What can the gambling industry learn from lockdown?

Francesco Rodano, Chief Policy Officer at Playtech, on what this most challenging of landscapes can teach us for the future

Few of us, whether in our professional or personal lives, have lived through a scenario that has had as universal an impact as the COVID-19 pandemic. While that impact varies drastically from industry to industry, the need to adapt, and adapt quickly, is common to every sector.

Even before most of us had even heard the word “coronavirus”, the gambling industry was dealing with an ever-shifting regulatory landscape. In the most mature gambling markets, governments have been escalating regulatory restrictions, such as an advertising ban in Italy and a lower maximum stake for the gaming machines in the UK. The increased visibility of gambling in our everyday lives – for instance, video lottery machines in Italy, fixed odds betting terminals in the UK and betting shops in Spain – has perhaps led to a growth in concern around the protection available for vulnerable players and potential problem gamblers.

Additionally, the regulation of online gambling, whilst having the merit of reducing the size of the illegal market and its significant underground economy, has perhaps on the other hand also made gambling more visible. More newly licenced operators means more advertising, especially TV advertising, as brands work to build awareness and gain market share.

Suddenly land-based premises, which, according to H2 figures, accounted for 85% of the $58bn global market in 2019, were closed without warning. With major sporting events globally also cancelled, a key sector of the industry across both retail and online came to a standstill. Add in that millions of us were suddenly spending the vast majority of our lives at home – with not only time on our hands, but potentially the disposable income that would have been spent in restaurants, pubs and cinemas –  and you have a virtually unrecognisable landscape.

Finding the long-term positives

As the world begins to emerge from lockdown, casinos, arcades and betting shops have reopened, or are preparing to reopen, in markets worldwide. But when, or even if, those markets will return to normal is not a question anyone can yet answer. In the meantime, the focus of regulators – and players – has moved almost entirely onto online gambling.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, the online gambling industry was working hard, cross-sector, to put in place stronger and more effective measures to prevent gambling from causing harm to players. Regulators and operators alike acted quickly and decisively to adapt to lockdown, both with the recent 10-pledge action plan and the voluntary shift to devoting advertising time to safer gambling from UK operators.

But while we are all hoping for a swift end to the current crisis, does that have to mean the increased standards around player protection end with it? A variety of industries have seen in recent weeks that large-scale working from home does not have to mean a slump in productivity – to the point that Twitter recently declared its staff could work from home “forever”. In the same way remote working has quickly become the new normal, is there a way we can take positives from an incredibly difficult period and create long-term benefits for player safety?

The risk is that, as restrictions on retail continue to ease and major sporting events begin to return, there will be a rush, in terms of marketing and commercial practices, to recover the revenue lost during the lockdown. But if we resist this temptation to simply press the reset button, and instead continue to build on a genuine commitment to safer gambling, we have a chance to improve the sustainability of this industry.

Over the last few years, Playtech has continued to build on and devote significant resources to a commitment to a responsible approach to gambling. We are continuing to invest in our state-of-the-art, AI and data analytics-driven safer gambling solution, BetBuddy. Its real-time player engagement and messaging platform can help operators more effectively identify and assess player risk, using these insights to deliver highly personalised messaging that empowers players to make safer choices. Additionally, Playtech is leading a cross-industry research group on game design, aimed at removing characteristics from future games that might cause addiction or harm to vulnerable players.

By using our data analytics tools with some of our clients in these last weeks, it appears that the extreme circumstances did not lead to a significant increase in risky behaviours. Interestingly, the areas where we have seen the biggest growth in new players are Bingo and Poker – traditionally entertainment-oriented, and with a social component too. Perhaps at a time when the majority of us are physically isolated, the interaction at the heart of this kind of play appeals more than ever.

These challenging times have urged the industry to raise the player protection bar in an unprecedented way. As a supplier, thanks to the passion of those involved and the commitment to delivering the most advanced safer gambling solutions on the market, Playtech has been well-prepared to help our clients be up to the task. The industry has indeed made progress, but at Playtech, we believe it is imperative to keep that momentum going. There is still much work to be done, also around retail gaming, which could possibly benefit from the knowledge we have been developing by delivering safer online gambling.

With this in mind, as part of our overall COVID-19 response, we are building on our long-standing commitment to safer gambling, not only through the availability of our specialist technology, but also our wider support for both the industry and for players. Our recent blog from BetBuddy CEO Simo Dragicevic details some of the ways our technology can support safer gambling interactions with players and encourage to pro-actively assess their play patterns. A key focus of our social media channels during this time has been the provision of information on charities and organisations providing phone and online support for those seeking advice on gambling-related issues.

If we as an industry can really maintain this kind of commitment in the future, perhaps gambling companies will be more trusted, and policymakers will be less inclined to introduce one-size-fits-all restriction, such as spending limits or advertising bans, that might risk to push players offshore without actually protecting them.

In an ideal “phase 2” of gambling, operators could have more leeway in the way they can offer their games, as long as they transparently demonstrate that they can identify and “isolate” vulnerable and at-risk players before their gambling becomes a problem.

Gambling is a sector that employs millions of people worldwide and an activity that has been enjoyed by the vast majority of players for thousands of years. Its future is in our hands, now more than ever.