With Christmas firmly in the rear-view mirror, the gaming world’s gaze turns to ICE, where the industry will converge on London in February and take over the ExCeL, turning the exhibition hall into a crowded marketplace of competing buzzwords. All of which takes me back to my very first ICE 13 years ago when I was a young, wet-behind-the-ears conference producer pounding the floor looking for exhibitors to spare me some time within which I could sell them a conference package for a boutique C-Level event in Madrid.
I remember approaching one international provider to close a rather substantial deal, which was going to fund that year’s cricket tour, with an equal measure of anticipation and trepidation. When the deal was done, I then had to convince said provider that importing a seven-foot statue of the Incredible Hulk to Madrid did not quite fit the ethos of the event. However, the cricket tour was paid for, so all was well. I remember those days of ICE at Earl’s Court with nostalgia and possibly a bleary-eyed focus on the hedonistic days of starting out in gaming. As with all industries, gaming is fluid and always moving forward, so it wasn’t long before ICE decamped to it is new home at the ExCeL.
However, despite the nostalgia (and thankfully many fewer bleary-eyed memories!) some themes have remained constant over the past 13 years. ICE always seemed to throw up a theme or buzzword that the event supposedly hinged on. I recall that social gaming was going to be the next big thing until someone pointed out that the social gaming might need to be regulated. Then there was “omnichannel”, swiftly followed by eSports. More recently, AI and blockchain have been words that have been on the tip of everyone’s tongue. I even remember being at ICE two years ago seeing an exhibitor hastily adding the words “Blockchain Compatible” to his exhibition stand. Ever curious, I asked how his product was “Blockchain Compatible”, only to receive the response: “I do not know, mate. But everyone is talking about Blockchain, so I thought I would stick it on my stand!”
Of course, not all change is bad. And as an ex-chairman of a large publicly-listed gaming company said to me not long ago: “Simon, it’s time for me to retire – at my last conference, I was coming in from the night out to see the young gun CEOs of gaming companies at the gym. I mean how I am supposed to do business with them?”
In recent times, gaming has grown up or possibly become more professional – and with that, ICE has taken on life as a different kind of event. I do not miss drunken middle-aged man whispering in my ear about how they are going to change the industry with their latest product as we stand in darkened nightclub surrounded by men with similar intentions. The sheer size of the stands now marauding across the North and South Halls means that one buzzword alone could never sum up all the moving parts of the gaming engine. In this business, we talk a lot about innovation – and I have been clear that I believe, as an industry, we must do better in many areas. The below points cover off the areas I believe will dominate ICE 2020.
North versus South
No, I am not going to bring up the recent General Election. I think, a bit like our oversized Christmas Day lunch, we are all ready to move on. There seems to has been a shift in recent years from a focus on the North Hall where the casino and platform providers have taken up residence (undertaking an ongoingly futile battle to see who can build the most gregarious and over-the-top stand) to an increased footfall on the South side where the sportsbook providers have pitched camp. A reflection of the old days at Earl’s Court when the online gaming companies grew from a small corner of exhibition floor to taking over the venue and pushing the offline gaming companies to the back of the room. Ultimately, the only reason for an online gaming professional to venture into the offline part of the hall at Earl’s Court was to nab yourself a Novamatic hotdog.
This world started to change when some bright spark decided that we could service the customers through omnichannel solutions. The growth of S1 and S2 in particular has since added a new dynamic to the show which has been refreshing, allowing more traffic to cross the River Thames (the central reservation) of the ExCeL, meaning that casino and sportsbook professionals do not view each other with the same suspicion of people from “Norf” and “Saf” London.
Clarion’s idea to create a payment village is also sensible and the compartmentalisation of different sets of suppliers into specific areas has meant less running around to meetings, turning up at a stand breathless and gasping for water as you sit down to one of your back-to-back meetings. A little tip here, always allow 10 minutes in between meetings since your first meeting of the day is invariably late which then has an obvious knock-on effect during the day, not to mention the pitfalls for anyone not blessed with a steel bladder. I think 2020 will see more and more divergence between North and South – and you never know, someone may be able to pull off a Blyth Valley moment of their own.
When Sarah Harrison, the then CEO, said that the UKGC would boycott events if the industry did not change, my initial thought was: “well, who cares, we don’t want you there.” Naturally, those thoughts were not based on any misogynistic thought structure of my own, and I fully support the changes that Clarion have bought into address sexism and stereotyping of women.
Instead, my thoughts were based in the fractured relationship that had developed between regulators and the industry. One of the highlights of the conference that year for me, amid the factually incorrect reporting of our industry in some quarters regarding regulation, was a well-known industry consultant (who will remain nameless) informing a Sun journalist, “he refused to take moral guidance from the paper.” Such comedic lowlights, though, detracted from a stark reality: the relationship between regulators and the industry simply had to improve for the benefit of everyone in the gaming ecosystem.
Of course, and quite rightly, the opening of new markets goes hand in hand with regulation. Yet, as an industry, we need to work more closely with regulators and tell them what we can do and how we can achieve higher industry standards around important issues such as player protection. This needs to be an engaging conversation, not disconnected parties talking at parallel, politicised channels. More specifically in the UK, we have recently seen the politicization of regulation. That is not the fault of the commission but a two-way dialogue, based on mutual desire to improve on both sides of the fence, is needed and would be welcome. I hope that latter-day developments, such as the formation of the Betting and Gaming Council in the UK, will help move the conversation to a more open and fruitful place. Especially, with recent initiatives such the rolling of the Betting and Gaming Council’s (BGC) multimedia safer gambling campaign.
As previously noted regarding the new opening of new markets, regulation is a necessary reality and it is good to see that the Superintendencia de Casinos de Juego will be participating in ICE VOX this year.