Would you be interested in earning money playing video games? To place a ‘bet’ on yourself to win a game versus another human opponent, where if you do win you’ll get real money back?
Or does the thought repulse you? Can you see the problems in letting people bet money on the outcome of video game contests?
I’m definitely in the second category, which is why news that FIFA 2013 and Madden 2013 contain very easy links to Virgin Gaming horrifies me. Virgin Gaming lets you spend money backing yourself in online play versus others with the chance of winning cash back, minus Virgin Gaming’s 12% take and cash withdrawal fees. (I’ll be focusing on the Australian situation here, but believe that Virgin Gaming is active in a number of countries including the US.)
On one hand, this is simply the mainstreaming of professional eSports – you pay to enter a tournament where you might win some cash prizes. However, the key difference I see is that eSports have been a separate niche of gaming, one with reasonably high barriers to entry (i.e. you have to sign up and pay an entry fee, sometimes reach a particular venue to take part etc) in taking part. You have to be committed and prepared to want to take part in such activities.
Virgin Gaming’s approach really reduces those barriers – if you have 10 minutes to play an online game, then you can put some money down on the outcome from your own living room. It’s this 1v1 mode that I have the most issues with.
Right now the list of games that include this service are:
- FIFA 2013
- NBA 2K13
- Madden 2013
- Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2013
- Battlefield 3
- NHL 2013
- Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
- Dirt 3
A success for Virgin Gaming (and by association EA Sports, 2K Sports and UbiSoft since I’m sure they haven’t included those links to FIFA 2013 et al out of the goodness of their hearts) is a lot of people adopting their service. This means a lot of games being played with money on the line, of which they take a cut – the house always wins.
Virgin Gaming has been around since June 2010, but this is the first I’ve seen them mentioned in the Australian context. The site’s media release archive shows only 6 PR statements since 2010 (of which 2 are from 2011 and 4 are from 2012) while the VG Blog’s first entry is from July 2012, so it seems like a lot of the activity here is relatively recent.
Money Changes Everything
The core issue is that betting on a video game’s outcome – even (and maybe especially) when you are behind the controller – changes the nature of the game. You are no longer playing the “let’s play for fun” game; you are now playing the “must win for cash” game. The rules change.
That’s dangerous. As pointed out elsewhere, video games (especially the ones above) rely on a lot more skill than tradtional gambling experiences. If you are playing professional poker, ideally you should not only have not only a highly detailed understanding of the rules, but you also need to be lucky to get the card you need on (for instance) the river. You’ve set up a hand and gauged the chance you’ll beat your opponent, but it’s a mix of luck and skill.
You can be lucky in video games, but the more you understand the in-game ‘rules’ and skill yourself up, the less important luck is. If you can find an exploit (e.g. turning down in-game details means you see through haze effects), or are able to understand the game engine’s quirks or know the field / map better than your opponent, then you are putting yourself into a winning position.
If you aren’t among the best gamers of a title, then there is little chance of you winning anything more than lunch money playing video games… except by concentrating your gameplay on those less skilled then you. And Virgin Gaming gets paid regardless if you win or lose.
Which means a situation where Virgin Gaming is exploiting you as a sucker and the only way for you to win money is to exploit those less skilled than you as suckers. It’s a giant sucker-based system.
Gaming as Gambling
The other area to think about is how Virgin Gaming is positioning itself as a gaming, not gambling, organisation. Gambling is a dirty word and Virgin Gaming knows it, which is why the term “gaming” is used across the site and in their materials while the term “gambling” is completely avoided.
It is a move echoed in how the gambling industry has tried to reposition itself away from being gambling institutions and started using the term gaming more frequently; in a similar fashion, casinos are becoming known instead as integrated resorts. (It was also interesting to see last week that when a radio talkback presenter was talking about Australia’s potential government funding for the gaming industry, he felt it necessary to clarify to his listeners he was talking about video games, not gambling.)
Virgin Gaming’s approach just helps muddy the waters further, by tying video gaming and gambling much closer together. Should it be a practise that becomes more widely accepted, it could also open the door to much worse behaviour among gamers – if you think that online player-versus-player (PVP) is abusive now, just wait until people can also lose money when they are defeated.
But hopefully this online gaming and gambling hybrid fails to take off. Hopefully players don’t get fooled into thinking that they can win money playing one-on-one online and remember what Virgin Gaming says on its own website: