This article features in iGaming Business
Prediction games are emerging as a useful way for sports betting operators to acquire customers in regulated or soon-to-regulate markets across the US. SportCaller is at the forefront of this movement, and digital performance director Paddy McDermott believes free-to-play sports games may finally be rising to prominence
In the social casino boom that started in 2011, free-to-play casino games were all the rage. Sports, however, remained something of a curio. Attempts to replicate the sports betting experience in the free-to-play arena simply failed to gain traction, with bwin.party and Nordeus’ Sportster, arguably the highest profile attempt to crack the market, disappearing in a matter of months.
In the US, the only market where free-to-play sports may have been effective in familiarising players with sportsbook mechanics, the dominance of daily fantasy meant they barely even got a look-in. This ultimately seems to have taught the industry the lesson that developing games where players bet using virtual currency simply does not work.
However, with a tweaked approach, free-to-play sports are having something of a resurgence, through predictions games. This can be seen through the launch of Predict the Game, a contest run by NBC Sports Washington during a live basketball game between the Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks.
Paddy Power Betfair’s FanDuel Group subsidiary has also been active in the space, running Super 5 and Super 8 contests on its horse racing network TVG, and launching a March Madness game under the FanDuel brand.
These games were developed by free-to-play sports specialist SportCaller, which runs a number of high-profile predictions games for operators such as William Hill (£1m Golden Race) and Paddy Power Betfair (Beat the Drop).
SportCaller Performance Director Paddy McDermott says there are a number of reasons for free-to-play sports’ resurgence.
“The first of which is as a means of cost effectively acquiring new players with a high propensity to bet,” he says.
“Other secondary considerations, which might not be so readily apparent, include the fact that these games serve as a soft introduction and means of educating an audience that might not be so familiar with the complexities of gambling.
“The final consideration is that of these games’ strikingly inherent retention capabilities,” McDermott continues. “In fact, we know from our own experience with operators that players acquired from, or who engage with, free-to-play games are more active and valuable than those who do not play.
“Accordingly, we have engaged business intelligence teams with a number of clients to look at the value of customers post-adoption of free-to-play, and in all cases the result is a reliable net positive.”
The fact that NBC Sports was prepared to launch a free-to-play game as part of a live sports broadcast, certainly suggests there is buy-in from areas that may otherwise shy away from sports betting.
In Predict the Game, players were required to answer a series of 30 questions, similar to events that punters would bet on, with the top scorers splitting a $500 prize pool. NBC Sports even displayed contest-related information and data more commonly associated with betting as an overlay to the game.
McDermott says that over the past year the diversity and complexities of free-to-play contests have rapidly expanded. Customers can be asked to predict anything ranging from traditional pre-match markets, to a full range of potential outcomes on any possible event.
“Our platform currently hosts 15 different question types, from simple Yes / No propositions, through goalscorer ‘x’ from a list of goalscorers, to posers concerning ‘how many’ or specific finishing order,” he says.
Developments are going beyond simply developing the types of questions players are asked to answer, and the markets on which predictions are offered, he continues.
SportCaller is now looking at innovative ways of posing the questions, such as in Paddy Power’s Beat the Drop. This sees players given €1,000 up front, then attempt to keep it for three weeks by predicting a series of sporting outcomes, after which they win the sum.
Further improvements to help better monetise free-to-play customers are also being explored. This can range from playing to earn free bets or betting to earn contest entries.
In markets where sports betting is legal, the operator can ask a player to predict a series of outcomes, then offer these up either as individual bets or making up an accumulator. As a call to action, the player can be engaged without the need to offer some sort of cash incentive.
Furthermore, the free to enter nature of predictions games means they do not cannibalise sports betting revenue.
There is certainly evidence that the games can attract customers in a way that previous free-to-play sport games could not. In the UK, they could arguably be seen to bridge the gap between fantasy sports and real-money gambling. McDermott claims that no operator that has launched a free-to-play game has withdrawn from the vertical.
“It’s a telling market trait,” he says.
In the early stages of the US market, PlayMGM has joined FanDuel by launching the Super Predictor game in New Jersey, suggesting there is buy-in among operators either owned by, or partnered with, European igaming operators. However NBC Sports’ move into the market suggests that US uptake could soon follow.