How Did Virtual Sports Betting Come Into Being?

Written By Ian John on August 4, 2017 - Last Updated on February 23, 2024
virtual sports betting history

Virtual sports betting may be one of the fastest growing betting arenas in the modern sports betting industry, but it is still very much a fledgling market. While computer games have been around many years, developing the different virtual sports games has been a somewhat long and occasionally arduous process.

What is interesting for punters that enjoy this form of betting is perhaps understanding how virtual sports betting came into being and in truth, its development was and never has been a linear process, with inspiration coming from many disparate fields and games all of which when combined were morphed into the virtual sports betting games that you can find on sites like Bet365 Sport and Betway Sport.

So where does the story actually begin that brought us to the virtual sports of today? For that we have to venture back in time a little and look at how two initially separate industries, the betting industry and the computer game industry, finally came together.

The beginning – two separate beasts

The Sports Betting industry has existed for hundreds of years but perhaps started to morph into the industry we know today with the raft of gambling legislation that was passed in the 1960s, this led to the development of the high street bookmaker and the notion of people going to place their bets in betting shops.

In the 1970s, the first seeds of the computer revolution were being sewn, but with the focus very much on the practical use of computers, however it wasn’t long until the first games came along that sparked global interest. The likes of “Pong” a simple bat and ball game that used block graphics and the subsequent development of the arcade classic “Space Invaders” were the games that brought computer gaming into the mainstream psyche.

Soon, arcades across the country were introducing these forms of games alongside their more traditional slot games and they proved a massive hit. And while at this juncture the two markets are still completely separate, the first seeds of the Virtual Sporting future were about to be sewn.

Arcade technology – the seeds of virtual sports betting?

Alongside the raft of new microchip based entertainments in arcades were a number of other games. One of these games was a simple “race” game that was often based on horse racing or motor car racing.

In these games, players backed a particular colour of competitor out of a choice of between 6 and 10 runners or vehicles. Each of the competitors had odds on them winning the event ranging from the favourite (which was listed first as is convention) down to the outsider. The player would then wager a set coin (which used to be around 10p) on a selection by putting the coin in the slot of the horse or car they wanted to back.

After a set amount of time, the betting round would then stop and the race would take place, which was a part mechanical, part microprocessor controlled event. After the race was run, a winner would be declared and if any punter backed that winner, their winnings would be paid out to them via the coin tray, similar as you would receive your winnings on a slot machine.

Although this machine was physical, it operated under the self-same principles that would eventually lead to virtual sports. That being you could play through a number of race (in this case, events) in a short space of time, rather than having to bet on real life events.

However, it was limited in that the odds on each selection were the same for every race, even though the outcome of each race was variable, and there was only one type of bet you could make, to back the winner and only one stake amount you could wager (which in my day, was 10p per race).

In essence, this was the 1980s version of virtual sports, a limited forerunner maybe, but it operated under similar principles. However, these games, while used in many arcades, were never as popular as the boom in video gaming and as time progressed these games started to be phased out. As a result, the betting industry never saw any long term viability in their future as a betting medium.

The PC boom – computer gaming takes hold

The next big development that played a key role in developing virtual sports was the computer boom of the 1980s. In this time, Personal Computers went from being a ‘thing of the future’ to being readily available and affordable for many homes. Machines like the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and BBC Micro made owning a computer an affordable reality and as an ever-increasing number of homes bought them, so the number of companies developing software for the most popular models increased.

By the mid 1980s, the computer gaming industry had boomed and there were thousands of games available for the most popular machines. Many of these games were sports-based and some even offered the player the chance to ‘bet’ on sports events using pretend currency in the game.

As computer technology continued to advance, and grew in processing power and capabilities, games continued to develop, becoming more graphically complex, having more colours and improved sound, and greater depth and challenge. By now sports games were proving popular and while never the most popular computer game, there were a number of games that simulated betting on real life sporting events.

Sports gaming was now popular and there were even betting simulations being played by people on their computers at home but as yet, it was still a solitary pursuit. However that was about to change with arguably the most important of all innovations in the history of virtual sports.

The dawn of the internet – bookmaking moves online

That innovation came with the development of the Internet which actually began life many years before, but only in the 1990s did it start to grow and develop. By the mid 1990s, the old style personal computers were being superseded by more powerful PC’s and hand in hand with that development came the dawn of the Internet.

For the first time, people were able to use their computers not just to contact others but to interact with them in many other ways. As the Internet boomed, so did the number of people and businesses using it and it did not take sports betting companies long to realise that for their future plans, they needed an online presence.

Not long after the Internet first began to take hold, so the first sports betting sites sprung into existence. Companies like Bet365 first began trading back in 2003 and many other companies also developed their sites either just before or just after this time.

By the middle of the 2000s, bookmaking now had a tangible and credible presence online and was generating a rich stream of income from online customers alongside their high street operations. In future years, the development of mobile technology and faster internet speeds, meant that a bookmakers online operations became the core of their operations in many respects.

Sport simulation games

As the Internet and PC hardware developed, so did the games that were being played on it. Older style 8-bit games were now very much a thing of the past as far more complex and graphically stunning games were developed.

Some of the most popular games, which found their way onto the burgeoning console market alongside PC technology were sports simulation games such as the FIFA Soccer series, NBA Basketball and similar. Other companies were releasing graphically complex games that simulated many aspects of the betting industry.

However, one thing that had changed was that gaming was now becoming an online thing, rather than a solitary pastime. Now, the Internet meant you could watch and play against other players, rather than just the computer software. Multi-user interactive games were becoming hugely popular and remain so to this very day.

Alongside these hugely popular multi-user online games, were a number of games still aimed at the individual player but which simulated many aspects of a sport almost in entirety. One of these games was Horse Racing Manager which allowed you to own horses, but also to bet on a number of virtual races using virtual money as you played. A graphical representation of the race was played out on screen while you could bet on horses.

It was clear now that everything that you needed to develop tangible virtual sports online was there. It just needed someone to realise it.

Growth of sports betting online

By 2010, the online betting industry had established itself firmly and companies were seeking ways to outdo each other by offering customers better deals and better attractions than the other. There is some debate over which company was the first to develop virtual sports (indeed many still don’t offer the service), but in the end, by marrying the new capabilities of computer gaming, interactivity, graphic capabilities and multi-user compatibility, with a simple, yet varied betting system that could be controlled from within the game itself, virtual sports was born.

Since then, sites have been adding virtual sports to their options for customers ever since and they have proven hugely popular. The ability to bet on a sport and have the result of that sport with you within 90 seconds or so, rather than having to wait the hours it may take for a real life sporting event to end, is particularly appealing.

So is the fact that punters do not need to have any knowledge or experience of betting on these sports to benefit their betting. virtual sports gaming has a randomness that real life sports cannot match and while some punters see this as a negative, others find it a positive.

This brings us to the modern day where many sites such as Bet365 Sport offer a number of virtual sports to their customers. It’s been a long journey, but the genre has come a long way from the mechanised racing games in arcades of the 1980s and one thing is for sure, the future of virtual sports promises to be every bit as exciting as its past.

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Ian John

Ian John is an expert across many realms of online gambling, both in US and international markets. Based in the UK, Ian covers sports betting, poker, and the regulated online casino and esports betting markets for a wide number of industry-focused publications.

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