2014) Sports betting and advertising (AGRC Discussion Paper No. 4). Melbourne: Australian Gambling Research Centre.

Jiménez-Murcia S, Stinchfield R, Fernández-Aranda F, et al. (2011) Are online pathological gamblers different from non-online pathological gamblers on demographics, gambling problem severity, psychopathology and personality characteristics? International Gambling Studies 11(3), 325–337.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H., Estevez, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Marketing and advertising online sports betting: A problem gambling perspective. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, in press.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Is European online gambling regulation adequately addressing in-play betting advertising? Gaming Law Review and Economics, 20, 495-503.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Understanding the convergence of online sports betting markets. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, in press.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). ‘Cashing out’ in sports betting: Implications for problem gambling and regulation. Gaming Law Review and Economics, in press.

Malatests & Associates Ltd (2014). 2014 British Columbia Problem Gambling Prevalence Study. Victoria, Canada: Gaming policy and enforcement branch, Ministry of Finance.

The Social Research Centre (2013) Gambling prevalence in South Australia. Adelaide, Australia: Office for problem gambling. Available from: http://phys.org/news/2012-03-lung-doctors-respiratory-diseases-worsen.html.

Wardle, H., Moody. A., Spence, S., Orford, J., Volberg, R., Jotangia, D., Griffiths, M.D., Hussey, D. & Dobbie, F. (2011).  British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010. London: The Stationery Office.

Wardle H, Seabury C, Ahmed H, et al. (2014) Gambling behaviour in England & Scotland. Findings from the health survey for England 2012 and Scottish health survey 2012. London: NatCen Social Research.

Wardle, H., Sproston, K., Orford, J., Erens, B., Griffiths, M.D., Constantine, R. & Pigott, S. (2007). The British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2007. London: The Stationery Office.

Aid and a bet: Can personalised feedback help online gamblers play more responsibly?

In recent years, online gambling has become a more common leisure time activity. Research around the world suggests around 8-16% of adults have gambled online during the past year. Research has also demonstrated that there are a number of situational and structural characteristics that make online gambling potentially risky for susceptible and vulnerable individuals. Such factors include increased accessibility, affordability, anonymity and specific structural features of online games such as high event frequency. In addition, some forms of online gambling may be more problematic than others (e.g., online poker, online casino games).

A number of scientific studies have also shown that there are typically more problematic gamblers among those that gamble on the internet compared to those that only gamble in land-based venues. However, problem gambling severity is associated with overall engagement and that when the volume of gambling is controlled for, Internet gambling is not predictive of problems. Furthermore, most online gamblers are also offline gamblers and gamble on many different activities and across different gambling platforms.

Given the increasing number of people gambling online and issues surrounding problem gambling, many of the more socially responsible gambling companies around the world have started to use responsible gambling tools to help their clientele gamble more safely (such as the option to set time and money spending limits or to temporarily self-exclude from gambling for a day, week, month, or longer). In fact, one of our own studies recently demonstrated that the use of both time and money spending limits are most effective among gamblers that play most frequently, and that the effects are differential. For instance, time spending limits were most useful for online poker players and monetary spending limits were most useful for online casino players.

In addition, gamblers can now access and/or are given general advice on healthy and responsible gambling, as well as information about common misbeliefs and erroneous perceptions concerning gambling. However, findings on the effectiveness of providing gamblers with information in correcting or changing erroneous beliefs have been mixed. Some outcomes support the display of information, while other studies have reported non-significant results.

Studies have also shown that the way information is presented can significantly influence behaviour and thinking. Several studies have investigated the effects of interactive versus static pop-up messages during gambling sessions. Static messages do not appear to be effective, whereas interactive pop-up messages and animated information have been shown to change both irrational belief patterns and behaviour of gamblers. It has also been suggested that informational warning signs should promote the application of self-appraisal and self-regulation skills rather than the simple provision of information.

In one of our more recent studies, we investigated the effect of a pop-up message that appeared after 1,000 consecutive online slot machine games had been played during a single gambling session using behavioural tracking data. Our study analysed 400,000 gambling sessions (200,000 sessions before the pop-up had been introduced and 200,000 after the pop-up had been introduced). We found that the pop-up message had a limited effect on a small percentage of players. Although the study reported nine times as many gamblers stopped after 1000 consecutive plays compared to those gamblers before the introduction of the pop-up message, the number of gamblers that actually stopped after viewing the pop-up message was less than 1%.

In a follow-up study, we investigated the effects of normative and self-appraisal feedback in a slot machine pop-up message compared to a simple (non-enhanced) pop-up message. The study compared two representative random samples of 800,000 gambling sessions (i.e., 1.6 million sessions in total) across two conditions (i.e., simple pop-up message versus an enhanced pop-up message). The results indicated that the additional normative and self-appraisal content doubled the number of gamblers who stopped playing after they received the enhanced pop-up message (1.39%) compared to the simple pop-up message (0.67%). Like our previous study, the findings suggested that pop-up messages influence only a small number of gamblers to cease long playing sessions but that enhanced messages are slightly more effective in helping gamblers to stop playing within-session. Our two studies evaluating pop-up messages are the only published studies that examine the impact of messaging on actual gamblers in a real world online gambling environment.

In order to make individuals gamble more responsibly using behavioural tracking data, we believe that player feedback should also be presented in a motivational way. In practical terms, this means presenting messages in a non-judgmental way alongside normative data so that gamblers can evaluate their actions compared to other like-minded individuals. One of our most recent studies examined personalised feedback and information given to players during real world gambling sessions. We hypothesized that gamblers receiving tailored feedback about their online gambling behaviour would be more likely to change their behaviour (as measured by the amount of time and money spent) compared to those who did not receive tailored feedback.

We were given access to the behavioural tracking data of 1,358 gamblers at a European online gambling website that had voluntarily signed up to a behavioural feedback system that we developed (called mentor) that is offered to all customers on the website. The system is an opt-in system (i.e., gamblers can voluntarily choose to use it and the system is not mandatory). Once gamblers have enrolled to use the system, they can retrieve detailed visual and numerical feedback about their gambling behaviour via a button on the website. Player feedback is displayed in a number of ways (numerical, graphical, and textual) and provides information about wins and losses, playing duration, number of playing days, and games played. The system can also display personal gambling behaviour over time. For instance, Figure 1 shows the playing time information for a hypothetical player in the form of a graph over time.

At the top of the screen, players receive information about playing time over the previous 4-week and 24-week period. The white line in Figure 1 indicates that the player shows an upward trend and is steadily increasing the amount of time spent gambling. During the previous 4-week period, the player spent 25.75 hours gambling online. The upper line in Figure 1 is the average playing time for all other comparable online players (depending upon what types of game are typically played) and provides the gambler both normative and comparative feedback. Such feedback has been emphasized as an important aspect in facilitating behavioural change. Players are either assigned to ‘lottery’ type players or ‘casino’ type players based on their playing patterns.

Of the daily active players, 10% (n=1,358) opted into the system. Players could opt-in via a clearly visible button on the post-login website page which appeared immediately after they logged into their account. The personalised information appeared in a new pop-up window. This typically led to a break in play, as gamblers who viewed the information are unlikely to play and view information simultaneously. The system tracks those players who sign up and therefore the opt-in date is known and can also be used for analytical purposes.

All the visual, numerical, and textual information can be accessed by the gambler via a user-friendly on-screen dashboard. Responsiveness means that interactive content automatically adapts to technical environments. The player front end thus looks similar on different devices such as desktops, laptops, mobile phones, or tablets and also across different browsers and operating systems such as Windows, Android or iOS.

We investigated whether players’ behaviour changed after they have registered for the mentor system and saw the personalised feedback for the first time. We then compared their gambling behaviour with over 15,000 online gamblers displaying the same types of gambling behaviour (i.e., matched controls). Our results indicated that the personalised feedback system achieved the hypothesised effect and that the time and money spent gambling was significantly reduced compared to the online gambler control group that did not utilize the mentor system. The results suggest that responsible gambling tools such as mentor may help the clientele of gambling companies gamble more responsibly, and may be of help those who gamble excessively.

To our knowledge, this study was the first real world study investigating the effects of behavioural feedback on actual gambling behaviour within a real online gambling website. However, there were a number of limitations. For instance, all of the players in the target population had voluntarily registered to use the mentor system and were therefore not selected randomly from the population of players (but we tried to overcome this by using a control group of matched pairs). In addition, the reliability of our findings is limited because our data were only collected from one online gambling environment. It may also the case that players who voluntarily signed up to receive personalised messages about their gambling were different in other ways from controls (i.e., gamblers who voluntarily signed up to receive personalised messages may have already been interested in reducing their gambling and would be likely to gamble less).

Another limitation is that we did not know whether any of the gamblers who voluntarily opted to use the mentor system were problem gamblers. Therefore we do not know whether the system captures gamblers most in need of such interventions. Based on the findings, one explanation may be that the tool may simply be curtailing gambling in those who already play responsibly. Although our study was performed in a real world setting utilising objective behavioural data, it is limited because the motivations and thoughts of the players were unknown and can only be inferred.

Online gambling operators have the technical capabilities to introduce behavioural feedback systems such as the one we described in our paper, and our findings suggest that a system like mentor can help players limit the amount of time and money spent gambling can be achieved. However, the findings are preliminary and future research should focus on investigating at which point in time players should receive personalised messages to optimize behavioural change.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Voluntary limit setting and player choice in most intense online gamblers: An empirical study of gambling behaviour. Journal of Gambling Studies, 29, 647-660.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Personalised feedback in the promotion of responsible gambling: A brief overview. Responsible Gambling Review, 1, 27-36.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Testing normative and self-appraisal feedback in an online slot-machine pop-up message in a real-world setting. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 339. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00339.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). The use of personalized behavioral feedback for problematic online gamblers: An empirical study. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1406. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01406.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Personalized behavioral feedback for online gamblers: A real world empirical study. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1875. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01875. 

Auer, M., Littler, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Legal aspects of responsible gaming pre-commitment and personal feedback initiatives. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 6, 444-456.

Auer, M., Malischnig, D. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Is ‘pop-up’ messaging in online slot machine gambling effective? An empirical research note. Journal of Gambling Issues, 29, 1-10.

Game on: A brief look at gambling on eSports

Like daily fantasy sports, betting on eSports (i.e., professional video gaming) has increased in popularity over the last few years and has given rise to allegations of unregulated and underage gambling. The eSports market is large. According to a 2016 report by Superdata, professional eSports is growing exponentially and is worth an estimated $612 (US) million a year. Furthermore, Eilers and Krejcik Gaming estimate that real money betting on eSports betting will reach $10 billion (US) by 2020. The professionalization and sportification of this entertainment form has brought sports-world elements to it: stadium-like facilities, cheering stands, sponsors, big rewards, and competition. Instant replays, jumbotrons (i.e., super-huge television screens), and referees add to the sport dramatisation. In some notorious cases, prizes have gone beyond the $10 million [US] threshold in a packed arena housing 73,000 fans. According to by John McMullan and Delthia Miller in a 2008 issue of the Journal of Gambling Issues, sportification is the process of incorporating the logics of sport to non-sporting contexts (e.g., poker, eSports. This can materialise in many ways but most commonly occurs when (i) other industries capitalise on the positive attributes of sport (e.g., popularity, engagement, or sanity and health inferences); and (ii) non-sport fields try to increase the entertainment and playability of their products and their association with joy and excitement.

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Twitch, an online platform that streams live video gaming, informs its’ advertisers that it has 100 million monthly viewers, who watch for an average of 106 minutes a day. Betting on eSports presents new challenges. As a news report in Bloomberg news observed in relation to betting on the game Counterstrike: Global Offensive (CSGO):

“Gambling – licensed, regulated, and by adults – is generally accepted in eSports. There is growing concern, though, that teenagers are being attracted to different forms of betting facilitated by third-party providers. One such platform is CSGO Lounge (an independent site not affiliated with Valve Software, which develops the game itself). The site allows spectators to bet in-game add-ons known as skins – weapons, tools and the like – on the results of matches. Not all skins are created equal, and the rarity of some means they can cost hundreds of real dollars on marketplace sites like SkinXchange.com. The temptation is too much for some”.

Put simply, skin gambling is the use of virtual goods and items (typically cosmetic elements that have no direct influence on gameplay) as virtual currency to bet on the outcome of professional matches. The Bloomberg article also claims on the basis of interviews with industry insiders that underage skin gambling is a “huge problem”. Justin Carlson (lead developer of SkinXchange) claims there are “countless” parents whose children have used their credit cards without their knowledge to buy skins and bet on gaming on other sites. Although anecdotal, Carlson claims that some minors have “racked up hundreds or thousands of dollars in skins on ‘SkinXchange’ just to lose them all on some betting or jackpot site”. It’s clear that people trading skins in eSports has grown over the last few years and various regulators around the world – such as the UK Gambling Commission (UKGC) – are considering regulation and says it is an “emerging product” and an “area for continuing future focus”. More specifically, the UKGC’s 2016 Annual Report notes:

 “The growing market in esports and computer gaming has scope to present issues for regulation and player protection – issues which are being examined by gambling regulators in other international markets…These issues range from the emergence of real money esports betting markets, to trading in-game items which blur the lines between gambling and social gaming. Our focus will be to understand developments, including engaging with key stakeholders, and we will work wherever we can to ensure the risks associated with these, particularly to children and young people, are minimised”.

One of the complicating factors for eSports gambling is that while cash is the currency for many gamblers, there is a growing trend towards the use of virtual currencies, or ‘in-game items’ which, according to the UKGC, can be “won, traded, sold or used as virtual currency to gamble with and converted into money or money’s worth”. These, according to the UKGC, “include digital commodities (such as ‘skins’) which can be won or purchased within the confines of computer games and can then be used as a form of virtual currency on a growing number of gambling websites”. No academic research has examined underage skin gambling but this is an issue that is unlikely to diminish over the coming years.

It is also worth noting that this massive interest in eSports followed by a massive audience has led most major betting operators to include eSports in their daily gambling offer. However, the singularities of eSports market pose new challenges that conventional online betting sites struggle to address. Suraj Gosai, co-founder of Blinkpool, an eSports dedicated betting platform, laid out two main problems: in-play betting limitations and odds algorithmic programming. For in-play betting to be viable, companies need to get access to reliable, instantaneous, and unambiguous data that can settle bets and separate winners from losers. Data companies like Perform do that in sport, and betting operators rely on their data to offer in-play action to gamblers. The problem in eSports is that actions are not as quantified and standardised as in real-life sports. To counteract that, Blinkpool created a computer vision technology that extracts data from real-time action and promotes hyper-contextual opportunities, that is, 10- to 45-second in-play betting mini-markets concerning very specific developments in the narrative of the games.

Odds programming in sports betting is fundamentally based on historical data from hundreds of thousands of games, from which each factor (home advantage, table position, head-to-head, etc.) is weighted in to determine the probability of an event occurring. In the fixed-odds betting market, the bookmaker makes available to bettors that probability plus a benefit margin. When placing a bet, an individual bets against the probability that the house has predicted. This is not yet feasible in eSports because the historical data are scarce and the modelling is complex. Companies are circumventing this problem by offering exchange betting rather than fixed-odds. This method comprises peer betting, that is, bettors do not bet against the house but between one another. This way, the house gets a commission from winning bets and operates a much less risky business.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addictions, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Bracken, G. (2016). We hope to be the home of eSports betting. Gambling Insider. Available from: https://www.gamblinginsider.com/in-depth/1909/we-hope-to-be-the-home-of-esports-betting

Gambling Commission (2015). Explaining our approach to social gaming. Located at: http://www.gamblingcommission.gov.uk/Gambling-data-analysis/Social-media/Explaining-our-approach-to-social-gaming.aspx

Gambling Commission (2016). Annual Report 2015/16. Birmingham: Gambling Commission.

McMullan, J. L., & Miller, D. (2008). All in! The commercial advertising of offshore gambling on television. Journal of Gambling Issues, 22, 230-251.

Melbourne, K. & Campbell, M. (2015). Professional gaming may have an underage gambling problem. Bloomberg, September 7. Available at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-09-07/professional-video-gaming-has-an-underage-gambling-problem

Superdata (2016). eSports Market Report. Available at: https://www.superdataresearch.com/market-data/esports-market-brief/

Wingfield, N. (2014) In e-Sports, video gamers draw real crowds and big money. New York Times, August 30. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/31/technology/esports-explosion-brings-opportunity-riches-for-video-gamers.html?_r=0

Wood, J. (2016). UK Gambling Commission: We’ll work to minimize risks from emerging esports betting markets. Esports Betting Report, July 19. Available at: http://www.esportsbettingreport.com/uk-regulators-address-esports-betting/