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Exclusive Q&A with Robert Chvatal, Chief Executive Officer at SAZKA Group

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Exclusive Q&A with Robert Chvatal, Chief Executive Officer at SAZKA Group
Reading Time: 4 minutes

 

As CEO of European gaming giant SAZKA Group, Robert Chvátal knows more than most how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the industry over the last 18 months. But whilst lockdowns in a number of its markets have taken their toll on the group’s retail offering, he is bullish about the long-term prospects. In an exclusive interview for European Gaming, he revealed how the use of technology and a customer-centric approach is driving online growth and allowing operators to provide a safer gaming environment.

 

Holiday season is often a time for rest and reflection. How do you look back on the last few months and what challenges did it pose for SAZKA Group?

I’m pleased to say that we have managed to remain resilient in what has been an unpredictable period with often disruptive trading conditions. As people will know, 80% of our EBIT is generated through lottery-style games. Clearly lock-downs have had an impact on our operations, with retail in Italy and Greece in particular taking a hit. And yet our strategic focus on online channels paid off. I think the growth of digital sales during the pandemic is very supportive for our future development too. 30 per cent of GGR for our Czech business in 2020 came online and that continues to grow. In Greece, OPAP recently launched a digital entertainment hub and has seen really good take-up of online lottery sales, despite starting from a low base. Retail remains important. Picking it up and rejuvenating it in the coming months is a priority, but online is a rising star providing us with real guidance too.

 

Across the industry we’ve seen witnesses the introduction of a wave of new products and a freshening up of old ones. What part has SAZKA Group played in this?

With more and more customers heading online, as well as potential new ones sat in front of their computer and phone screens, it was imperative that we kept our product offering up-to-date and relevant. All our operator companies introduced new content suitable for their jurisdictions. Needless to say, we also introduced new lottery draws too. Hand in glove with this went customer engagement plans that allowed us to showcase the full product portfolio and content diversity that is so important these days. We also saw the roll-out of customer loyalty programs that rewarded our regular players, be they in-store or online. This helped to really personalise our interaction at a time when we were all distancing ourselves from one another as a society. The results to date have been very encouraging.

 

How has the pandemic changed the way that you approach marketing, particularly when it comes to players who have moved online and those new ones who are joining them?

Interestingly, we are gaining real traction with event-based jackpots with specific themes. Friday the 13th has become a real tradition for us, as many people will now know. There are some key dates when players like to try their luck such as Black Friday top. With millions of people online looking for a bargain, it is a date that resonates in some of our markets. We are often able to collect much higher wagers on these special dates because we’re able to market them better. Clearly customer loyalty takes on a new meaning online too. Traditionally, retail has been an anonymous experience with people going to a newsagent or a kiosk to buy a lottery slip. That suits some people and that’s fine, but it doesn’t allow us to capture anonymised information on consumer trends. Online obviously requires people to register and be verified, allowing us to ensure the are safer from a responsible gaming point of view, which is crucial.

 

What part is technology playing in providing a better player experience?

We are really making the most of big data, joining the dots between lottery and those who play other games. It has a huge benefit online. But retail loyalty is equally important for us. That’s why we offered virtual loyalty cards, where players register online with a mobile number. This then allows us to identify them as a unique player. We also have a proposition in retail loyalty called Wheel of Fortune where participants benefit by being offered a second chance within 24 hours of their retail purchase, for example. People are embracing it because they see the benefits of what is being offered. There is nothing worse than being bombarded with products and services in which you have no interest. Harnessing big data and processing it thoughtfully allows technology to tailor our offering. That has never been more important in a world full of distractions. We also see technology as a vital means of protecting players, more of which is below.

 

Player protection and the need for safer betting and gaming environments are rarely out of the headlines these days. How is the lottery sector and SAZKA Group in particular dealing with the challenges these concerns present?

SAZKA Group is committed to responsible gaming. It always has and always will be a central plank of our proposition as a business. All of our operator companies are part of European Lotteries, so there’s a strict and supervised responsible gaming certification mechanism. In some respects, we’re fortunate. In lottery wins are infrequent, compared to games with higher probability and higher frequency. The risk of excessive or problem gaming is small as a result. But there is clearly no room for complacency. Some of our companies run sports and casino betting too, of course, and put significant resources into ensuring customers are supported. We let them know about setting time and spending limits and the advantages of taking frequent breaks. We also educate our employees and store partners in responsible gaming training, so that they can apply the relevant standards and principles. At the end of the day, this should be an enjoyable and playful experience for our customers – and we need to play a central role in maintaining that.

 

Interviews

From Esports to Emerging Markets: Deep Dive into Sports Betting Trends 24’ with Alexander Kamenetskyi

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From Esports to Emerging Markets: Deep Dive into Sports Betting Trends 24’ with Alexander Kamenetskyi
Reading Time: 3 minutes

 

As each new year begins, there is a growing interest in anticipating the trends that will shape the months ahead. Could you provide insights into the sports betting trends that are expected to be relevant in 2024?

Our SOFTSWISS Sportsbook team has reflected on the past year and observed that the sports betting landscape largely maintains its trajectory, with several key trends that the industry is already familiar with.

Firstly, esports is set to continue its solid rise within sports betting. Over the past few years, esports has steadily climbed the ranks, with games like Counter-Strike gaining significant traction among bettors. With projections indicating a substantial increase in viewership, reaching an estimated 640 million viewers by 2025, according to reports from Newzoo, esports presents a lucrative opportunity for operators to tap into.

Additionally, the dominance of mobile betting is expected to persist, with mobile devices driving the majority of operator gross gaming revenue (GGR). This trend underscores a preference for convenience, particularly in live betting scenarios. That is why we continually enhance our mobile applications and websites to cater to evolving consumer demands.

Also, with the emergence of newly regulated markets, operators are prioritising certification and compliance to ensure the integrity of their offerings. This includes obtaining certifications such as GLI-33 and licences such as MGA, which the SOFTSWISS Sportsbook received last year.

Overall, the sports betting trends in 2024 underscore the importance of adaptability and innovation. Operators must navigate an increasingly dynamic landscape driven by technological advancements and regulatory changes.

 

You have named a few trends that seem relevant for both casinos and betting projects. Does this mean that both types of projects should focus on the same aspects?

Yes and no. While the iGaming market shares common trends like regulations, each area has specific considerations. I would mention one interesting point between sports betting and casino betting. 

Last year, analysing the results of the FIFA World Cup and talking with our partners, I found out that there was a 10–20% drop in online casino betting turnover during this sports event. This shows that even casino-only projects have at least 10% of players interested in sports. In practice, it means that during every major sporting event, a casino will more likely lose a minimum of 10% of its turnover. That does not sound nice. 

That is why adding sports betting opportunities to online casinos would be a great option, especially since it’s now possible to give players a seamless experience. And I am talking not only about the SOFTSWISS Casino Platform. Our Sportsbook can be easily integrated with every casino platform on the market. 

We have cases when casino projects not only opened a sportsbook but also migrated to our sports betting platform. By the way, promoting sportsbooks is much easier than casinos, as sports events help a lot. Also, player conversion in sports betting is many times higher because, in my opinion, it is more socially accepted.

 

What do you mean by seamless experience?

A player simply sees no barriers moving from casino to sportsbook. In most cases, it looks like an additional tab on the website. The most convenient thing is a seamless wallet. Players can use the money they deposited at the casino for their sportsbook activities. 

We make the experience seamless not only for players but also for our partners. Our suite of products offers operators a comprehensive range of solutions, including Affilka, the Casino Platform, the Game Aggregator, the Jackpot Aggregator, and a payment gateway. These products are designed to integrate with each other, creating a cohesive ecosystem.

 

Going back to trends and predictions for this year, which markets would you say are the most promising?

In our market focus, we are looking closely at Latin America, especially Brazil, and Africa, with a specific eye on South Africa and Nigeria. These regions offer exciting growth opportunities, and our strategy is geared towards unlocking their potential to better cater to the unique needs of these markets.

This year, SOFTSWISS has already acquired a majority stake in Turfsport, a leading South African provider of multichannel wagering software for sports, horse racing, and lotto. It helped us officially enter the African market and extend our product portfolio.

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Paving the Way for Regulated iGaming market: Will India See the Rise?

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Paving the Way for Regulated iGaming market: Will India See the Rise?
Reading Time: 4 minutes

 

By Dr Aruna Sharma, Practitioner Development Economist & Retd Secretary GoI

 

Could you provide insights into the current market potential for iGaming in India, and what key challenges do you anticipate the industry facing in the near future?

The popularity of online gaming as a form of entertainment in India has surged with the widespread availability of inexpensive smartphones and affordable internet access. Global investors, developers, and other industry stakeholders are keenly watching the growth story of the Indian online gaming industry which has witnessed a 28% CAGR between FY20-23 and holds a market valuation of ₹16,428 crores.

However, instead of direct contribution in the economic growth story of India the online gaming industry is contributing in terms of increasing revenue (direct and indirect tax) collection (year-on-year). Additionally, the sector has attracted budding tech developers and entrepreneurs by providing them employment opportunities and fueling innovation to keep up with the rising demand for AI and other such immersive gaming experiences.

After some crucial and elucidative changes in the regulatory and taxation policies by the government in 2023, one can hope that 2024 for iGaming will thin the clouds that are shadowing accelerated growth of iGaming in India. 2024 holds promise for iGaming in India. While full regulation may take time, positive court ruling and increased focus on non-RMG segments could cause a casual gaming boom, potentially unlocking a multi-billion dollar market. However, regulatory uncertainty and potentially high tax rates remain a hurdle for attracting investments and interest of other stakeholders in this growing market and industry.

 

What are the main challenges facing Indian iGaming and how different are these challenges within the different regions of India?

  • The government is focusing on reducing threats like false information, mental health problems, money laundering, and financial losses for users by bringing rules and regulations such as the IT Rules, establishing SROs and SRBs.
  • Adequate regulation, that is conducive to doing business, is needed, first of all, to protect the Indian players. Because in the current situation, Indians are being abused by countless nefarious parties. Checking and curbing the illegal gaming platforms and enhancing mechanisms to ensure increased user awareness and behaviour while indulging in online gaming.
  • A pressing concern that requires governments urgent attention is to put in place parameters that differentiate between games of skill and chance for taxation.
  • As a fallout of high and retrospective taxation the industry is facing job losses, advertising and spending cuts and reduced investments in research and innovations.

Additionally, policy and regulatory compliance for the platforms have become increasingly complex with both center and state governments legislating on the same subjects and multiple ministries regulating the industry.

 

Delve into the necessity for a regulatory framework that is both balanced and adaptable.

Unregulated framework where user base is large leads to spread of iGaming in gray market with all its vices. By regulating the iGaming industry, the government can unlock other positive outcomes, such as increased tax revenues, economic growth via attracting more foreign investment, job creation, and better consumer protection. A thorough regulatory framework will enable transparent parameters to distinguish and license the game of skill accordingly and rest will fall under game of chance.

Regulations always bring in transparency and ensure there is no misleading advertising or non-payment of legal taxes. Additionally, regulations such as the IT Amendment Rules, 2023 have ascertained a robust grievance redressal mechanism by setting up of the SRBs and SROs.

Further a balanced and stable regulatory framework could provide assurance and confidence to the international iGaming companies in paying taxes while doing business in a regulated and transparent market, create jobs, and invest in the country and its people. Thus, comprehensive regulations, that are conducive to doing business and protect the Indian players, who are being abused by countless nefarious parties are necessary in the current iGaming landscape.

Consequently, foreign iGaming companies operating legally have consistently demanded that the Indian government establish an adequate and stable regulation and taxation regime. Instead, the government has consistently chosen to unwisely prohibit it, thus pushing this whole industry underground. Furthermore, iGaming companies face unfair persecution and baseless lawsuits from India.

 

The new 28% GST on online gaming has produced divided opinions about the industry’s future in India. How has the industry reacted to it?

Industry initially panicked at the 28% tax, fearing slow growth and reduced investments. The partial relief, clarification on the regulatory compliances have brought cautious optimism. Smaller firms remain anxious, fearing the high rate still discourages players and favors larger businesses. Long-term impact depends on pending Supreme Court judgment on game classification and potential tweaks to the tax structure.

The applicability of a flat 28% tax on the total value of bets placed in online gaming, irrespective of whether they are games of skill or chance has upset the applecart that was moving smoothly with the evolution of agreed principles among SROs and the oversight by SRB with clear distinction of the regulatory body between Games of Skill (permissible games) with that of Games of Chance.

The matter is now being reviewed by a Group of Ministers (GoMs) comprising of officials from ministries such as the Home, Finance, MeitY, etc. to reconsider the GST and how to counter episodes of money laundering and other such scams and frauds.

 

Finally, what can we expect from Indian iGaming as a whole this year, if you were to sum it up in three key points?

It is expected that 2024 will set pace by bringing in clarity in rule making, consistency of rules, inculcating a more stable policy environment that enables India to not miss the bus of becoming a hub for developers. The iGaming industry is expected to tighten its grip for filling the digital divide, enabling learning of cognitive skills and enhance conscious citizen messaging to further tap into the positive side of iGaming.

Additionally, iGaming industry should leverage technologies like blockchain to further the purpose of transparency and tracking of digital payment as a technical solution and for permanent storage of records to curb money laundering. Alongside formulation of regulatory policies, a stricter implementation of policies such as IT Rules (establishing SRBs), mandatory KYC, and compliance with Advertisement Standard Council in India (ASCI) norms for iGaming industry need to be inculcated in ensuring safe and secure gaming platforms.

The future of the gaming industry holds promise of growth, however, there is still a hazard that due to absent market regulation and destructive policies, international iGaming companies shun India, sending an unwelcoming signal to many other potential foreign investors.

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Interviews

Software is complex and success hard to achieve, Q&A w/ Max Francis Founder of Black Cow Technology

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Software is complex and success hard to achieve, Q&A w/ Max Francis Founder of Black Cow Technology
Reading Time: 5 minutes

 

Online gambling operators continually engage with different software projects but the rate of failure remains incredibly high. This is usually due to time pressures placed on the project. To learn more about software development, and some of the pitfalls operators need to be aware of, we spoke to Max Francis, founder of Black Cow Technology and 25 year veteran of software development. Max also talks about Agile and Rapid Application Development, and how by adopting these approaches, and working with a specialist software developer, operators can hugely increase the chances of success of any software project.

 

What are some of the main challenges operators and suppliers face when it comes to software development?

Software development is about solving a problem and the very nature of this means that we don’t know how long it will take. This is one of the biggest challenges operators and suppliers face when it comes to software projects. They struggle to understand that software development is a creative process and that we are trying to solve a problem we haven’t tackled before and we simply don’t know how long it will take to do this. This doesn’t reconcile with the date-based mentality of most organisations when it comes to deadlines and completion. This often sees projects rushed and hurried to meet an arbitrary deadline and this usually results in the project falling short of the mark or failing completely. It’s much less painful for all involved if there is a universal, upfront understanding that we can never know how long a software project will actually take.

 

What do companies need to consider if they are to complete software projects successfully – on time, on budget and in a way that effectively solves the issue?

Operators and suppliers need to make business commitments of their own and they need to be able to rely on the software provider they are working with on the project. To be able to do that, both sides need to accept the project is going to vary and evolve over time, and that they will have to trade off three crucial dimensions if it is to be delivered successfully:  features, quality and timescales. It is impossible to secure all three and at least one will have to give. So, if a project needs to go live by a certain date, that might be fine, but functionality can’t be fixed for that date. If the project needs certain functionality, then you can’t set timescales. If certain functionality is absolutely required by a certain date then the quality will have to give. Most projects try for all three – features, timescales and quality; and this is why they fail.

 

It seems that being realistic about what can be achieved is key.

It is indeed. When it comes to it, a software development project ends up in one of three places. Good with all the features but not quick; good and quick but not with all the features; or all the features and quick, but not good. The latter approach, perhaps surprisingly, can be useful for prototyping and proof-of-concept projects but care must be taken when developing without quality. All too often, trial projects end up seeping into mainstream production and people wonder why the quality is so poor. In my experience, it’s much better to be realistic about what can actually be achieved rather than trying to run a project with blindly perceived “needs” that just can’t be met. This doesn’t mean scaling back ambitions, it just means understanding the compromises. That said, to be able to predict what can be done, we need to understand and deliver small useful chunks of what we know rather than failing to deliver based on what we want. It’s always best to be realistic, and Agile and Rapid Application Development principles help us to do this.

 

Can you tell us more about Agile and Rapid Application Development principles?

At Black Cow we have the mantra “something useful to someone, sooner”. It’s essentially about partnership-oriented iterative delivery. Satya Nadella of Microsoft put it quite nicely: “set and repeatedly meet short-term goals”. The central idea of any Agile development practice is that we don’t know what we’re going to eventually need, so expect change and collaborate to deliver for the biggest difference to the business now. Think vertical slices rather than layers: do some of it fully rather than lots of it partially. Everything flows much more easily in our projects once our partners understand that it’s ultimately about delivering to their imminent business need. For me, the most important aspect is the partnership – all parties are delivering this project. We’re not trying to ruin your day by telling you that it can’t all be done; we’re trying to help you plan! Choose the compromises before they choose themselves.

 

Can you give a few real-world examples of what these approaches look like?

So, it’s good to have a plan but make every effort to base your plans on what can actually be achieved now rather than what you ultimately want to achieve. Then you need to recognise that plans always change. It’s important to tackle small enough chunks to allow yourself a better chance of success by predictably delivering, then delivering to the imminent business need. And be sensible about what that need is. To determine this, look to solve today’s problems and not the problems you might have tomorrow (unless that is in itself today’s problem). Recognise that there will always be compromises.

Think progress and not perfection. Success comes from delivering as consistently as both sides can manage and seeking to optimise at all times. Adjust the process based on the progress you are making. Don’t believe anyone who tells you they will deliver on time – they are only saying this and can’t guarantee it. This includes the customer providing material to the software developer such as specifications and responses – this is also a form of delivery.

Finally, always treat timescale requirements with suspicion. You must ask if time really is of the essence or whether it is just a desire to get something done as quickly as possible. A real deadline means the project fails completely if it’s missed. This is usually not the case.

 

What do operators and suppliers need to look for in a software development partner? And what should the working relationship between both parties look like?

Working effectively and with the right software provider is mission-critical. The supplier and the customer need to deliver, support and commit to each other. There are no sides here, this is a partnership of equals. It’s a relationship that works best when the customer keeps the supplier focused on the requirements and the supplier keeps the customer focused on what’s technically possible. In this way both parties converge on a solution and are equally committed to the shared goal. “I’m the customer and this is what I want” doesn’t get software delivered. A more intelligent approach is needed.

Software projects are highly complex interactions between several parties with requirements that change on the fly. Projects also continue well after delivery – it’s never about providing a fixed bunch of requirements as a package and then you’re done. That’s why we ensure we take the customer on the journey with us, acting as a true partnership. This is why non-software businesses should engage good software experts for their software projects, allowing both sides to get on with what they do best and allowing the project to succeed.

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