Most buzzwords don’t carry much weight, serving instead as stand-ins for complex ideas that can’t be easily explained in a soundbite. Then you have “gamification”, a term with a lot of oomph behind it and enough momentum to change the course of entire industries.
Such is the case with sports betting, where gamification is inherent to the way the industry operates.
Historically, gamification has been an umbrella term for sub-content aimed at acquiring and engaging players.
As the industry evolves, so too do approaches to gamification. Many companies are trying to shift game elements in the betting space to give players better options and help operators build and retain audiences.
Vettese and Smith both work in the space. They each see gamification as a crucial tool all betting operators should leverage.
Gamification elements vary widely and the outlook of the concept as a whole is hard to pin down.
“Today, players and bettors want to feel loved, valued and appreciated and that their custom and money are not taken for granted,” says Smith.
He emphasises that operators know this, but they have trouble maximising the opportunity.
“Gamification can be boiled down to two key elements,” he says. “Gameful thinking and incentivisation. It’s a way of enhancing the loyalty of customers and it can create a sense of progression to make the experience more enjoyable and immersive.”
Vettese says previous definitions and understandings of gamification are old hat.
“Gamification, as it was, is dead,” he says. “It has evolved to become about harnessing the power of next-generation gamification systems that deliver improved conversion rates and data-led insights.”
Before, Vettese posits, gamification was about simulating the betting experience and – hopefully – getting players to sign up for a sportsbook.
“By offering a variety of customisable game types for sports fans to interact with, sportsbooks can open up new engagement opportunities, particularly with the hard-to-reach casual player segment.”
Where, then, does gamification stand and what purpose can it serve in an era where sports betting is more accessible than ever?
“We are seeing that the number of people in each state interested in sports betting has plateaued somewhere between 25% and 30%,” says Vettese. “We think modern gamification can play a role in educating and nurturing new audiences for sportsbooks.”
From Xtremepush’s perspective, Smith says: “A gamification strategy has become a business-critical element of the product mix for any serious brand or operator. It should incorporate player acquisition and daily retention, plus cross-sell from one vertical to another and – perhaps this goes without saying – loyalty programmes.”
The future of gamification is malleable and both Vettese and Smith have distinct visions for how it can take shape.
“Spending thousands of dollars on player acquisition is of little long-term value if it’s not accompanied by a marketing plan to keep the customer happy,” says Smith.
“Operators should work with players, providing them with content they enjoy. They should also personalise the experience through rewards, promotions and offers. That can pay huge dividends.”
This approach, according to Smith, can galvanise players to evangelise a brand. “They become flag-bearers,” he says. “A positive experience for one person can lead to sign-ups from a host of friends, who abandon less engaging sites.”
Vettese sees an opportunity to build audiences by attracting casual players who historically haven’t jumped headfirst into the sports betting craze.
“Gamification 2.0 comes into play by understanding how best to engage with the casual sports fan,” he says. “You have to throw out the old F2P model. The next generation of gamification products is designed to generate first-party data and insights, enabling sportsbooks to build actionable, segmented audiences that convert at double-digit levels.”
He cites Tally’s Game Center product as an example. The tool “aggregates multiple game types into one solution to connect with multiple audiences.”
Smith’s take on free-to-play is different. He views it as a viable option, with some tweaks to the existing formula.
“Using F2P as a standalone site, not attached to the main brand website, can create a playground where players can be nurtured across various areas. These include showcasing a brand and what players can expect to see once they become a customer.”
The personalisation aspect
From there, it’s a matter of using the data and insights to create personalised offers and showing players how the betting experience can be fun.
Both Smith and Vettese touch on a concept that can be intrinsically tied to gamification if done right.
Vettese mentions education and Smith mentions nurturing players. Gamification can be a low-stakes way for players to get involved in an otherwise intimidating space.
Novice bettors might not understand how odds work, or how to build a parlay, or many other aspects of betting. A gamified experience that doesn’t require real money upfront and eases them into it can create a bettor where there once was none.
“Sports betting is still a new form of digital entertainment and a certain degree of education is required,” says Vettese. “By offering free games and building up a relationship with casual players, sportsbooks are in a much better position to convert them into active customers.”
The education piece is big, but it focuses mainly on bringing new players to a platform.
Given the high saturation of betting apps in legal markets, acquisition isn’t as big a priority as it once was. For bettors who already have sportsbook accounts, retention is the focus and gamification can help with that.
“Personalisation is key,” says Smith. “Provide a Knicks fan with an offer to bet on their own team, but not a casino offer if they have shown zero appetite for it.”
Vettese agrees. “Offering sports fans content that resonates with them is a quickfire way to get them engaged.”
As gamification expands to include a wider variety of elements, new ideas are popping up.
Smith and Vettese have seen unique examples of the practice inside the betting industry and well beyond it.
“I like when a consumer brand sponsor is included in the game the same way they’re involved in the day-to-day sport,” says Vettese. “It brings a level of authenticity to the game and can add to the consumer rewards. Game Center offers thousands of game types that include leaderboards and challenges, all customisable to carry operator or sponsor branding.”
For Smith, the best gamification elements are the ones that create “surprise and delight” moments and, simply, “cool stuff”.
“If it’s missing, you can bet your bottom dollar a competitor is doing it,” Smith says, adding: “These elements should be personalised to a brand and the player. Otherwise, it’s just a template the bettor can get at any competing site.”
Smith continues, drumming up an example on the spot: “A player might have lost three or four sports bets in a row – as I know from experience – but by sending them an ‘in-session’ push notification that they have won a free-to-play gamified reward, they will feel slightly better.”
“The game doesn’t have to be about giving them an offer to bet more money – that would be counterproductive – but it can be about winning points on a leaderboard, which in turn can give them money to spend at the end of the month for rewards.”
Staying ahead of the game
Any stakeholder looking to infuse gamification into their product can see success in other industries.
Vettese stays close to the betting industry, citing sports as a prime example. “In basketball, the LA Lakers recently launched their game centre, Lakers Arcade, that invites players to engage with various game types that carry their iconic branding.
“We’ve also seen NFL franchises such as the Buffalo Bills, Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams take advantage of newly launched prediction and trivia games to attract and engage with fans in the lead-up to the 2023-24 campaign.”
Smith, meanwhile, says there are three key learnings from other industries that sports betting operators should consider.
First, it should be personal and brand-specific. Second, it should be built to work for players and not force players to adjust to the gamification elements.
Finally, he says: “Use it as both a loyalty and an educational programme. Look at the airline industry for a great, longstanding example. Who hasn’t heard of air miles?”
Looking ahead, Smith and Vettese see a bright future for gamification and the companies that embrace it.
“It’s a case of evolution over revolution,” Smith concludes. “Operators need to understand more about how gamification will retain, reactivate and reward players, rather than just seeing it as an F2P game to acquire new bettors.”
“At the heart of it is the underlying objective of keeping customers happy and giving them what they want.”