Cyborgs, yachts and VR: How technology will impact sports betting

Glenn Harvey

Editor's note: Previous installments of ESPN's special series on the future of sports betting focused on the potential marketplace, the bettors, certain pitfalls, next-generation fantasy, emerging types of betting fraud and the in-stadium experience.

Part 7 takes a deep gaze via several forward-looking vignettes into how certain technology may overlap with sports betting years from now.

In 2026, when North America hosts the World Cup, experts predict more than half of all U.S. states will be in the bookmaking business.

And by that time, bookies, bettors and the regulators who monitor them will be playing an entirely different game -- a cat-and-mouse battle featuring cutting-edge technology and fueled by high-speed data, some of which will be coming from inside an athlete's body.

"Scientific discoveries and technological advances will expand our knowledge of the inner workings of systems in the human body," said Kristy Gale, the founder of an Arizona-based biometric data rights company and author of two academic articles about the topic. "This will make it highly desirable for sports betting and fantasy sports decision-making."

As part of its Future of Sports Betting in America series, ESPN interviewed more than a dozen sources who spoke about the intersection of sports betting and technology.

Five major themes emerged:

▪ Game integrity -- sports leagues' chief concern when it comes to gambling -- will be enhanced in ways that would seem like science fiction just a few years ago.

▪ Sharp bettors will continue to seek tech-fueled edges over casinos and squares.

▪ Offshore sportsbooks and neighborhood bookies -- long in control of the vast majority of American market share -- will continue to seek out customer-friendly technology to stave off any substitution effect where bettors opt for government-regulated outs.

▪ Virtual reality will augment the live experience for both spectators and bettors.

▪ Esports betting on league-affiliated video game titles will blur together with wagering on the actual stick-and-ball sports.

America is still coming to grips with the prospects of widespread legal sports betting. When the World Cup kicks off in 2026, though, the U.S. will be well on its way to becoming one of the largest sports betting markets on the planet. By that time, scenes that seem futuristic today will play out at stadiums, casinos, sports league corporate offices and even in the homes of fans.

Here's what it all might look like in 2026:

Cyborgs help preserve integrity

A team of humans is wearing gas mask-looking devices that cover their entire heads. They are watching, hearing and analyzing everything from a soccer match that just started. They are part of a leading private sector sport integrity and data analysis firm. And their job is critical to the integrity of sports.

The full-immersion masks are synchronized with dozens of cameras and sensors located throughout the stadium, some of which are attached to drones; others are inside the athletes' bodies. From the control room at their Reykjavik, Iceland, office, they can view the pitch from any angle needed. They can see everything.

Their work is supplemented by a dozen robots. Glowing 3-D spheres around the room show a variety of sporting events. Neural network-powered artificial intelligence in each robot allow the machines to absorb the action faster than any human could, but nuance is not the computer's strong suit. The human-robot tandems look for anything unusual. Is a ref making bad calls? Is an athlete sandbagging? Does in-game wagering data coincide with any out-of-the-ordinary occurrence picked up by the motion-tracking cameras now used by every broadcaster?

The high-tech digital cameras at the venues deliver advanced statistics and eye-catching highlights. But they have a second purpose: Big Brother-esque integrity checks against irregular activity on the field of play. The first big breakthrough using the technology came in 2020, when the findings were used to expose a small group of tennis players whose biomechanics indicated that they were purposefully short-arming serves and forehands at certain pre-arranged moments that coincided with unexplained spikes in live wagering.

Every sport adopted the hybrid human-robot measures within a year. In 2021, a new federal law in the United States mandated the deployment of integrity services as part of the government's regulatory scheme. This company was one of about 10 worldwide providing cutting-edge game integrity preservation services. The global sports betting handle was estimated to be upwards of $5 trillion, with about 20 percent coming from the U.S.

Sports leagues couldn't afford to be perceived as being lax when it came to game integrity. And gaming operators -- a group that includes several bookmakers part-owned by certain sports leagues -- knew the integrity of the betting market was just as important as the integrity of the actual sporting event.

Bettors use tech to stay ahead

It's July 25, 2026. As the World Cup final between Germany and China kicks off, a 20-something physics graduate student double-checks to make sure his sunglasses don't move in the windy Chicago weather. A tiny digital device implanted in his tongue three weeks ago will be used to transmit data via a Morse code-like system. He traces his tongue gingerly along the back of his front teeth to ensure that the two small transdermal e-patches to store data are secure.

He works for one of the world's most consequential professional sports betting syndicates, and his sunglasses are an advanced prototype of Periscope v14.3. They are a computer perched on his nose. The nearly invisible mouth patches, like the glasses and tongue receptor, are linked with an automated live-betting robot based in London.

Just last week, the computer engineers working for his boss successfully hacked into the subcutaneous microchips implanted under the soccer players' skin. The hack allows the syndicate to glean real-time data on sweat rate and muscle fatigue. It uses the information to improve the accuracy of their predictive model. The team's first hack of live athlete biometric data in 2023 revealed that knowing lactic acid levels could boost the expected value of every wager.

Placed strategically placed near midfield, he has perfect sight lines for all parts of the pitch and can exploit the millisecond advantage he has over the "official" data feed used by hundreds of gambling operators and sanctioned by the Global Football Federation, the successor to the now-disbanded FIFA. The robotic computer in London -- called BetBot by its creator -- hasn't had a losing month since being put into operation in 2024. Jealous of BetBot's track record, other syndicates are quickly catching up. BetBot's creator predicts that the system's edge will disappear within a year. For the time being, BetBot places most of its wagers in the American market, which quickly gained enough liquidity to make it worth BetBot's time.

BetBot also looks for outs beyond the United States.

Maritime sports betting

Ten years after the 2016 leak of the "Panama Papers," many sportsbooks in Antigua, Curacao, Costa Rica and -- yes -- Panama, moved offshore. Really offshore.

Under pressure from international authorities, prominent books relocated to jurisdiction-free international waters on the high seas. One prominent book first tested the plan way back in 2018.

After purchasing a massive yacht, one bookmaker settled 10 nautical miles south of the Cayman Islands, in international waters. The area, known for its relatively tranquility, was close enough to several marinas in case a tropical storm loomed. Armed with a massive battery, backup generator and eight multi-million dollar solar panels that automatically tilted to follow the path of the sun each day, the yacht used a powerful antenna bolted to its starboard side to communicate with several satellites in low earth orbit. At any given time, the web of satellites was ready to receive transmissions from at least 95 percent of the world's population.

The sportsbook, which moved exclusively to blockchain-tracked virtual currency in 2022, offered the lowest vig in the industry, higher limits than any land-based casino and paid out to winners' e-wallets within eight minutes. Renting the satellite service was expensive, but vast cloud storage of encrypted customer accounts was cheap. Twice a week, food and water were delivered to the yacht and its 14 staffers. The biggest fear among employees wasn't hurricanes or seasickness, but high-tech pirates who repeatedly tried to tap into the yacht's central computer mainframe.

The regulated casinos in the U.S. -- a market with wildly different tax rates and inconsistent regulatory requirements among the states -- could not compete on equal footing. As a result, recreational gamblers and BetBot-like professionals continued to patronize offshore options in droves. While their market share had decreased some in the years following the Supreme Court's 2018 move to open up the American sports betting market to states beyond Nevada, Caribbean-based sportsbooks continued to stay one step -- or wave -- ahead of the competition.

Virtual reality enhances fan engagement

It's November 1, 2026. With veteran NBA commissioner Adam Silver leading the way, basketball has surpassed soccer to become the world's most popular sport. Silver spearheaded aggressive ventures in Asia and Europe, pushed virtual reality and embraced esports.

The NBA now offers commercial virtual reality packages that treat bettors, who may be lounging on their couch at home, to the full of experience of sitting courtside, watching LeBron James Jr. follow in his recently-retired dad's footsteps, while wagering on the game unfolding -- virtually -- in front of them. The NBA also started implementing Hollywood-inspired CGI into its virtual reality product as a way to enhance the experience. Many said it was better than the "real" experience.

Unique in-game micro betting options -- longest 3-pointer made in a quarter, next player to dunk -- are readily available. The most popular are mini head-to-head games between spectators with increasingly large prize pools. Data transmission is so fast that it doesn't matter if the customers are in the arena or wearing a virtual reality device at home. The NBA has even moved to delay the normal television and internet streaming broadcasts by a few seconds to provide a brief window of exclusive content to certain subscribers who valued instantaneous data for wagering purposes.

After "MLB Crypto" hit the market in 2018, "NBA Coin" follows soon thereafter. Jumping on the e-currency bandwagon quickly allows the NBA to seamlessly connect itself to tech-savvy consumers. Indeed, the fastest growing group of NBA fans who bet are those who subscribe to a virtual reality package and exclusively use the league-approved tokens. Industry consultants estimate that the NBA directly controls about 15 percent of the e-currency betting market on basketball.

Pushing the envelope with esports

The league's shift into virtual reality coincided with the hiring of former player Gordon Hayward to head up eNBA. The newly-formed subsidiary oversees and manages the esports teams affiliated with all 36 NBA franchises, including those in Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo and Mumbai, India. With participation rates in esports roughly equal to those actually playing the game on the hardwood, the move further solidified the NBA's place as the leader in esports fan engagement.

Esports player salaries that topped out around $2 million five years ago are approaching eight figures, after longtime players' union rep Michele Roberts unionized esports athletes back in 2021. The establishment of eNBA also allowed the league to further develop exclusive wagering and fantasy options directly to fans, including increasingly popular peer-to-peer contests where esports participants compete directly against each other for cash, NBA Coin or holographic next-generation skins.

Passive consumers, who in the past may have just purchased a hat or a jersey, have been transformed into active participants. NBA revenue is soaring, leaving the NFL behind.