iRacing, esports and pingpong: What people are betting right now

Getty Images

As the world faces a global pandemic from the coronavirus, the sports betting community is adjusting to a new normal that includes an unprecedented economic hit and innovative wagering options that sportsbooks previously would never have even considered.

March is one of the biggest months of the year for sportsbooks across the U.S. Super Bowl Sunday is the only day that delivers a larger handle than each of the first three days of the NCAA tournament. In March 2019, Nevada set a state record with more than $597 million in handle, and New Jersey added another $372 million. That was with eight states operating legal sportsbooks. In March 2020, that number would've been 17.

Yet once sports essentially shut down in mid-March and the 2020 NCAA tournament was canceled, sportsbook betting boards suddenly looked bare and foreign. According to the American Gaming Association, 100% of the commercial casinos in the U.S. have been closed since late March.

Legal operators have been forced to expand their offerings into foreign sports they wouldn't have booked during March Madness and to think outside the box for regulatory approval in areas like esports and NASCAR iRacing. Offshore sportsbooks have looked to add betting on just about anything they can make a market for, including the weather and the stock market.

So, just what exactly are people betting on right now?

Expansion of options in the legal market

While the futures menu has presented familiar opportunities (Super Bowl, NFL draft, Masters, etc.), the daily options for bettors are limited and unfamiliar: Super Basketball League in Taiwan, soccer matches in Belarus and Nicaragua and table tennis in Russia.

"You get some bets, but it doesn't remotely make up for what is lost because the large majority of people want to bet on something you can watch," Caesars director of trading Jeff Davis told ESPN. "But you can't watch Belarusian soccer."

"I don't know anything about the stock market, but I figured if I see what the number is, I can put up a total and move it on the action. How bad it can be?" BetCris oddsmaker Ray Marino

Surprisingly, Russian table tennis has generated a modest handle (including live wagering), even though bettors can barely watch it. The internet feed is delayed and often full of glitches so sometimes they are relegated to tracking the matches on an online box score.

"Pingpong is the star of the show," William Hill director of trading Nick Bogdanovich told ESPN, sharing that his Nevada handle alone has tallied six figures each day for the past two weeks, and that includes live wagering. "The games are one on top of one another. Guys are playing three or four times a day. Everyone is probably betting the same guy or against him all day. People are betting five-, six- and seven-teamers."

American operators might need to tweak protocol. Nevada's overall handle is currently inhibited by Governor Steve Sisolak's statewide order to shut down casinos for the first time in nearly six decades. Bettors can no longer easily deposit money into their mobile betting accounts until tellers return to casinos; they now must use a third-party provider and pay additional fees, while a couple of casinos enable predetermined convenience stores to accept deposits.

In the meantime, the AGA estimates 650,000 direct gaming employees have had work stoppages and $43.5 billion in economic activity could be lost if the shutdown were to last two months. A national recession clearly impacts the betting space, limiting disposable income available for this form of entertainment.

"I don't even look at [the financials] because I can't control it," Bogdanovich said. "I let my bosses worry about that. I come in every day and try to stay as positive as humanly possible. I'm sure upstairs knows everything to a decimal point."

"It's hard to put into context company-wide, but I know what it means for the sportsbook," Davis added. "It's just no good."

Offshore books continue to be creative

While America's 17 legal betting states are limited to sports sanctioned by corresponding gaming commissions, the offshore betting market is without strict guidelines and thus has expanded its menu to a degree once considered unimaginable. That stems from a sharp concern of losing customers during this dry period, so offering a wide range of creative options is an attempt to keep clientele.

"Once the leagues started flopping one by one, we were terrified," Bookmaker oddsmaker Ray Marino told ESPN. "It's anything you can think of. What are people are into?" That open-ended approach has led to unique options. Those include the closing numbers for the stock market and state lotteries, weather results, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, the next actor to play "James Bond," and various proposition bets on President Donald Trump's daily press briefings.

"I don't know anything about the stock market, but I figured if I see what the number is, I can put up a total and move it on the action. How bad it can be?" Marino said. "Now I am live trading the Dow Jones, the NASDAQ, the NASDAQ 100, the NASDAQ Composite and the S&P 500. We're writing over $150,000 a day in a six-hour stretch."

In addition to finding a replacement for action, the offshore world is also trying to find a substitute for live events -- in the form of video games. Sportsbooks have coordinated with various internet companies to broadcast simulated games on Twitch. Those games include Madden NFL 20, NBA 2K20, MLB The Show 20 and NHL 20. No human beings are involved at the controls. The video game console simulates a game. Bettors watch the game on Twitch.TV, root for their wagers, and even live bet during stoppages.

In order to prep for this new frontier and create point spreads, moneylines and totals, Marino said Bookmaker purchased a handful of PlayStations. "Quick sims" proved inaccurate, so the staff had to simulate 90-minute games in real time throughout the day to gather data. "Hopefully in a week or two we will have something reasonable. We can only run 20 or 25 games a day," Marino said.

Depending on the length of periods and other game settings, the sims can last less than 40 minutes and scratch a quick itch for bettors. These simulations are different than esports, which have been around for a while, pitting professional gamers against one another. Sportsbooks already offer odds on these professionals and their league matches. However, sims are solely random outcomes between two computer-operated teams in popular video games. Questionable clock management and game strategy have left bettors baffled, but actual sports games also induce that reaction.

"I am watching the [Twitch] chats to see what people are saying. They're screaming, 'fixed.' I guess that means we're doing something right because they yell the same thing at the Bellagio [during conventional sporting events]," Marino said.

Marino also said Bookmaker typically writes six figures for each Madden game, and the live wagering handle is often higher than that of NHL regular-season games and most college basketball games. He also said Bookmaker sportsbook is only pulling in about 12 to 16% of its usual earn but is encouraged by the growing handle and demand of simulations. Plus, the online casino numbers have experienced a slight increase.

The sport perhaps most poised to thrive is auto racing. Not only did it already have a virtual presence in place, the gaming device goes well beyond an Xbox controller. The simulator allows drivers more authenticity by requiring they use a steering wheel, gas pedals and other car-specific nuances -- all competing on virtual tracks that represent actual slopes, bumps, grooves and lengths of official tracks.

Following the announcement of NASCAR's coronavirus shutdown through at least May 3, NASCAR Gaming partnered with iRacing to help bridge the gap and deliver fans a race and broadcast every Sunday in the usual time slot. Marquee drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin are among those who were quick to participate, as simulators are already commonly used for training and preparation.

"The difference is LeBron [James] doesn't go home to play NBA2K to get ready for the [LA] Clippers. But there are crew chiefs that use iRacing to get ready for races," NASCAR Gaming Managing Director Scott Warfield told ESPN. He also indicated this virtual system has already brought in new viewers with a younger and more diverse demographic. "We now own the three largest ratings in the history of esports in U.S. television."

Through four events, the iRacing betting handle has not mirrored the ratings spike, but a boost could be imminent. Unlike the Xbox and PlayStation simulations, iRacing is an esport and also features many professional athletes at the controls, which can only help the connection to fans. Plus, it has been around for a dozen years and three states recently passed measures to allow sportsbooks to post odds.

"We've learned a lot the last few weeks. [Appearing on betting boards] adds to the validity and authenticity of it and everything else. That's been great. ... I think we were too small for the DraftKings and the FanDuels of the world to take note of, until this [pandemic] happened," iRacing President and CFO Tony Gardner told ESPN.

Along similar lines, ESPN just broadcast an NBA2K20 tournament over the past 10 days. Sixteen current NBA players, including All-Stars Kevin Durant, Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young and Devin Booker, participated in a head-to-head bracket format. Only the offshore market posted odds on those matches, as well as this past weekend's HORSE Challenge competition.

The U.S. and offshore betting industry will keep trying to survive this sports hiatus, leaning on innovation, imagination and creativity. A space widely considered booming and sure-fire is now relegated to virtual uncertainty and a virtual world.