The igaming industry’s 2019 predictions: part one

| By Joanne Christie | Reading Time: 7 minutes
As 2019 begins, we talk to the sector’s leading founders, experts and opinion formers about the opportunities and challenges set to define igaming this year. In part one we hear from operators and suppliers, regulatory experts and marketers

2018 was packed with significant moments in the industry, from the repeal of PASPA to the rise of crypto. As 2019 begins, we talk to the sector’s leading founders, experts and opinion formers about the opportunities and challenges set to define igaming this year.

In part one we hear from operators and suppliers, regulatory experts and marketers. Tomorrow we'll cover analysts, technology and innovation and people.

 

OPERATORS AND SUPPLIERS

Henrik Tjärnström, CEO, Kindred
Joe Saumarez Smith, chairman, Bede Gaming
Irina Cornides, CMO, Jackpotjoy
Nick Garner, founder, Oshi.io

What were the defining developments or events of 2018?
Henrik Tjärnström: For Kindred the key events for 2018 include stepping into the US market and re-regulation in Sweden. These are, of course, completely different challenges for us as a company but we are glad to see a general trend for more markets adopting local licence models and thereby increasing the level of market control. For the industry as such, I would point to the World Cup in the summer, which once again saw record-breaking activity and engagement for sports betting.

Joe Saumarez Smith: The two themes that dominated the industry in 2018 were increased regulatory pressure and a further shift in public perception of gambling. This was especially marked in the UK but it applies in many countries. Operators spent a large part of the year making sure they were 100% compliant with the Gambling Commission’s tougher stance on responsible gaming, source of funds, KYC and other consumer protections, which meant their suppliers did so too. Regulators around the world are increasingly taking their lead from the Gambling Commission, as we can see, for example, in the new Swedish regulations.

Irina Cornides: Sweeping regulation roll-outs and reform dominated boardrooms this year. To name but a few examples, the US repealing PASPA, new bonus regulation and proposed tax increases in the UK, Italy banning advertising and raising taxes, Spain lowering taxes and extending new licences, and Sweden moving to fully regulate. Some key focuses for us were adapting to the new regulatory landscape in the UK, ensuring that we are at the forefront of player protection and taking advantage of new licensing opportunities in other markets, such as Sweden.

Nick Garner: As a crypto casino person, it was the fall of bitcoin values; all that price volatility scared away a lot of customers. Fortunately, after April 2018 bitcoin stabilised enough for crypto players to come back.

How do you see these continuing to shape the igaming space in 2019?
HT: The re-regulation trend will continue to raise the barriers for the industry and I’m expecting to see more consolidation across markets. We have already seen movements in this direction and 2019 will see a lot of operators struggling to manage the increased burden of regulation. For larger operators like Kindred this will not be a major issue and we are, of course, prepared to fill any void.

JSS: Gambling liberalisation and crackdowns historically go in cycles and I fear that 2019 will be more of the same. The industry is on the back foot and there are still some substantial fines and poor conduct by some big operators that have not yet been made public. UK politicians may be a little bit busy with Brexit but cracking down on gambling is an easy headline.

IC: I expect regulators will fully regulate new markets, further change taxation structures and increasingly champion measures ensuring a fair and safe experience for consumers. This is likely to include further directives on advertising, bonusing and, potentially, betting limits. These trends will undoubtedly lead to further consolidation, an increased appetite to explore emerging markets and will shift the focus from competing on bonus pricing to product differentiation.

NG: Crypto for gambling has gone from a curiosity to a heavyweight, growing thing. Big new players are entering the market with very strong offers, for example, stake.com, and strong, existing brands such as Bodog have adopted crypto as a payment method. These milestones help cement crypto as an enduring force in igaming.

What do you see as the biggest challenges ahead for the sector in 2019?
HT: The reputation of the industry and further regulation. The larger operators will manage the regulatory burden – it may even be good for us, as it consolidates a very fragmented market – but the reputational challenge we see in most markets is damaging for all of us. As an industry, we have to get to grips with this.

JSS: Changing the public’s perception of gambling is not something that can be done overnight. The industry needs to make the case that a very high percentage of people who gamble derive a great deal of enjoyment from it and do not suffer harm. At the same time we need to accept that those who do experience harm need to be much better looked after and protected.

IC: A rapidly changing political and regulatory landscape, margin pressures, increased operational complexity and shifts in consumer behaviour will continue to present challenges as well as opportunities. Executive leadership needs to operate with foresight, creativity and efficiency to deliver more value to consumers and remain competitive. Success will depend on businesses being at the top of their game.

NG: Overzealous gambling legislation from various governments, leading to big operators consolidating their positions and smaller operators having a tough time accessing regulated markets. One side benefit of this will be much more focus on responsible gambling.

REGULATORY

Simon Bernholt, partner, Wiggin LLP
Christina Thakor-Rankin, principal consultant, 1710 Gaming

What were the defining developments or events of 2018?
Simon Bernholt: It was a very challenging year for operators licensed by the British Gambling Commission. The number of public statements from operators, combined with fines and payments in lieu of financial penalties, increased markedly as the Commission took action against breaches of its licence conditions and codes of practice, particularly in relation to AML and social responsibility. When combined with the substantial reduction in stakes for FOBTs – the initial timing of which even prompted a non-Brexit-related ministerial resignation – plus an increasing focus on gambling advertising, last year was a perfect storm for the gambling sector.

Christina Thakor-Rankin: Political polarisation and a global shift in attitudes to gambling. One of the biggest impacts has been on advertising – in Australia, Italy and the UK. Other big events continue to be Brexit and the Supreme Court ruling on PASPA in the US, which opened the door for regulated sports betting. The dark horse, the impact of which is as not yet known, is 15 regulators signing up to explore the links between gambling and gaming.

How do you see these continuing to shape the igaming space in 2019?
SB: Operators are hoping that things can only get better. Unfortunately, that’s likely to be wishful thinking. The reverberations from 2018 will continue to be felt during this year, not just by those operators still under investigation by the Commission, but also those furiously updating their processes to reflect the ‘lessons’ from the public statements.

CT: In 2019, sports betting will continue to open up across the US but could be stalled by Senator Hatch’s draft bill, which looks at regulating sports betting at a federal level. As for Brexit? This could end up being something or nothing.

What do you see as the biggest challenges ahead for the sector in 2019?
SB: Anti-gambling campaigners, not satiated by the FOBT changes and the voluntary ‘whistle-to-whistle’ ban proposed by the industry late in 2018, will continue to push for greater restrictions on not only gambling advertising but also the other activities of gambling operators. This may be the year in which the gambling industry starts to push back but without a change in public sentiment it looks like the challenging times will continue.

CT: The biggest will continue to be around gambling and social responsibility. Advertising and sponsorship restrictions will start to kick in, there may be greater payment blocking and for sure increased operator responsibility. The debate around gambling, children and harm will intensify as esports continues to evolve and fuels discussion about gambling and gaming. The other challenges impacting on both reputation and revenue will relate to the trends of 2019: the iGeneration, diversity and the rise of women’s sport.

MARKETERS

Martin Calvert, marketing director, Blueclaw
Harry Lang, founder, Brand Architects

What were the defining developments or events of 2018?
Martin Calvert: It was a big year with huge mergers, FOBT legislation and the opening of markets in the Americas. As a marketing agency that works with both operators and affiliates, the defining development we see is the continuing scope for opportunistic approaches to digital strategy to deliver results amid intense competition and uncertainty.

Harry Lang: The progression of US states and their toe-tipping efforts towards regulation. However, the big development in terms of the long-term wellbeing and prosperity of the industry must be Sky Bet’s impressive efforts as the frontrunner in responsible gaming.

How do you see these continuing to shape the igaming space in 2019?
MC:
New markets are opening but there will be bumps along the way. Igaming companies must protect progress by ensuring that digital strategies – particularly in SEO – are quality-focused, without the risk of Google penalties or regulatory challenges. From there, they must evaluate opportunities and be ready to move to take advantage across SEO, advertising and other disciplines.

HL: The ‘When the fun stops, stop’ campaign is great but still has the feel of lip service, while Sky Bet has made player protection a core strategy and invested accordingly. In 100 years, whatever form of digital gaming exists will be in a better place as a result.

What do you see as the biggest challenges ahead for the sector in 2019?
MC: The biggest challenge commercially is represented by industry leaders who can literally afford to waste money. Regulatory challenges and the ability of search engines to identify and punish spammy SEO tactics remains, and gaming – an industry that has its fair share of risk takers – will continue to see volatility in SEO results. Agile companies will have many opportunities but only if they have the discipline to focus on a high-quality, data-driven strategy.

HL: The consolidation in the affiliate sector is great for some hardworking affiliates who have sold up to the networks but, as a channel, affiliation has been pricing itself out of the market and needs some adjustment to get back some of the entrepreneurial spirit that made it so attractive in the first place. Hearty competition in regulated markets is making it harder to make a quick dollar in gaming, which may not be a bad thing. But we still lack true innovation at a product level – hopefully the squeeze of hundreds of competitors will be the mother of invention in 2019.