All bets are on: are virtual sports feeding gambling addictions?

The online gambling world has expanded. Photo: Pexels

As people go without live sport to watch on their screens, TheCity.ie’s Kim O’Leary examines how certain fans are turning to gambling online to ease their boredom – with potentially harmful consequences for those battling an addiction.

The global coronavirus pandemic has rocked the sporting world, with the cancellation and postponement of major live events ranging from the Tokyo Olympics to Wimbledon.

As most countries respond to the Covid-19 threat with social distancing, sports fans who are missing live events are turning their attention to virtual sports, which have seen a surge in popularity thanks to technological advances.

Betting companies, endeavouring to keep their punters gambling,d have set up their own online platforms to facilitate virtual sports such as horse racing, grey hound racing, cycling, football, and tennis as well as traditional casino games like roulette and the slots.

What are virtual sports?

Virtual sports are a selection of fixed odds games/events that use a random number generator to decide the outcome. All gamblers betting on these games and events view the same schedules and the same outcomes. Currently the most popular virtual sports include football, horse racing, motor racing, basketball, and virtual cycling.

Despite their recent surge in popularity during the global Covid-19 pandemic, virtual sports have actually been around since the early 2000s. Virtual horses ran during the foot and mouth disease outbreak in 2001, when live racing was cancelled in Britain and Ireland.

Earlier this month, hundreds of thousands of people watched ITV’s broadcast of the The Virtual Grand National – an AI version of the country’s biggest horse race, at the exact same time the real race was meant to be held.

Virtual football games are proving a hit on Betway

While real-world sporting attractions are limited this weekend to the likes of Belarusian Premier League clashes – FC Smoldvichi-STI versus Dinamo Minsk on Friday and Slavia Mozyr’s fixture against FC Minsk on Saturday at 1pm – there is a full-schedule of virtual sports for punters to tune into.

There is, in theory, no physical limitation on the number of virtual sports events that could run, and punters are being reminded that the dangers of excessive gambling online are very real.

Speaking to TheCity.ie, Barry Grant, counsellor and founder of charity Problem Gambling Ireland, says that the pull of virtual sports and gambling online can pose a very real danger.

“The lockdown in Ireland started after the Cheltenham races which is a big event for betting, and now there is a risk certainly with people at home or off work where they are becoming bored and start gambling online and through virtual sports. In some ways we have seen an increase in the numbers taking to online gambling, yet our helpline has been fairly quiet so far which is a little worrying. But being at home and out of work all increase the risk for people to start gambling,” says Grant.

Gambling problems may worsen

Grant explains that counsellors around Ireland are working hard to continue offering counselling services during the Covid-19 pandemic, themselves taking to apps such as Zoom to talk to people who have contacted them for help.

But Grant feels that more can be done by the Government and betting companies to try curb the rate of gambling addictions in Ireland, as many gambling companies are now tweeting advertisements and links to virtual markets.

For example Boylesports’ Twitter feed shows messages such as “You can bet on virtual events every minute 24/7!” alongside a link to the nine different virtual markets.

Some gambling companies like Paddy Power are also trying to be seen to encourage users to play responsibly by setting a deposit limit.

Grant says that perhaps Ireland can look to other countries’ gambling restriction laws to help the current situation. “The Government and the gambling companies could follow the likes of Belgium and Sweden who have placed financial restrictions like on how much a person can bet, taking into account what people have to lose. The National Lottery here also has a restriction on its website for how much people can spend. I think something like this would help,” says Grant.

And what advice would Grant give for those who have started gambling online through virtual sports?

“The advice is that people should look at how much time and money they spend on gambling sites. it’s also possible to self-exclude yourself and block certain online sites through software such as Bet Blocker. And I would definitely recommend that people look at other hobbies like physical exercise instead,” says Grant.

While virtual sports are all the rage during this pandemic, punters are reminded to not let the virtual world become an addiction.

Contact Problem Gambling Ireland on 089 241 5401 (call-back service) or Gamblers Anonymous on 01-8721133 for assistance.

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