When the world suddenly went into lockdown in March forcing retail businesses to shutter operations and live sports betting to grind to a near halt, operators quickly turned to ‘emergency content’ such as virtuals and esports to fill the void and keep customers engaged. 

The question was always whether the spike in player volumes these verticals experienced during the height of lockdown would sustain once normality returned. Six months on, with sports fixtures now almost back in full swing and retail gradually reopening, it is clear alternative products will not be relegated to the back benches.  

Steven Spartinos, co-CEO of Kiron.

Steven Spartinos, co-CEO of Kiron, a virtual sports provider which experienced a 200 per cent increase in online business during peak, said that although activity has decreased since the market has stabilised, volumes remain higher than pre-pandemic averages. 

He added that since a large proportion of customers who switched in the absence of sports betting and retail have now been converted to long-term players, online virtuals have “edged their way into the mainstream” and are now considered as a “standalone vertical”. 

The significance of this alternative content as a lifeline during lockdown is stark. For platform provider Betby, the range of esports titles available through its portfolio was at one point responsible for up to 80 per cent of betting activity.  

This “significant uptick” allowed the firm to continue its rate of product development and growth in a sports-less environment whilst also growing a fanbase, the firm’s head of sportsbook, Sergey Tsukanov, said. However, he added that it has been difficult for virtual alternatives to contend with real sports since their return, with slots also making for tough competition.  

Boris Chaikin, Soft2Bet CEO.

For sportsbook and online casino platform provider Soft2Bet, esports and virtuals continue to “remain a strong priority”. CEO Boris Chaikin highlighted that these verticals and sports betting are not mutually exclusive, with both, particularly the former, having established a growing following even before lockdown hit. 

“Furthermore, the pause on live fixtures enforced by COVID-19 caused an exponential increase in demand for virtuals and esports products,” he said. “And for that reason, now more than ever, whether its esports, virtuals or sports betting, it’s crucial to offer content which stands out from the crowd.” 

Given the “short notice” at which operators had to integrate alternative products, without time or experience to develop in-house, Chaikin pointed out the value of “trusted partners with bespoke, ready-to-go solutions”. 

But it is not only esports and virtuals that saw an uptake during the sporting and retail shutdown. Dmitry Starostenkov, EvenBet Gaming CEO, said that lockdown was “the ideal time for bettors to learn how the online poker vertical has evolved, with technology driving a new and improved experience”. 

“The way in which poker is offered to players has changed and we know that the new model has been able to retain a number of new customers in the following months when national lockdowns were eased,” he said. 

Dmitry Starostenkov, EvenBet Gaming CEO.

EvenBet’s revenue grew by 100 per cent year-on-year in 2020 as the popularity of online poker soared. Starostenkov added that interest in its products “remains very strong”, with operators recognising the “longevity” in the company’s offering and the way in which poker “can engage with customers for the long term”.

He said: “Whether operators are preparing for further disruption or are simply looking to broaden their offering with quality content, online and mobile poker is now regarded as an important part of the product mix.” 

Kiron’s Spartinos gave a similar outlook for virtual content. He noted that “interest from operators in our virtual content has remained healthy” since the return of live sports and land-based casino, adding that the company has been working to ensure they are “prepared for all eventualities” if further disruption was to hit over the winter months. 

“One important learning highlighted by the pandemic was the necessity of variety. By extending product portfolios, operators were able to satisfy existing customers whilst also attracting new ones in spite of the extraordinary challenges,” he said. “Even with the return of live sports and retail openings, this message still holds true.”   

As the COVID-19 situation worsens across the globe, the threat of a second wave looms. This is partly the reason why ‘emergency content’ is still a focus for sportsbook and online casinos.  

Sergey Tsukanov, head of sportsbook at Betby.

From the perspective of a sportsbook supplier, Betby’s Tsukanov said that in light of the shocks experienced at the start of 2020, it is now paramount that alternative content is quickly available. The company is seeing increased interest in what it is doing if another global lockdown were to occur and is therefore continuing to expand the Betby games range. 

With the increased importance on the retention of players amid the renewed competition, accelerated investment in both quality and product development is a common theme among providers. 

Kiron’s portfolio enhancements include the introduction of new betting options and increased variety of game formats, and it is also working to provide additional promotional tools for operators to better market games to their players. 

“We are always working to advance our offering, not just by developing new and exciting games to add to our existing 24 game strong portfolio, but by also expanding our full services to better supply our customers,” the Spartinos added. 

EvenBet, meanwhile, has introduced new products, such as its mini-games function and sports-betting widget, to complement its core poker product and attract new players, with a commitment to quality running consistent throughout. 

Starostenkov, said: “This year has paved the way for players to experience new products, and those that offer a slick and fun experience across desktop and mobile will be in a stronger position to maintain the interests of a wide audience.” 

Ensuring quality is another consistent theme. Soft2Bet’s Chaikin added that the company’s success in retaining customers is owed to “the high-quality content” and “variety of new brands and features” it has created in recent weeks.