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Will The New Wave of Virtual Sports Technology Change Sports Betting?

James Murphy
by in Gaming Industry on
  • Virtual sports have been around for awhile but new technology could be a ‘game changer’.
  • IMG Arena and ATP Media are partnering on a licensed tennis virtual using real world data.
  • With most sports shut down due to the Coronavirus pandemic bookmakers are looking at new options.

If you’ve taken a trip to Best Buy lately (or at least prior to the current ‘stay at home’ environment) you’ve probably realized that the quality and realism of sports video games have improved dramatically since ‘Tecmo Bowl‘. The graphics in particular are absolutely off the charts now and at first glance it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the NHL 2020 video game and a live hockey game. Well, it’s not hard to tell the difference now since the actual NHL is on hiatus but I digress…check this out:

Here’s the Madden NFL 20 gameplay video:

If European sports are your thing, here’s some cricket:

You get the idea. If you want to see more head over to YouTube, type in a sport and you’ll find an officially licensed video game. From Canadian Football to Arena Football to Professional Darts you’ll find a game.


It didn’t take long for sportsbooks to co-opt this technology in the form of virtual sports. They’ve been around for awhile now and like their video game counterparts the graphics and gameplay have improved dramatically:

These games are built from the ground up for sports betting and offer every option available on the actual sport including totals, props and in-game betting.

With the growth of sports betting in the US following the Supreme Court decision striking down PASPA the North American sports leagues are looking for ways to monetize it. Thankfully, they’ve given up on nonsense like ‘integrity fees’ and turned their attention to using their intellectual and data property to improve the betting experience. That has led to officially licensed virtual sports such as Major League Baseball:

You’ll notice the SportsRadar branding in the video above–they’re one of the major players in betting focused statistical data and in play information. And that’s where the fun begins.


The problem with virtual sports in the past was the generic nature of the gameplay. By necessity, the companies that make these games were forced to use fictitious teams. For example, I’m watching a virtual soccer game right now between the ‘London Guns’ (Arsenal) and ‘Manchester Blue’ (Manchester City). Not only does this make virtual sports far less attractive to bettors it creates a secondary problem–fictitious teams necessitate fictitious stats.

Not only are the stats fictitious they’re extremely limited. For a Virtual Horse racing game, for example, each horse is given a ‘star rating’ with the only other statistical data available for handicapping a list of their previous finishes. Team sports have a bit more to work with–virtual basketball, for example, offers game by game data, head to head data and statistical data such as shooting percentage and point differentials. Even with this information, the lack of real data on real teams complicates the handicapping process. What is it mean that ‘Virtual Portland’ has beaten ‘Virtual Los Angeles’ in ten straight games? Without some type of qualitative concept of the teams involved it’s tough to figure out where to start breaking down game matchups and handicapping. Without legitimate handicapping data, these games become little more than fancy slot machines.

That brings us to a couple of recent additions to the virtual sports scene. BetRadar’s virtual baseball from the video above features all 30 MLB teams and gameplay based on ‘real world data’. This is better than generic teams but the problem is that it doesn’t use actual players. Here’s how SportsRadar describes the product:

Featuring all 30 Major League Baseball (MLB) teams and developed with real-world data from the MLB, Virtual Baseball In-Play offers unrivaled detail and realism.

High quality video with broadcast style transitions keeps punters interested while state-of-the-art motion capture from professional athletes ensures the virtual avatars move and react like real players. This is enhanced through our unique partnership with the MLB as each game uses actual team names, official uniforms and MLB branding – directly appealing to MLB fans who also want ‘as-real’ team strengths and player stats.

With games lasting, on average, 177 minutes, the inclusion of common and rare on-field actions keeps punters glued to the action.

The graphics and gameplay are downright amazing and it doesn’t take long to get over the fact that you’re watching a ‘virtual’ version of baseball. It does a great job replicating the experience of watching a televised baseball game. The glaring liability (for now at least) is the absence of actual players. Even with the official MLB branding and real world data driving the gameplay it doesn’t fix the primary problem–without real players and real stats you can’t handicap virtual sports. This isn’t SportsRadar’s fault–the use of actual players is the kind of thing that would have to be negotiated in the MLB collective bargaining agreement (the current one expires in 2021).


With the media going with wall to wall pandemic coverage it isn’t a huge surprise that no one really noticed a couple of press releases announcing new virtual sports offerings. The first was an announcement from IMG ARENA and ATP Media that they were creating the ‘first ever officially branded virtual tennis product’:

IMG ARENA is using licensed assets to create the first-ever officially branded virtual tennis product, featuring logos from the ATP Masters 1000 series along with official tournament names, to deliver an authentic, fan-first experience. 

This unique and exclusive product is evidence of the ATP Media’s innovation strategy and adds to IMG ARENA’s growing portfolio of virtual products, which also includes golf, motorsport, football, horse racing, speedway, greyhound racing and cycling.

Not surprisingly, the game looks amazing but still has a couple of liabilities. First, it isn’t clear if real players will be featured. More significantly, it’ll be based on the ATP Masters 1000 series which is the third tier of men’s professional tennis. Ultimately, it might not be much different than SportsRadar’s baseball offering.

A more interesting announcement came from SportsRadar which announced what they’re calling ‘Simulated Reality’. They’re claiming that it will be a new level of virtual sport realism and based on the description it sure sounds like it. The plan is to play the remaining fixtures of top leagues from Germany, England and Spain with games taking place on the original date and with the original kickoff time as the ‘real’ schedule. The games will be a full 90 minutes long and will differ from the traditional virtual sports platform as it won’t require any integration–the virtual game will be played and sportsbooks will take action on it just as they would any over event. Here’s what SportsRadar had to say about it:

In an industry first, Sportradar has tapped into its AI and machine learning capabilities to deliver a sports betting experience which is as close to real-life as possible, seamless and with no integration needed.

Carsten Koerl, CEO, Sportradar, said: “We have listened carefully to our customers and the betting community who have made it clear there is an appetite for alternative means of betting during this time where this is a void in live sports action. Simulated Reality will give our sports betting partners seamless access to a highly unique product that is first to market at no extra cost and integration. As market leaders in the industry, we pride ourselves on our ability to quickly pivot our business strategy and redirect our resources towards delivering new and innovative solutions such as this.”

Drawing on Sportradar’s historical football database and statistical output to provide match data for the product, the first simulated reality games will offer a comprehensive range of pre-match and live (in-play) betting opportunities. The simulations will reflect team form and normal match play creating an advanced gaming experience.

Played out over a full 90 minutes, fans will be able to bet on their favourite teams, access match analysis and league tables, while the game itself will be visualised by live match trackers.

This could get very interesting. In the near future, you might see leagues playing a ‘virtual’ season simultaneous to their ‘real’ season. The current hiatus of most sports worldwide will likely mean that bookmakers, players, teams and leagues will want a ‘hedge’ against that happening in the future. Hopefully, this isn’t something that we’ll have to deal with again anytime soon and if that’s the case the ‘virtual’ season can be a nice ancillary revenue stream for everyone concerned and a fun ‘alternate reality’ betting opportunity for handicappers.

If there is a shutdown of any type the ‘virtual’ games could continue even with the ‘real’ leagues on hiatus. This would keep at least some revenue streams coming in for everyone in the food chain. It wouldn’t take much to add even more revenue streams. In-game advertising (something that is already common in video games) is the most obvious way to further monetize the ‘virtual’ sport and possibly the most lucrative.

This could have myriad implications. Would a generation that grew up on video games and Esports gravitate toward this type of betting? Would sportsbooks accept that, say, the ‘virtual NFL’ is a legitimate sporting event and take action? In the US, there are interesting regulatory implications. Many states have a list of ‘approved events for sports wagering’ that delineate which leagues that bookmakers can take action on. They don’t have any stipulation that these events must take place in the ‘physical’ and not the ‘virtual’ world.

With the convergence of Esports and sports betting along with the desire of professional leagues and the media to leverage both trends this could not only be inevitable but happen sooner rather than later. There are plenty of signs–ESPN is hosting a NBA 2K20 video game tournament featuring a number of actual pro hoop players. Most pro sports leagues already run their own officially sanctioned Esports competitions. The more traditional sports betting market is turning to Esports with so many ‘real’ sports on hiatus.

Not enough convergence for you? Sportsbooks already have sports video game titles among their Esports offering and quite a few are running and taking action on their own ‘virtual games’ based on video game play. And to bring this all full circle Seattle Esports betting startup Unikrn has created a ‘virtual Esports’ betting platform based on historical game data. With all of these examples happening as we speak it’s a no brainer for leagues to operate their own ‘virtual leagues’. Virtual players don’t have to be quarantined and the games–and revenue–can keep on coming.

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