Innovation in the sportsbook and casino markets usually comes from two places — new types of betting, or games and regulatory change.
Entrepreneurs looking to bring innovation to the sports betting and casino markets have to be well versed in navigating both sources of change. Otherwise, they might miss the opening (or closing of markets) or be unable to convince regulators that their new product should be allowed in the marketplace.
One of the best in the business at navigating these tricky waters is the president of WEBE Gaming, John English. English, who has been working in the gaming industry for nearly 30 years, is a dominant force in the sports betting industry. He was the first to bring mobile wagering on sports to Nevada. And now he’s working to help create and enter a regulated Chinese market and bring new betting products to the U.S. and other parts of the world.
AGB sat down with English last week to discuss his latest initiatives at the iGaming Asia Congress in Macau. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. The first thing we asked him about was China, where a government ban on online sales last year has the industry in a holding pattern while authorities put in place a new framework to regulate the industry.
What are you working on in China right now?
Right now, we’re heavily involved around things regarding the Chinese Sports Lottery. The lottery is in a moratorium at the moment. But we expect that when the lottery does take off again in China, there will be a lot of new products in the marketplace.
So what type of lottery products?
There’s a couple of different ways of doing it. Sports lottery is obviously something I’m very focused on. There are new things like incentives and new marketing programs and new platform ideas, because everything had to be centralized as opposed to everything running individually in these units and shops. So now it’s a bit more of a platform play, a bit of a technology play. Yet at the same time, some of the content has to change to be a bit more outgoing and attractive.
What type of content is really needed to succeed?
It would be really nice to get fixed odds. It doesn’t exist like that today. But having fixed odds would be a really good thing. Another product I like is “cash out.” “Cash out” is at any time during the game, you can calculate the price of what you get out of that game (if you exit it). I really like that. It’s like you’re hedging your bets.
What is it like to work with the Chinese government? What is it like to work within China? Especially because you’re doing what a lot of people in gaming are not doing, which is working with the explicit permission of the government. What are the frustrations? What are the good points?
The frustration we’re all facing right now is the moratorium. We’re at a standstill. It’s tough, because there are a lot of great companies out there — big ones too from the top on down like TaoBao, 500.com and others — that are very innovative, with very sharp guys that are fantastic to work with. I’ve had a really great experience with some of the operators there.
I think the biggest frustration is not knowing where the future is and what it’s going to hold. We’re not sure when it’s going to start (online lottery). It’s anybody’s guess. That’s something everyone would like an answer and definitive timeline on. The other frustration is there are so many decision makers in the process. You have the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Culture — so many different government agencies that you have to work well with and cooperate with.
And yes, we have to be patient and listen a lot, and that’s not always easy to do when you’re trying to innovate and move things forward.
So the good side is when things finally start working again, it’s going to be massive. China’s lottery is huge — billions and billions of dollars.
Any other cool products, not just for China but the rest of the world?
The other thing that we’re working on that’s pretty cool is virtual reality headsets. It’s still a little too soon to tell whether or not we’re going to get the traction on it. But we’re testing out virtual reality headsets and building virtual reality casinos. We filmed our first one the other day using these 360 degree cameras. And we’re building an environment that really is immersive.
So these are the Oculus headsets?
Facebook bought Oculus for more than $2 billion. So far this year, and we’re still really fresh into the year, there’s been more than $1.5 billion spent on VR technologies. We’re doing some focus studies because not everyone is going to get this, not everyone is going to like this. Some people are even repulsed by it, like if they have a fear of heights, or they have anxiety over feeling trapped. So we’re playing around with different ideas to make sure that people are comfortable and it’s actually a user interface that people enjoy.
With the casino, we’re just not sure what our target market is yet. We don’t see it being elderly ladies. We don’t see it being the typical slot machine player. We used the buzzword millennials quite a bit over the last couple of days. I think it is geared a bit more towards the millennial crowd.
Right now we have a baccarat game and a virtual slot hall. I think (right now) slot content is the easiest to work with because it’s graphically rich.
It was a little complex to film the dealer and try to get that full feel on a green screen. I think it will be really cool when we start filming inside casinos to capture the actual environment.