Thursday, June 30, 2022

Living the stream


If you’ve paid a visit to any of the major gambling exhibitions in the past few years it’s clear that live casino is viewed as the future of online gaming, supplanting software-generated games dictated by RNGs. It’s the realism and transparency that appeals to players.

Cambodia has wasted little time becoming a live casino hub in the Far East with increasing numbers of casinos installing cameras and the necessary tech to cater to remote gamblers – particularly in China. Cambodia boasts nearly 70 licensed brick-and-mortar casinos, with the majority clustered in the coastal resort of Sihanoukville, the border town of Bavet near Vietnam and Poipet on the Thai border. By law, the Kingdom’s casinos are off limits to Cambodians, so live casino is a way of diversifying revenue streams.    

Yet with many properties lacking the experience, know-how and equipment to offer online games, some have turned to white label live casino providers like Asia Live Tech. “We wanted to come up with a full package available to clients who didn’t want to have more than one partner for their needs, thus saving time, energy and money whilst ensuring efficiency and low costs,” says online marketing manager Neph Vargas. This has also been aided by fast-improving internet connectivity and IT infrastructures. “It is easy to forget but a lot of the countries of the region were badly connected, stopping people from accessing their favorite games,” says Vargas. “But with better infrastructures appearing along the years, it [live casino] has grown exponentially.”

Lucky89 Group, which owns two casinos in Bavet – Lucky89 and Lucky Ruby – was the first land-based operator in the world to establish its own live casino from inside its properties, says gambling consultant Jonny Ferrari. He was previously online marketing director for the company’s online subsidiary, Start Live Casino, and it was his job to license the company’s proprietary online software to casino properties in Cambodia and abroad on a profit share arrangement. “The law has changed so just by default they [Cambodian casinos] get an online gaming license but they don’t know what to do with it,” he explains. “Often, they end up losing their money if they try… 99 percent of casino workers and CEOs don’t have a background in online gaming.”

According to Ferrari, who runs consultancy Global Gaming Network from his base in Sihanoukville, it can cost a property anywhere up to $500,000 to launch a professional live casino operation from scratch. That includes all the HD webcams and IT equipment for live streaming, quality software, payment processing and the hiring of tables, dealers, multilingual support staff and programmers. A more basic arrangement costs considerably less, though some operations have flopped due to substandard or, in some cases, overly ambitious and cumbersome setups. If done right it shouldn’t take long to recoup the initial outlay if a site can recruit and retain enough online players. It is estimated that successful live casinos in this part of the world easily rake in six figures a month.

In China, where gambling is illegal, the underground live casino industry is “booming”, says Ferrari. “China is the number one customer of Cambodian live casino. Nine times out of ten it is an entity or individual from China who will approach the Cambodian casino and, through a legal loophole, rent space, which might be $8,000 a month per table and a minimum of four tables. So there will be a few Chinese guys in there who speak no English with a bunch of cameras on four to six gaming tables, and no one [land-based patrons] can play on these tables.” Agents then recruit online gamblers by word of mouth and by dishing out business cards in bars and clubs in China and elsewhere. The websites typically come with obscure addresses packed with a jumble of numbers, such as 957888win.com. “It’s like they made domain names hard to remember just to be elusive,” says Ferrari.

What is clear, though, is that Chinese and Asian gamblers tend to prefer the realism of live casino and the ability to chat with dealers. Simulated online games with pixels and RNGs are often treated with skepticism and mistrust. And while live casinos in the West are ordinarily run from hi-tech studios impersonating brick-and-mortar casinos, establishing a live casino operation in the pits of an actual licensed casino in Cambodia with patrons walking around and gambling in the background all adds to the authenticity. More importantly, though, it forges trust. “The studio setups can’t compare,” Ferrari suggests. “It takes away from the whole realistic look [of a casino], which is the whole point. When you have a dealer who is stood there and doesn’t start moving until you log in, it just seems fixed. What matters most is the integrity and that’s what the players look for.”

Quick to spot a lucrative opportunity, Chinese investors have flocked to invest in Sihanoukville casinos ostensibly because of the chance to offer live casino gaming in the region to their compatriots back home. Back in China, the government’s anti-corruption crackdown two years ago led to a sharp drop in the number of high stakes gamblers heading to Macau to wager in VIP rooms. So live casino allows players to get their baccarat fix without leaving home. As well as staples like baccarat and roulette, most offer Asia-centric games such as Sic Bo, Fan-Tan, Dragon Tiger and Xoc Dia. Many sites have bet limits of $5,000, although in Asia Live Tech’s experience the ‘whales’ aren’t regulars. “High rollers are not uncommon,” says Vargas, “but live casinos are not where you are likely to find them in our experience.”

Even so, he says there is more than enough appetite in live casino, particularly from emerging markets like Vietnam and Indonesia, to send the industry firmly in one direction – and that’s upwards. “It will boom, that will be guaranteed,” says Vargas. “Everyone plays here, especially the Chinese. And there is a Chinese community in every country. We are talking about hundreds of millions of potential customers.” Meanwhile, the dozen casinos operating in Bavet could be forced to ramp up efforts with live casino because of Vietnam’s pilot program to allow locals to gamble in two casinos at home.

And yet, much to the bewilderment of Ferrari, the Cambodian government is missing out on vital tax dollars (the state collected $37.4 million in taxes from licensed casinos in the first nine months of 2016 – up from $34.7 million for the whole of 2015). “All of this going on and nothing is being taxed,” he states emphatically. “The country would be so rich if it was – it’s like Iraq and how oil does or doesn’t benefit the country. Live casino and sportsbetting is Cambodia’s oil and the people aren’t getting any of it.”

Besides Cambodia, the Philippines has become the continent's hotbed for live casino in recent years. As well as large Far East-based gaming suppliers, a number of European companies, including heavyweight igaming supplier Playtech, have purpose-built studios in the capital, Manila.

Western live casino providers like Playtech use their operations in the Philippines to appeal to Asian gamblers by providing operators and their players with a regionalised gaming experience, including multilingual Asian dealers and table games popular in the region.

 

 

 

Asia Gaming Brief is a news and intelligence service providing up to date market information for worldwide executives on relevant gaming issues in Asia.

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