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Taking a chance on esports

| By Cole Rush | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Cole Rush speaks to Justin Dellario, CEO of esports operator Unikrn about engaging its primary audience, the intersection between esports and betting and the challenges of entering the US market.

As CEO of Unikrn, and managing director of esports for Entain, Dellario has been kept very busy over the last few months.

Entain relaunched Unikrn in December last year, following its acquisition of the esports operator in October 2021.

The relaunch consisted of taking Unikrn live in Brazil and Canada (minus Ontario), with an aim to enter the US sooner rather than later.

For Dellario, Unikrn has everything needed to be a success in regulated markets, plus a little extra.

“We have one of the most expansive offerings of markets and features for esports betting globally,” Dellario says. “We also have a full traditional sportsbook that lives right next to esports.”

The product doesn’t end there, though. Dellario notes other avenues the company offers to esports fans and gamers: skill-based wagering products, esports virtuals, live casino and more.

Targeting the new guard

Unikrn’s primary audience, Dellario says, is a “post-university, Gen-Z” demographic.

These players “are very digitally native,” he says. “They’re used to streamlined, inclusive experiences. They grew up with social media. There’s a significant customer base out there.

“They enjoy esports as a form of entertainment and they want to add our form of entertainment to that fandom. They’re likely to land with us if they want to start wagering because we’re one of the only esports and video game-focused betting operators.”

Dellario notes that Unikrn is only live in markets where it can get licensed.

“As part of the Entain group, we have no ambitions to operate in gray or black territories,” he says.

That ideology feeds into a larger goal at Unikrn: participating meaningfully in the esports ecosystem.

Justin Dellario, CEO of esports Unikrn

“We think about how to run a successful business and give customers an exciting offering, of course,” Dellario says. “But also we ask ourselves how we can participate in the health and sustainability of esports generally.”

That translates into partnerships with game publishers, players, teams, advertisers and other stakeholders.

Where esports and betting intersect

People enjoy esports for the same reason they enjoy traditional sports.

Dellario sees the appeal himself, citing all the exciting aspects of the space: “The fandom for the players, the fandom for the teams, the fandom for the actual competition itself, tuning in to see who’s the best in the world at something.

“Fandoms sometimes exist in your household between you and your friends. And consuming that form of entertainment has the potential to be made more exciting, more fun.

“Imagine watching a football match and sprinkling a few pounds on your team. It’s the same drive for esports bettors.”

In other words, esports are mainly different from traditional sports in that they’re new. They don’t have the same established staying power as football, basketball and the big global moneymakers.

Another key point Dellario addresses is the age of the audience. “You have to consider that a large portion of the audience is underage. We only want to speak to the adult audience. Still, the passions look very similar across sports and esports.”

Then there’s the question of markets. The US has made headway with sports betting but lags behind with regard to esports. Other global markets are ahead of the curve, so to speak.

“In Australia, you have a significantly engaged betting audience across everything,” Dellario says.

“Esports betting is quite large in Brazil,” he continues. “And in Canada, a place where we currently operate.”

As for engaging new markets, Dellario says it’s a waiting game. “We have to conform to consumer protection standards and regulations. We also have to educate our audience. It’s a unique challenge.”

“Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, League of Legends, and Dota 2 are some of the largest games for betting,” Dellario says. “That also happens to correspond with them being some of the most viewed esports in the world.”

Operating a game as a service typically translates to more staying power in the space. Dellario cites League of Legends and Dota 2 as examples. “They’ve been around forever and they probably will be around forever.”

Newcomers emerge from time to time.

“Games will regularly peak in popularity around launch,” Dellario says. “Or shortly after a new content release. They’ll get viewership on Twitch or YouTube. Betting trends tend to reflect those peaks and valleys.”

Rainbow Six Siege and Valorant have both seen recent success thanks to a constant influx of innovative first-person shooter games. “Naturally, those types of games also rise in betting.”

The US opportunity

Dellario says there’s a market for esports betting in the US. “Video Games tend to also do some of the best growth and building and maintaining of their communities in the US.”

The state-by-state regulation makes things tricky, though.

“I think we need to see more acceptance, and also a definition of how esports will be regulated across several states,” Dellario says. “There’s an inconsistent definition of what’s allowed and not allowed. Some states just rolling up esports as a sport, it’s fine. Other states simply ignore esports.”

Ignoring esports in legislation can then spark further problems. Do esports roll into the sports umbrella? Do they count as something different? These inconsistencies make the US a unique challenge.

There are also gray market options. “Some customers might not know they’re using a product that isn’t necessarily legal or illegal,” Dellario continues.

To make the US a viable market for esports betting, Dellario says it’ll take time. “We need to get it right,” he says, referencing not just esports betting but the larger esports ecosystem.

Unikrn’s future

In the next few years, Unikrn has its sights set on new markets. “But only when we have the confidence we can operate locally, sustainably, in a way that’s safe for customers,” Dellario says.

“We’re also aiming to participate in the esports ecosystem meaningfully by forming the right partnerships and creating the best possible customer offering.”

Additionally, Unikrn looks to update its product and learn from its customers. “We’re trying to engage with our users and see what gives them value long-term,” Dellario says.

With the esports space on the up-and-up, Unikrn seems well-staged to make good on that opportunity.

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