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Las Vegas is Hedging its Bets on Esports

Some Las Vegas sportsbooks will be back in business this week, opening their apps for wagering for the first time since mid-March, when they were shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic.

One, Circa Sports, is even offering curbside service at the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino, helping customers sign up for mobile accounts and deposit funds while practicing social distancing.

The timing coincides with the return of UFC this weekend and NASCAR racing the next.

“The plan was to reopen when we had more popular sports return,” said Jay Kornegay, vice president of race and sports operations at the Westgate. “UFC has three cards in about 10 days and NASCAR has seven races from May 17 to 27. Add a few special golf events and we’re crawling back.”

At this point, almost any business is good business. In March, $141.7 million was wagered at Nevada sports books, less than a quarter of what business was during the same month last year, according to the Nevada Gaming Control Board. April is expected to be a record low in the 20 years the organization has released revenue figures.

However, the situation could provide an opening for one burgeoning enterprise: esports.

While gaming authorities do not recognize esports as a sports event, there is an application process that allows sportsbooks to accept wagers on what is classified as an “other event” — typically something that involves voting, such as who might be chosen the most valuable player of the NBA season.

Not all of the sportsbooks offer wagering on esports — for example, the Westgate doesn’t — but others such as William Hill do (although it still ranks far behind the action on Russian table tennis).

“It’s always been very small, but there’s definitely increased interest around it, which I think will continue to grow,” Joe Asher, William Hill’s U.S. chief executive officer, said of esports. “I don’t look at it as a substitute for the traditional sports, but as an independent offering.”

On Thursday, esports betting will get a boost when the Overwatch and Call of Duty league announce a partnership with Sportradar, a data company that watchdogs sports leagues. The company will “monitor global betting activity” related to competitions in the leagues and “report any potential integrity issues to the company to help safeguard the integrity of the competitions,” according to a statement announcing the deal.

Michael Lawton, a senior research analyst for the Nevada Gaming Control Board, noted that the uptick in requests for esports betting is being driven by event organizers as opposed to gamblers, but other people in the industry hope momentum is gathering.

“I think what happened in Nevada is huge,” said Andy Miller, CEO and founder of NRG Esports and co-owner of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. “It’s going to introduce people to esports, and I think esports betting is going to be enormous when you realize there are so many games and they play all the time.

“It’s not just Sunday afternoon. It’s 24/7 around the world, and you have a younger generation of teenagers and when they’re able to bet it will likely be on esports rather than traditional sports because they know those games and those players.”

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