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Without Sports, Gamblers Are Losing Their Minds and Going All-In on Marbles and Video Games

Their desperation palpable, bettors are throwing money at League of Legends, Turkish basketball and anything remotely competitive they can find

Mike had March 8, 2020, circled on his calendar for several months. The 29-year-old in Chicago loves to bet on the NBA, and after five months of using a “semi-shady under-the-table” bookie, he couldn’t wait to place his first legal wager the day Illinois finally legalized sports betting (hence, those circles around March 8th). Of course, that very same day, the NBA suspended play indefinitely.

Soon thereafter, the NCAA shut down the sports-betting haven that is March Madness. Major League Baseball and the UFC followed suit, as did every major sports league in the world. “Without sports, my bookie’s entire website is wiped free of things to bet on,” Mike tells me. “He’s struggling to add anything you can gamble on, to the point where you can now bet on coronavirus statistics, weird esports and obscure European sports leagues.” 

Last night, Mike says one of the gambling Facebook groups he’s in got so desperate “that someone just live-streamed himself playing Call of Duty, and the rest of the group bet on how many kills he would get.” 

“People are more or less losing their minds,” Sean Green, host of the Sports Gambling Podcast, adds. “I don’t have it in me to bet on the weather — yet.” (On Reddit, however, they’re getting close.)

Outside of whether the sun will shine or rain will fall from the heavens, gamblers have turned to what they see as the three most consistent things left: American politics, League of Legends and Turkish sports. “There are so many new people gambling in these arenas, and most of them don’t know what they’re doing,” says Brian, a 34-year-old in Connecticut. 

Brian has always been an avid political bettor (where odds for Democratic vice presidential candidate are “all the rage right now”), but without sports, he’s followed the crowd to League of Legends. That said, it hasn’t totally provided the necessary fix, and so, he’s looking into a few other corona-induced gambling arenas. “I’ve heard of NBA simulations running through the current NBA schedule, as well as another esport called iRacing — race car drivers running simulators from their house with live announcers. It’s very surreal to watch,” he tells me.

The problem, too, is that the only way to catch a Turkish basketball game or League of Legends match live is to stay up all night. “That’s where the simulations have a step up,” Green says. “It doesn’t, however, seem like there is one go-to source yet for simulation betting.” 

Can we get some action on marble races? from sportsbetting

That is, if you want to feel the thrill of betting on a live event in the company of others doing the same, you have to find someone trustworthy to simulate and stream a game. Bleacher Report, for example, has set up two live streams of simulated Madden games for their readers to watch and gamble on. (Green says he’s in the process of setting up simulated games for his listeners as well.)

Along those lines, William Labanowski’s app WagerLab was originally intended to be a sports betting app, but quickly pivoted when coronavirus brought the sports world to a halt. “Now we focus exclusively on prop bets, with odds set on anything from how quickly the coronavirus will grow, to whether any world leaders become infected, and what happens on popular TV shows.” 

It should be noted that such smaller prop bets probably will never be the stuff that larger sportsbooks offer. (In the absence of sports, then, Labanowski says they’re “pushing their virtual casino games, like poker and slots.”) The reason for this is because they have to statistically validate their odds — i.e., casinos usually list a 50 percent chance bet at –110, or change the risk proportionally if they deem it not to be a 50 percent chance. “However, since anyone can take any side of those bets, they have to be extremely careful to validate that the odds they’re offering are as accurate as possible,” Labanowski explains. 

In other words, TV shows, marble races and whatever else people are betting on now don’t have the wealth of data behind them that major sports do, so casinos won’t place odds. 

On WagerLab, however, Labanowski explains, “Since both sides have to agree to a bet, it doesn’t have to be a perfect 50 percent chance — the recipient can reject any bet they don’t like their chances on. We do a small amount of statistics or some basic research on each bet we add to the system to ensure they’re as close to even odds as possible. But since we don’t have to be perfect, we can list a lot more betting options that casinos can’t.”

As for the future, Green isn’t sure what will emerge from the void, but he’s positive the disarray won’t cause a permanent shift in the gambling world. “With the exception of eSports, which seems to have a niche already carved out, I don’t imagine any of these alternative things will be very popular when real sports return,” he says. 

“We’re all addicts and these alternatives are the methadone that help us hang in there so we don’t go cold turkey,” he continues. “Especially March Madness — nothing can replace that. Sometimes you don’t realize how much you love something until it’s taken away from you.”