Can esports become the next March Madness?

February 28, 2023 9:08 PM

Can esports become the next March Madness?

Photo: Shutterstock
  • Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports
February 28, 2023 9:08 PM
  • Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports

College basketball’s NCAA tournament, also known as March Madness, brings together fans from across the country to gamble on games in Las Vegas. Esports has the potential to bring similar excitement to the city and other locales in the future, according to an industry executive.

The Casino Esports Conference kicked off its first day of panel discussions Tuesday by reviewing the esports industry and the video-gaming culture and why they should matter to the gambling industry.

Esports is popular among kids and young adults who play in or watch competitions, but has yet to be fully embraced by casinos. Nevada gaming regulators only recently allowed wagering on esports competitions without seeking special approval.

“Casinos are interested in wagering and that’s what the future is,” said Ari Fox, conference founder. “This town goes nuts. over March Madness Fans and gamblers are in the sportsbooks and on the wagering apps putting money on the different college teams. Will that end up being video gaming in the future?”

Fox said the gambling industry can’t sit idly by, but has to change what it’s offering younger audiences to secure future customers.

Christian Bishop, director of streaking-platformTwitch Properties, said that esports wagering, especially in Europe, has underwritten the sport for many years. The problem is that it hasn’t been “on the most up-and-up side of things globally.” Bishop, who served on Nevada’s Esports Technical Advisory Committee in Nevada, said there’s a push to do things the right way, protect people, and make sure it’s safe.

“The key word is ‘entertainment,’” said Ben Feferman, chief gaming officer of React Gaming Group. “As someone in their 30s, I have zero interest in the Michael Jackson tribute band or whatever entertainment is happening here. I want it to be esports and I think that’s a way to get fans in the stands and younger people in the casinos. That’s what they want to see — good gaming and tournaments.”

Feferman noted that when the HyperX esports arena opened at the Luxor Las Vegas, it featured Ninja, the biggest gaming streamer at the time, to make it a splashy event.

“These streamers fit perfectly and will be a driving force. The reason they show up at your casino is if you have a dedicated space,” said esports entrepreneur and college coach Ahman Green. “Having influencers monthly or weekly, or local influencers there, will be the lifeblood of that space, because it’ll be utilized.”

Green, a former NFL player who in the fall will serve as director of esports for the University of Nebraska club team, said that opportunities for esports in the casino-resort industry are just like the roles dining and entertainment serve. He agrees that influencers and streamers are draws; some of them boast millions of followers on YouTube and other platforms.

“They’ve had comedians and singers with residencies for years,” Green said. “You can do the same thing with streamers and influencers.”

Feferman questioned why that hasn’t happened. He said it “makes total sense” for casinos to bring in streamers for week- or month-long residencies.

Green said the top casino executives, however, are still trying to understand esports and how someone they don’t know, even an esports celebrity, will draw in customers. They need to build a program around that influencer.

“Around the gambling, they’ve built other things,” Green said. “They’ve brought in great restaurants and entertainment like the Blue Man Group, rappers, and country-music singers.”

Others have tried the strategy of activating stream suites on their properties and have built venues, according to Bishop, who called it a challenge that has to be figured out.

“It’s the chicken and the egg,” Bishop said. “You need to continue to add more resources and invest to attract the audience or else the gamers will play at home and not leave their room. I don’t want to be down on the space, but to get people to show up to events takes something special. “

Influencers and creators have communities they can attract. To do it effectively, casinos can lean on their community, authenticity, and relationships to drive their audience to come and spend money, Bishop said. “Someone can have a million followers, but how many can they get to show up here? It’s not easy.”