I have to say that this year's 2016 ICE gaming/gambling conference held at the ExCel center in East London was the best of the ICE conferences in recent years. The shear size of the show in terms of exhibitors, traffic and interaction was excellent. The special presentations provided in the seminars were educational facilitating good interaction between presenters and the audience. The degree of online gambling representation was no doubt the most improved aspect of the ICE experience.
Exhibitor Vendor Show Room Floor - The number of vendors and the opulence of their booths represented on the show room floor was impressive with two extremely large vendor spaces providing for full exposure to Euro gaming. The vendors where large and small representing many of the European countries engaging in both land based and online gambling.
Online Gaming - As opposed to many other places on the planet where online gambling is illegal many countries in the EU have embraced online gambling creating formal regulated processes for this sector. This has resulted in a booming online gambling market in the Euro Zone. In many cases the online business models rival land based operations. This phenomena is unique to Western Europe as most regions outside of Europe have not embraced this form of wagering as a legal activity. This appears odd to many due to the obvious transition in the world from terrestrial gaming to online gaming. Europe has acknowledged this trend by creating a well regulated online gaming environment supported by government agencies. Essentially, Europe has created an "economy" around this activity that benefits Europeans from a financial and player protection perspective.
Its All About Mobile Or Is It? Although most of the vendors are building games on the Android or Apple platforms (Microsoft was also mentioned in a mobile context?) a number of game publishers indicated that the desktop is far from a dead platform. In particular, poker and sportsbook were mentioned in terms of desktop usage during game play. Essentially, any game that requires, encourages or enhances game play by having a number of windows open at one time works better in a desk top environment.
The Importance Of Sports Wagering - Sports wagering by "punters" is clearly a mature form of gambling in Europe with sportsbook vendors competing aggressively to acquire and retain punters/players. This form of wagering has become extremely important as an online activity with many punters wagering exclusively at online venues and not in betting shops which are declining in numbers. This transformation is driven by the sophistication of online punters and the demographics of the online sports wagerer which is skewing towards a market dominated by 20 to 40 year old punters. The popularity of online sports wagering has positioned sports books as a treasure trove of leads for online casino customers. Sportsbooks are also the source of many leads for other gaming properties. However, the cost for these leads is pricey. Consequently, purchasing these leads has to be justified by meaningful revenue per player.
Land Based Casino Activity - North American has historically been perceived as the big dog in the yard when it comes to large and ostentatious land based casinos. However, the recent Euro ICE conference begins to questions that notion. Granted, Vegas is still something of a phenomena. However, it is clear from ICE that Europe has taken a very serious approach to build and design casinos that appeal to a larger audience. This was demonstrated by the number of slot machine companies as well a casino businesses addressing the outfitting of these land based venues.
Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning And Player Profiling - Game engagement and especially online gambling generates a lot of data. However, making sense of this data for the purpose of retaining players, increasing revenue per player and acquiring new players has been challenging using traditional reporting tools and linear data analysis. Data scientists are now using Artificial Intelligence /Machine Learning techniques to improve the mining of rich game data generated from player activity.
These presentation brought back memories for me having spend two years at the AI Lab at the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology MIT working with Patrick Winston and Randal Davis and being exposed to Marvin Minsky's work at the beginning of the AI craze. This investigation resulted in a spin off company called AI Squared started by myself and the other team members working on the project. Out task was to decipher machine data created by electronic control modules in cars, large lorries/trucks, aircraft and medical equipment for the purpose of determining how to detect and address failure in these domains. Essentially, not a dissimilar problem from determining what players are doing and why based on their game play data.
The takeaway for AI/machine learning being used in the gaming industry is to profile customer behavior to determine what makes them stay in the "game, drop out of the game and increase transaction amounts. Ultimately, AI analysis of player behavior and profiling should lead to increased revenue per player, player retention and the customization of the player experience based a players behavior.
Social Games/Social Casino Meet Real Money Gambling - Many traditional land based and online gambling business have either launched or are launching "social casino games" in addition to their current "real" money gambling content. This trend has been going on for some time with completely separate businesses and business models being created to address the free to play(virtual currency) casino game model. Social game business leaders were clearly on the exhibit floor and in the seminars. This is an area that should be investigated more closely by ICE organizers.
There are also two US based companies CashBet and Betable that are helping social casino business enter the "real" money gambling market by converting their games to real money play on their platforms. This is a very big opportunity given the amount of social casino developers and publishers that want to explore online gambling with their existing content without having to reinvent their game or launch online gaming platforms of their own. It also will result in new and perhaps more experimental online gambling content. This direction can only help to grow the overall industry.
Fantasy Sports - What is the status of fantasy sports in Europe? Information disseminated at the conference did not clarify the state of fantasy sports in Europe. It was not obvious to me why fantasy sports has not taken off in Europe(or has it?). In North America it is very popular and frightening to legislatures with a number of US states banning the activity. However, in a regulated gaming market like Europe why is this not a big business? A resent article explains that the complexity of regulation and the fear amongst traditional European sports books may be the reason that fantasy sports has not being successful in Europe. A more obvious reason my be that regulated sports wagering itself is attracting this audience making it difficult for fantasy sports to get off the ground in Europe? It would have been a good idea to address this issue in one of the seminars. Fantasy Sports is not going away and if the sportsbooks are not careful they could be surprised by an aggressive startup in this sector. Also, this entire debate begs the question about "skill" games versus games of chance. This is a very real debate in North America and Europe will have to address it as well.
Gambling Startups - ICE has been very good at giving new gambling startups an opportunity to "pitch" their business models at the conference. This year was no different. The one striking standout this year was gamevy that won the best startup award. It is an interesting combination of skill, change and simple lottery style gaming. Their graphics alone where impressive indication the value of good game presentation and acceptance. It looks like this company is going to establish some good deals based on their exposure at the show.
Apple iWatch/Wearables As Gambling Content Delivery Platforms - I actually did see a few business launching simple slot style games on iWatch. However, I can not say they where all that impressive in terms of the game play or reliability. The Wearables certainly would appear to be an interesting way to address casual gamers and to use as notification devices for sports book activity and transactions. However, it still remains to be seen how iWatch or Google/Android fit into to gambling ecosystem. I suspect we will see more experimentation providing the population adopts this format as a general use platform and as a possible entertainment platform
Overall, the ICE conference was impressive and worth the trek to the docklands to take in the show. Clearly gambling is big business in Europe and especially online gambling where it may have superseded land based gambling in Europe in terms of revenue and participation. The show also demonstrated the professionalism associated with the gambling industry and the dedication of government and regulators to properly manage these venues and at the same time preserve the player experience. All of this points to a growing online and land based business environment in the Euro Zone.