Could Esports Betting Soon Be A Reality In The US? Not In PA, Sources Say

Written By Kevin Shelly on March 26, 2020 - Last Updated on October 17, 2022
Esports and iRacing gaining popularity

With almost all sports and sports wagering at a standstill due to coronavirus-related restrictions, it seems the time to move ahead with esports betting in Pennsylvania has finally come.

But the reality is not yet.

Regarding the prospects of legislatively allowing esports wagering in PA, Bill Thomas, director of the Pennsylvania Esports Coalition, said:

“I don’t believe that is on their agenda in the near future.”

Quickly adding esports in other US states where online sportsbooks are allowed also seems unlikely, except for in Nevada and New Jersey.

Perennially on the cusp of acceptance in the betting world

A parade of stories like this one and the one you are reading now have predicted esports being on the cusp for several years.

Some of the sticking points are:

  • An age gap hampers esports. The industry is unfamiliar to lawmakers and regulators, despite its large, growing popularity.
  • There is no one universal definition of what is or isn’t esports. Sure, the multiplayer League of Legends counts. But there are ongoing squabbles about the place of some other games, such as Smash Bros.
  • Esports gamers are generally suburban white or Asian, young, and male. Oh, and nerdy. Not so much black or Latino. But the exception is fighting games, which are quite popular with urban players. Sure, it sounds like a stereotype but is largely rooted in reality.
  • Only two US states — Nevada and New Jersey — have ever taken wagers on esports. Neither are currently accepting esports bets.
  • Colorado, Tennessee and West Virginia allow for esports wagers under their laws but have never offered them.
  • Of the states with legal sportsbooks, only Indiana has outright banned wagering on esports.
  • Pennsylvania and 12 additional jurisdictions have murky laws. Most neither allow nor expressly ban wagering on esports.
  • Policing esports is challenging, and fixing of matches is a real concern.

Nevada and New Jersey lead the esports betting train

On Wednesday, the Nevada Gaming Control Board approved esports betting on Counter-Strike – ESL Pro League Season 11: North America, according to Yogonet Gaming News.

Sportsbooks in the state may set lines and accept three types of wagers: head to head, winner of each match, and overall season winner.

New Jersey is likely to allow esports wagering in the coming months, according to a developer who asked not to be identified. Legislation that would approve legal esports wagering advanced out of an Assembly committee earlier in March.

The bill would allow betting on out-of-state esports college teams and prohibit wagers on high school competitions.

A growing interest in esports on a national scale

The signs of interest are clear and increasing, especially amid a vast absence of sports.

Both NASCAR and the Formula 1 Grand Prix ran simulated races last weekend, which aired on FS1. Actual pro drivers piloted the virtual vehicles in both cases. The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series was the highest-rated televised esports program in history.

Unsurprisingly, it was also “the most-watched telecast on FS1 since the pandemic-induced sports shutdown began on March 12.”

According to a Tuesday press release, the partnership between NASCAR, iRacing and Fox Sports will continue. “Fox NASCAR iRacing” will air simulcasts of the races for the remainder of the season on Fox, FS1 and the Fox Sports app. You can watch the entire Formula 1 Grand Prix race from beginning to end here.

Fast to adapt, a key for survival

Esports partnerships are currently flourishing, as noted in The Esports Observer. As an industry heavily reliant on large group gatherings for competitions, esports has had to adjust to the current times.

Public speaker and digital and e-commerce expert Jason Greenwood is among many who have applauded how quickly esports have moved to adapt during coronavirus-induced disruptions. “In this unprecedented situation, we can learn so much from each other about rapid adaptation and iteration to keep our industries alive,” he wrote in a post on LinkedIn.

The live streaming platform Twitch has connected millions of players and providers, making virtual play commonplace and accessible. Despite the looming virus shutdown, Stockton University near Atlantic City took second place in a battle against schools in Florida, and Georgia played out on the streaming platform.

Interest growing locally, too

A $50 million esports arena is planned for Philadelphia, a collaboration of broadcast giant Comcast and The Cordish Companies. The facility will reside in the sports arena complex area of South Philadelphia, near where Cordish is building Live! Casino & Hotel Philadelphia.

Neighboring New Jersey allowed a test run of esports wagering last November on a League of Legends championship held in Paris.

Harrisburg University in PA’s capital, a pioneer in esports with a degree program for the industry, has managed to keep its varsity team competing despite the shutdown of traditional sports programs in the state. The team’s persistence during this time demonstrates the durability of the video competition.

Stance of the PA gaming authority

Doug Harbach, the chief spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB), fielded questions about esports’ status in PA.

“Esports is not specifically authorized in PA under the Gaming Expansion Act,” said Harbach. “Sports wagering in PA is defined as ‘wagering on the outcome of an athletic event or the statistical performance of an athlete within an event (i.e., a game or a match).'”

One big question is why NJ is moving to permit wagering on esports while PA is not.

“That is a law that our board must follow and appears to be different from the law NJ regulators must follow. My understanding is that NJ’s mandate is broader on what types of events can be wagered upon with esports even expressly allowed in its law (which apparently also allowed wagering on non-sporting events such as the Oscars).

“The language in the PA Gaming Expansion Act is, as mentioned above, and does not include any provisions on the location of where an athletic event occurs.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Tom Wolf did not respond to requests for comment on the issue. Harbach said he could not speak for Wolf or the legislature.

Esports Coalition remains hopeful, but without a timeline

Thomas, the PA Esports Coalition director who formerly worked as a staffer in the PA Legislature, remains optimistic esports will move toward approval. He did not give a timeline, however.

“What I can say is that once the gaming control board in PA is comfortable with offering esports wagering within the state’s legal sports betting environment, I am sure they will move forward. Casinos also need to incorporate esports wagering into their sports betting offerings, which has been slow to progress across the country.”

There is still plenty that would need to happen before esports betting could come to Pennsylvania. According to Thomas:

“The most important thing is to ensure credibility, and to ensure the regulators are comfortable with how esports wagering would be conducted in PA.”

While those in PA may not be able to wager on esports any time soon if ever, one thing is for certain: Esports are here to stay. And, most likely, you’ll be able to bet on them at some regulated US sportsbooks in the near future.

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Kevin Shelly

Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning career journalist who has spent most of his career in South Jersey. He's the former assistant city editor of The Press of Atlantic City, where he covered the casino industry and Atlantic City government as a reporter. He was also an investigative, narrative enterprise, and features reporter for Gannett’s Courier-Post.

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