Five key takeaways from ICE 2018

There may not have been the buzz of previous years, but there were plenty of important lessons for the industry to learn from this year's event

This is an industry that learns its lessons (very) slowly

It’s hard to talk about ICE without mentioning the issue of sexism. Despite the concerted efforts of the organisers there were no shortage of women in varying state of undress with brand names artfully written across their backsides. It seems this is a business that learns its lessons painfully slowly.

Gambling Commission CEO Sarah Harrison fired a shot at the industry over the issue, although it should be noted the vast majority of companies adopting this approach were neither from the UK nor particularly interested in it as a market. But the persistence with what already feels a painfully outdated and inappropriate “marketing” approach is symptomatic of a wider malaise in gambling.

The industry as a whole does not like change. It does not like to be told what to do. And it certainly does not like to alter its behaviour unless it’s forced to. This approach is already causing problems in the UK online gambling sector and while the issues of sexism and responsible gambling are entirely different, they illustrate the same point.

The industry shouldn’t wait to be told what is right by outside forces. It needs to take the lead itself on establishing this as a mainstream, safe, inclusive entertainment business. Sky Betting & Gaming CEO Richard Flint attempted to begin a conversation about how this can be achieved from a responsible gambling perspective with his speech at the conference, and we can only hope it’s a debate that gains momentum as the year goes on.

This is an industry where sports betting is taking over

For the first time in many years the International Casino Exhibition felt like it didn’t quite live up to its title. While one side of the cavernous Excel exhibition centre was full of land-based slots manufacturers, the south hall appeared to have been colonised by the world of sports betting with dozens of major suppliers fighting for attention.

BetConstruct appeared to have created a small village for the occasion, but they were far from the only ones who were making a big splash and more interesting than the big players was the sheer number of sports betting suppliers competing for attention. Alongside the SBTechs and Kambis of this world we had Tipwin, Tipbet, NSoft, BtoBet, Mozzart, Global Bet, iSolutions, Betadvanced and many many more.

Even the likes of Novomatic were pushing their sports betting solution, and what’s clear is how much this sector has moved on in just the last few years. Sports betting is no longer a vertical where trading expertise is required, nor one where the solutions are either DIY or black box. The rise of modular platforms, managed pricing and trading and customisable solutions has democractised sports betting. It’s now a product that virtually anyone can offer on a competitive basis.

What’s also interesting is the innovation around the margins with new styles of betting products being developed and more advanced trading, data and customer management tools now available to operators of all types of scale. There was also a shift away from pure online and mobile with some suppliers focused on the retail to mobile crossover, SSBTs and regionally-focused solutions.

Sports betting has long been the lead product for the largest players but perhaps the next decade is where it becomes the lead product for all. And this a big threat to the incumbents and a real opportunity for operators and suppliers alike.

The UK isn’t as important as it thinks it is

For those of us resident in the UK it’s easy to think the world revolves around the British online gambling industry, and ICE is a nice reminder that there is a big world of gambling outside these isles. Many of the suppliers were focused on markets far outside the UK, with Asia as important as ever and continental Europe perhaps the most important market for this year’s show.

The rising Italian and German markets threw up more than their fair share of suppliers, and it will be fascinating to see how this begins to impact the balance of power within the sector. There are no shortage of firms who are beginning to try to expand internationally and this is sure to cause a few sleepless nights for executives of the current industry leaders.

But while Europe is the present, the market that was most talked about was the future potential of the US. Regulated sports betting is gaining some serious momentum in the US and absolutely nobody wants to miss out on a market that could be truly supersized. The question is, however, who is ready to cash in? And it’s not entirely convincing anyone has really answered that one yet.

The buzz appeared to be missing

One of the most noticeable aspects of ICE this year was what was missing. The buzz. There was no palpable sense that something big was just around the corner, not feeling the industry was at a point of a big new development and the chatter was more prosaic than heroic for the most part. There was much more talk of combatting existential threats than embracing opportunities.

SBTech boldly attempted to set a tone of innovation with the launch of its new in-play product, and while there were other notable launches there weren’t a huge amount of big leaps forward. Maybe it was due to the increasing role of regulation, the corporate sector’s rising influence or a certain cautiousness in the face of the shifting operating environment, but there was something amiss.

The sudden drop in the crypto and stock markets may have taken the wind out of some delegate sails, but there was also not the same sense of frenetic pace on the technology side. There was more gradual, incremental development than industry-changing solutions, but arguably this is exactly what the sector needs right now.

This is an industry in transition

Perhaps the biggest lesson of all from ICE was this is an industry in the midst of a shake-up. While there was no diminishing scale from the power players there was a noticeable surge in profile from a number of other suppliers, not least in the sports betting vertical.

What was once a relatively simple industry is becoming ever more complex, both in terms of addressable markets and the products consumers presented to consumers. It’s becoming more operationally complex too, not least through customer profiling and management but also with the rising convergence of retail and online. And alongside this the use of modular and automated solutions is removing barriers to entry.

While there is no reason to suspect the market leaders of today won’t be the market leaders of tomorrow there is equally no cause to assume they will be. Technology and regulation have radically altered the look of the egaming space in a very short space of time and the rate of change is only likely to accelerate from here. ICE 2019 could look very different indeed, and we don’t just mean the outfits.

ICE Totally Gaming | Strategy