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How to Bet on Virtual Sports

With real sports shut down and bettors looking for action, Inspired Entertainment’s Virtual Sports is booming.

During the current casino shutdown, online gamblers have filled some of the void by sampling their favorite slot and table games—both digital versions, “live” streaming table games and even reel-spinning slots—on their favorite iGaming sites.

But what about sports?

Covid-19 has brought live sports to a grinding halt. Practically every major sporting event around the world has been canceled until the contagion is under control. Besides robbing a lot of people of a favorite pastime, the crisis has interrupted what was an increasingly familiar activity in the U.S., legal sports betting.

But there’s good news—an alternative called Virtual Sports.

Virtual Sports are realistic digital contests that mimic live sports with remarkable authenticity. Developers record the live-action movements of real athletes and convert them to digital graphics. At a glance, they’re practically indistinguishable from live sports videos.

The animation is choreographed into 90-second contests, which resemble highlights of sporting events like soccer, cricket, American football and basketball, stock car races and horse races. Players can make the same wagers they’d make in a sportsbook or racetrack, including in-play-style wagers, such as which team will score first.

All results are chosen via a random number generator. The odds and point spreads are set based on the probability of each potential outcome, whether that’s the score of a football game or the outcome of a race.

The virtuals package also includes several casino games, including table games, slots, keno and bingo.

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Going Mobile

Virtual Sports is a product of U.K.-based Inspired Entertainment, a pioneer in the technology since 2002, and by far the largest supplier of the virtual contests. Inspired Entertainment offers 14 sports. They’re live in 50,000 venues worldwide and on more than 200 websites.

Around 40 percent of Inspired Entertainment’s Virtual Sports footprint is currently online and mobile. That percentage stands to jump with retail locations idle due to the coronavirus.

In the U.S., Inspired has provided its games to Nevada sportsbooks through a partnership with William Hill, but was in expansion mode even before the coronavirus hit. Virtual Sports are now available at all New Jersey’s online sportsbooks, and at retail locations of the Pennsylvania Lottery.

“Frankly, with no sports going on right now, we haven’t had to do a hell of a lot of marketing,” says Brooks Pierce, president and chief operating officer of Inspired Entertainment. “We’re having a hard time keeping up with all the customers that want to get our products in.”

Pierce says new customers are likely to keep Virtual Sports in their portfolios, even after live sports return. “We think it will be sticky for them, for us and for the players, and the fact each product is available every two or three minutes for players doesn’t hurt either.”

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The Next Best Thing

The appeal of Virtual Sports is simple, says Pierce: they’re true-to-life microcosms of real sports, thanks to technology that’s evolved over nearly two decades.

“When we did a motion-capture in the basketball game, we literally had teams of players on a court be filmed, and we hired a college coach from North America to make sure the game scenarios were realistic and lifelike,” Pierce explains. “So, you’ll see plays and it will make sense when guys will have the ball down low and pass it out to the three-point line. It really does look like a basketball game.”

Inspired took the same care with the American football game, added to the portfolio around two years ago. “We hired a guy who actually played for the Patriots in the Super Bowl, to watch our motion capture shoot and talk to us about how certain players should look in the video,” Pierce says, “so it looks amazingly realistic, from the game play itself to the celebrations for a touchdown.”

It’s a film-quality, very high-cost motion capture shoot, where we capture all the player animations,” adds Steve Rogers, chief commercial officer, virtual sports for Inspired. “Then we start building the framework for the game, building a stadium in 3D. That takes anywhere from a year to 18 months, to build a game from scratch to be ready to deploy. It’s a significant investment in a new sport. Basketball just went live. Basketball is popular wherever we go, so there will be a number of jurisdictions where basketball will be the second-most popular sport behind soccer.”

“We put a ton of effort and money into the production of the product,” says Pierce. “Even though the outcome is randomly determined, for the players, it’s hard to tell what’s a real sport and what’s our Virtual Sports.”

The games are designed to be easy to play, and the wagers don’t involve skill. “The odds are set based on the probability of each potential outcome, whether that be the winner of a race or the score in a football game,” says Pierce. “You’ll be looking at, say, a Philadelphia team against a New York team, and there’s a spread with each outcome having its own price. There’s no handicapping involved. You’ll pick one versus the other one.

“Some players will play the more typical markets like money line and point spread. Others will play some of the exotics—which position is the first position to score, the total number of points in a game, how much a team will win by. If you were betting a (live) football game, betting on the money line or against the spread, you’re waiting three hours for the outcome.”

Even though each event lasts around 90 seconds, the system allows three to four minutes for wagers to be placed before each event starts. “For horse racing, obviously, we’ll show the full race,” Pierce says, “but for a football game or basketball game, you might see two or three plays per quarter, then you’ll see the final score.”

The sports games identify each team by city only, with no real team names or logos. One new product, though, will feature real NFL alumni legends. The company is preparing to launch a “Legends of Football” game under a license deal with the NFL Alumni Association. In a game between Philadelphia and New York teams, “you might see Ron Jaworski throwing a touchdown pass to Mike Quick, or Phil Simms getting sacked by Reggie White,” says Pierce. “We have the rights to use the players’ names, which is a great attraction.”

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Spreading Fast

In New Jersey, Virtual Sports games are available through all the online books associated with the casinos.

“What you’ll see in New Jersey is what’s already live with bet365—all the latest iterations of our product,” says Rogers. “All of our New Jersey customers are going to get 14 channels of concurrent Virtual Sports, running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, to provide a much-needed revenue source right now. But when sports do come back, they will sit perfectly alongside live sports as well.”

Rogers says the current situation is not unlike the one that existed 20 years ago, when Inspired Entertainment was founded. At that time, an equine disease had put a halt to live horse racing in the U.K.

“You couldn’t move horses around the country, so they canceled all horse racing,” he says. “People said, ‘What about that cartoon racing? Should we put that on the big screen?’ I was around back in the time, and it’s crazy that it’s come around again.

“But that’s why it was there; that’s what it was designed to be—a content filler for people who like to bet on sports.”

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