Nov 16, 2012

Betting on video games: $23m won and lost on virtual pitch

Every so often, an advert pops up in the popular video game FIFA 13 that calls on players to gamble. And gambling is what players all over the world have been doing. A new s

Every so often, an advert pops up in the popular video game FIFA 13 that calls on players to gamble. And gambling is what players all over the world have been doing. A new service known as Virgin Gaming (aligned with Richard Branson's Virgin mega-brand) allows players to bet real money playing their favourite game against opponents around the globe. So far, $23 million has been won by players via the service. And $23 million has been lost. Virgin Gaming is a service that exists within a strange middle ground of gambling and classification regulation in Australia. Few can or will take responsibility for how it interfaces with games like FIFA 13. The game's maker EA Sports argues such gambling is purely a third-party service. The Classification Board has concluded, after being approached by Crikey, that it has "a very mild viewing impact and can be accommodated within the G (General) classification". Further, video games are themselves outside the boundaries of federal gambling law, and thus Virgin Gaming does not fall within the jurisdiction of a regulatory body like ACMA. The EA Sports Arena is a few menus deep within FIFA 13, but it's visible enough. Through it, players can connect with Virgin Gaming, which enables you to bet on multi-player games of FIFA 13, Madden 13 and a number of others.

Jeremy is a dedicated FIFA player (he is also my girlfriend's brother, and we are good friends). I first heard about Virgin Gaming at lunch with him a few weeks ago, where he mentioned a few of the changes made to his beloved soccer game this year. Curious, I went to his house to watch him play a game. It took less time than I thought to organise -- with a computer on his lap and a controller in his hand, Jeremy quickly signed up through the Virgin Gaming website (as directed by his copy of FIFA 13) and linked his Xbox 360 gamertag with the service. He added $20 through a PayPal account, ticked a button to agree that, yes, he was over 18, and was in an open skill level lobby in minutes.

"No more friendlies," read the tag line. The lobby was disorganised and a little anarchic, with players hustling for games in text chat. "Any low skill player invite me for 3.00 game now!!!" posted one user. "Anyone wanna play for 20?" wrote another. Jeremy settled on a player from the Netherlands, whose profile showed a win-loss history of 25-12. The bet was $4. The match would be the regulation six-minute FIFA halves. The winner's jackpot, minus Virgin Gaming's 12% fee, was to be $7.04. Blip -- the Xbox notified Jeremy he had an EA Sports Arena match scheduled. The Dutch player picked Brazil; Jeremy picked Chelsea. The game was electric. Both players were cautious, happy to defend rather than push for opportunity. At half-time the score was nil-all, with few chances made by either player. There was more than pride on the line.
"Gambling is a classifiable element of video games, yet FIFA 13's Australian classification is "G", the lowest possible ..."
In the 48th minute the Dutch player scored, but Jeremy won a penalty shortly after, levelling the match. It was now that Jeremy noted he'd never felt so tense in a game of FIFA in years. If it was a tie the whole thing would have to be replayed. Perhaps he would not be so lucky again with a penalty, and real money would have been lost. Suddenly, Jeremy had the ball with his striker sprinting towards the Dutch player's keeper. The last line of defense. "Only the keeper to beat!" screamed the commentary in a rare moment of clarity. The ball entered the back of the net from well outside the box. The game was over. Jeremy had won. "Aww, you took his money!" said Jeremy’s girlfriend, watching distractedly. After the win $7.04 was automatically credited to the Virgin Gaming account, bringing his total to $23.04. Due to Virgin Gaming's $3 fee for withdrawing funds, Jeremy noted dryly, if he cashed out now the whole exercise would have been worth $.04 of profit. There was a momentary high from the win, but we quickly moved on to the next match, which had a higher bet and less tension. The opposite player, this time from Italy, played an arrogant game, and Jeremy lost his connection halfway through. Virgin Gaming automatically ruled a rematch was required, which the Italian won 3-0 in uninspiring style. The loss was not so much crushing as mundane, the edge of gambling quickly worn thin. A few days later I received a text message from Jeremy. He'd played some more FIFA games through Virgin Gaming, betting once again. "I lost and got really angry and hated myself and the game. It's f-cking toxic," he said. How this functions comes down to responsibility. Gambling is a classifiable element of video games, yet FIFA 13's Australian classification is "G", the lowest possible, with the advice that the experience "may change online". There is no mention of potential gambling in the Classification Board's advice. When I first approached the Classification Board about FIFA 13, the response from director Donald McDonald was perplexing:
"The Board has contacted the assessors of these games who confirmed that the information provided is accurate. The Board has been advised that the Australian versions of these games do not have the capability to connect online to the Virgin Gaming service."
Was this miscommunication? Were there different versions of FIFA 13 on Australian shelves? To satisfy myself, I bought my own copy of the game after speaking to some more local FIFA 13 online players. Again, the Virgin Gaming advert appeared. Again, I was able to sign up and schedule wagered matches. Again, I lost some money. This time, I sent photos of this system to the Classification Board for further clarity. The response would take time, I was told.

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