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Guess who’s back!

The Financial Times took us on a journey around the world this week, as it reported on the mass return of gamblers to “Las Vegas of the east,” Macau.

According to the article millions of tourists like Jacky Chen, a real estate worker from Shenzhen in China, have started returning to the special administrative region to “eat, relax and gamble.”

As heavy restrictions fell on Macau’s integrated resorts – the lifeblood of its gambling-heavy economy – in the wake of the Covid pandemic, visitor numbers to the region and their associated revenues collapsed almost overnight.

Four years later, business is booming once again for the casino operators who call Macau home.

There’s one key difference now, though, as the demographic of casino customers has shifted from being driven primarily by high rollers, to a more balanced mix of mass-market gamblers.

As a result, “Macau is doing amazingly well,” according to MGM China co-chair and CEO of MGM Resorts International, Bill Hornbuckle. MGM is “in the game for real for the long haul” in Macau, he added.

And for good reason. According to International Monetary Fund forecasts, Macau’s economy is set to grow 13.9% in real terms this year, after its value shot up by 80% in 2023. That rapid growth made it one of the fastest-growing economies anywhere in the world, according to the FT.

Gross gaming revenue in the region’s handful of mega-casinos is expected to reach $27bn this year, aided by the new influx of mass-market customers, who are helping to offset a slow recovery in the VIP segment.

High rollers looking to splash the cash in the region have faced struggles in recent years, following a Beijing-led crackdown on so-called junket operators, who offer lines of credit and organise trips for VIPs hoping to win big.

Interestingly though, mass-market customers may well be the more lucrative group for operators to go after.

“The margin [for] a casino on a junket is 10%,” said Alidad Tash, managing director of consultancy 2NT8. 

“That means $10 out of every $100 goes to the casino’s pocket. On the mass [market], it’s [35% to] 40%. So if I lose $4m in the junkets, I only need to make $1m in mass to recover it. Because it’s four times more profitable.”

So, as Macau’s VIP segment seems to have started to fall apart over the past few years, it seems there’s something even more profitable waiting to come in and take its place.

No wonder the region’s casino operators continue to bet big on its success.

What’s in the box?

The Guardian turned its attention back to loot boxes this week, as it revealed that a government decision to allow tech companies to self-regulate the gambling-style video game feature has been called into question.

For several years now, loot boxes have generated warnings from experts that they carry risks similar to those presented by gambling, as other jurisdictions around the world such as Belgium have opted to regulate the products as gambling.

Instead of going down the same path as Belgium, the UK government set up a technical working group of game publishers and tech firms, which together published a set of 11 principles on the responsible use of loot boxes in August last year.

Some of the developers put in charge of new guidelines have broken their own rules, according to the article, which explains that in the past six months, the UK’s advertising regulator has upheld complaints against three companies involved in drawing up the new rules.

Those companies included video game publisher Electronic Arts (EA) which among others, was reprimanded for failing to disclose that its game contained loot boxes.

Among the requirements set out was the need to make it clear when games are advertised that they contain loot boxes.

Since then, says expert on loot boxes and PhD fellow at the IT University of Copenhagen, Leon Xiao, more than 90% of game adverts examined did not abide by the group’s own rule on making the presence of loot boxes clear.

In its defence, EA blamed the mistakes on human error, and said they were “not representative of its broader compliance with the guidelines.”

Another company, Jagex, said there was not enough space in its Facebook ad to make the disclosure about loot boxes, while another, Hutch, said it had misinterpreted the advice and would update its ads accordingly.

Xiao, however, insists the errors were far from being isolated incidents.

As for figures within government, the chair of the House of Lords group Peers for Gambling Reform, Don Foster, said: “It is abundantly clear that self-regulation does not work and that the government must intervene to properly regulate loot boxes and their marketing to protect children.”

Meanwhile, UK gaming trade body Ukie has said its members intend to be fully compliant with the new guidelines by July this year.

For those concerned about the impact of loot boxes on young people and the population at large, the changes can’t come soon enough.

Over/under

Finally this week, ESPN brought us a story on the latest gambling scandal in North American sports, as Toronto Raptors forward Jontay Porter was put under investigation by the NBA following “multiple instances of betting irregularities over the past several months.”

Specifically, certain prop bets involving Porter during games in January and March have raised suspicions at the NBA.

At a game in January, there was “increased betting interest on the under for Porter props,” and the player left the court after just four minutes of play, following “what the Raptors said was an aggravation of an eye injury he had suffered four days earlier.”

“Porter did not score against the Clippers but had three rebounds and one assist, and he did not attempt a three-pointer, meaning the under hit on all of the props.”

The following day, DraftKings said the under on Porter’s three-pointers “was the biggest money winner for bettors of any NBA player props from games that evening.”

At a game in March, a similar situation occurred as Porter left the court after just three minutes, due to what the Raptors said was illness.

The next day, DraftKings again revealed that Porter’s prop bets were the number one moneymaker in the NBA that night.

At least one other US sportsbook detected unusual betting interest on the games in question, according to ESPN, as multiple betting accounts attempted to wager over $10,000 on Porter unders.

Porter has missed the Raptors’ latest two games due to “personal reasons”.

What happens next in this case still remains to be seen.

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