The Washington Wizards are a sad basketball team. Their franchise point guard John Wall is out for the season after undergoing left heel surgery, and will continue to be paid $170 million through the 2022-23 season; by that time, he will be 32 years old, past his athletic prime and with a serious injury history. The team is currently in 11th place (out of 15) in the Eastern Conference standings with a record of 18-26. The Wizards lose a lot. But last Friday night, the team won, topping the 1st place Milwaukee Bucks 113-106, and it was I who lost, having repeatedly bet against the underdog in an online prediction framework that is destined to become a venue for gambling live on basketball games.
Last May, the Supreme Court struck down the federal ban on sports gambling, and Washington D.C. voted to legalize it in the region last month. (The regulatory infrastructure hasn’t been set up yet, but it’s expected to be ready by mid-2019.) Along with around 4,000 other viewers, I participated in a free-to-play “Predict the Game” contest featured in an alternate broadcast of the game. The broadcast was part of an early push by NBC Sports Washington to engender interest in sports gambling.
The alternate broadcast had the same video feed as the standard broadcast, but it included a graphical overlay with stats and betting lines on the sidebar and intermittent questions about what would happen during the game on the bottom (e.g. “Will the score at halftime be even or odd?”). Viewers didn’t have to wager any money, but were encouraged to answer the yes-or-no questions throughout the broadcast on a separate webpage. The participant who answered the most questions correctly won $500. While Friday’s broadcast didn’t involve any initial financial outlay,its creators say that’s the eventual goal. “We’re trying to figure out ways to appeal to casual sports bettors to make the games more interesting,” president of NBC Sports Regional Networks David Preschlack told SportsBusiness Daily.
For viewers who are already vicariously experiencing the emotional highs and lows of following sports, the introduction of “predictive gaming” in the broadcast is a way to make the stakes more concrete and personal. Each bricked shot, slam dunk, and turnover is magnified, because it’s no longer just you watching athletes compete — now you are competing too, against other observers. Predictive gaming is like fantasy football meets roulette, and if broadcasters adopt techniques perfected by casinos (and adopted by social media sites) to keep people engaged, the future of sports gambling could make it a lot more addictive.
The incremental betting on moment-to-moment events is a quantum leap from standard betting on whole games. “Live poker, and certainly a ball game, is in that area where you can make a bet and have to wait for that event to finish,” says Natasha Schüll, Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU and author of Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, which outlined the ways slot machines and other casino games are constructed to maximize player engagement, sometimes leading to addiction. “The temporal unfolding is quite slow, the event frequency is really quite small.”
Predictive gaming, on the other hand, shares some characteristics with slot machines. What used to be a single event (the final score of the game) is turned into an arbitrary number of micro-events (did this player score at least 10 points, did this player dribble more than 100 times, etc.), so people can keep making wagers and getting immediate feedback. While predictive gaming of this sort isn’t new — you could previously make prop bets at casinos or with bookies — the ability to make numerous small wagers from your living room removes many of the obstacles that keep people from gambling in the first place. “The event frequency is just skyrocketing with this sort of introduction,” Schüll says.
According to Schüll, event frequency is one of the main factors responsible for addiction. It’s one reason slot machines are so effective at keeping people hooked — you can just keep pulling a lever, or pressing a button every few seconds — and it’s something that online platforms like Twitter figured out with the slide-to-refresh feed. Friday’s broadcast only featured about 30 questions, but it was still enough to give me an endorphin rush every time I got one right.
"It's the 1.0 version of where we're ultimately going," Zach Leonsis, a senior vice president at Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the company that owns the Wizards, told SportsBusiness Daily. In the future, broadcasters want these games to be fully integrated with the viewing experience. Instead of switching over to a different tab to make predictions, they hope to create an interactive ecosystem that allows viewers to make a bet without navigating away from the broadcast.
The impulse to create a so-called frictionless experience is another hallmark of the gambling industry. If making a wager is just a click away, we are more likely to do it unthinkingly. “It’s ironic because anti-addiction measures would involve introducing friction, introducing moments in which you pause, and consider and really have to make an effortful choice,” Schüll says. That’s why so many time management apps are designed simply to put an obstacle between you and opening an app on your phone; it can take a nudge to overcome a nudge.
NBC Sports Washington has seven more gambling-focused broadcasts scheduled for the rest of the 2018-19 season, and they could transition to taking actual monetary bets as early as next season. A fully interactive, integrated sports betting system would be an ideal outcome for broadcasters. Not only could they make money by charging a fee on each wager, but they would likely boost interest in the sport and collect valuable data from the participants. (NBC Sports Washington GM Damon Phillips told Action Network, “Fans who participated in Predict the Game spent significantly more time on our digital platforms than regular users.”)
But without regulations that might help mitigate the known risk factors for addiction that are already present in the system as it is, the effects are unpredictable. “One of the reasons for [the transition to] mechanized poker tables was that you don’t just have the value of the slot machine played against the house, you also have the value of all the data you are gaining in the process,” Schüll says. Sports broadcasters would be able to collect the same data through interactive broadcasts, and it will be up to policymakers to come up with regulations on how this data is used. “You’re learning that person, you are enriching and making more granular their profile, and then you can presumably better target them.”