Esports continues to grow at exponential rates across the globe, and especially in the western hemisphere, as more people accept the career path of both competitive gaming and streaming as a reliable and lucrative source of income. With that growth, we will undoubtedly experience a big boost in popularity of all things esports and gaming, from viewership numbers to merch and, of course, in the betting markets. Where there is competitive integrity, there will be skin in the game, and it’s important to get out ahead of the curve as a bettor and get an understanding of the edges that lie within a budding market.
Betting on esports can feel a lot like betting on traditional sports and indeed a lot of the core concepts follow through. You’re going to be pressing your edge against the sportsbooks and the general public, exploiting inefficient moneylines and trying to find prop bets that your model disagrees with. But the game environment is drastically different in esports titles as compared to traditional sports, like football or baseball. There are significantly more moving pieces and multiple game objectives that make for a much more complex game to bet on. The variance in esports is greater than that of any traditional sport and accounting for it is a skill that most people lack, even in the world of sports betting.
Hopefully in this article we can break down some of the basics behind betting on esports and give a better sense of the challenges that you must overcome to find success in the field. Understanding the differences between a mental and physical competitive environment and putting aside a couple of the more generalized strategies of sports betting while adhering to some of the important concepts you already know can help put you in a better place than the field when you start taking it seriously.
How to bet on esports
Betting on esports is as easy as attacking traditional sports on the betting market, you just have to understand the process to identify positive expected value bets to place in a realm that is virtual rather than physical. Esports are mechanically difficult in the same way that baseball is mechanically difficult, so finding the edges that allow you as a bettor to isolate mismatches in both skill and strategy are paramount to success in betting. Before you get into any of the strategies or general quirks of advanced esports knowledge, you need to understand what kinds of bets you can make.
Current betting regulations:
Within the United States of America there are some muddy regulations when it comes to sports betting on esports, but luckily for us the grey areas are more lenient than they are restrictive. Sports betting has become legal in more and more states over the last couple years, but there’s usually nothing explicit about esports or esports wagering within the rules. There are currently 10 states (Arkansas, Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Washington D.C.) that have no straightforward ways to handle esports betting.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because the lack of direct regulations for esports in these states does not bar bettors from putting action on their favorite squads, and thus the grey area is more blessing and less curse. Indeed, these states may end up putting in restrictions against esports in the future, but currently they do not stop users from wagering on video games.
States that do allow esports betting and have noted regulations in place: Colorado, Nevada, New Jersey, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington. These states have hard rules on esports and allow them to receive bets in all forms, making them the states with the most esports bets and best action to be taken. There are only two states with legalized betting practices that do not allow esports betting, and those states are Indiana and Iowa.
All of this is based on the core issue of wagering on the performance of minors. Most esports organizations will have members of the team that are younger than 18 years old (In the League of Legends Korean Championship, frequently there are players under the age threshold for adulthood in America) and some states are explicitly against betting in these circumstances. To make sure you are always up to date on the states that allow esports betting or, at the very least, don’t have any regulations against it, you can check this source for an up to date list.
Esports bet types:
Moneyline or winner – The basis of all betting. Depending on the format of the league or tournament, a moneyline can be applicable to either an individual game or a series that includes multiple games at one time. The most common moneyline will be on a best of three series format, but best of one and best of five series formats exist as well. A moneyline bet is going to be the most common type of action that you lay at a sportsbook for esports (or any sports, for that matter) but they typically aren’t the lynchpin of your ROI since the vig on them can be so drastic one way or another.
Map or game spread – For esports that have a series for each match. Teams or players are given a spread based on the expected number of games they may win in a series. For example, in CS:GO, the regular season is played in a best of 3 series, so the favorite will be -1.5 on the “Map Spread”. Meaning if you expect them to win 2 games before the underdog wins 1 game, you would bet on the favorite. Some games have different maps that play to different team’s strengths. The best bettors in those games keep track of teams’ win rates on different maps. For example, Team Liquid in CS:GO was once thought of as the best team on the map “Inferno” by experts. A bettor could use this information to adjust their projections for Team Liquid to win on that map and overall knowing they get a little bump on Inferno. This kind of handicapping is especially useful in First Person Shooters, like Overwatch, Call of Duty and CS:GO.
Game total – Game totals allow bettors to bet on the total games in a series. In best of 3s, the game total is always set at 2.5. The bettor doesn’t have to take a stance on the winner of a series or match, but rather if the series will last 2 or 3 games. Game total bets are a fantastic way to find an edge over your bookmakers if you can identify the trends that teams rely on to win and exploit them across a series. For instance, In Call of Duty the best of five games go four of more games in 76% of games, but the over on 3.5 is usually only set at around 66%, leaving some generous room for expected value on your bets.
Kill spread – This spread is for individual games in a series and functions like the point spread in a traditional sport. Most esports are formed around two teams battling for some sort of space with a running kill and death total. Usually in esports (not always), the team with more kills wins the game. So, a favorite in League of Legends might be -7.5 kills on the kill spread. Meaning, that team would need to have 8 more kills than their opponent at the end of a game to cover the spread. Interestingly, the team does not have to win the game to cover the kill spread.
Kill total – A spread on the summation of both teams’ kills in a game and another bet that is highly projectable with a solid betting model. Many teams will be consistently above or below the amount of kills that happen in their games, and being able to leverage those baselines to attack more generalized lines at a book are a great way to boost your bankroll over the course of a season.
Season or tournament futures – Each team is assigned odds to win the championship, make the finals, make the playoffs, etc. at the beginning of a season or tournament and as is the same in traditional sports, you can bet on a team winning that specific tournament. Generally offered for the major tournaments across each individual league, esports fans can lay money on their favorite teams to come out on top. The beauty of bets like these is that outside of a couple regular league leaders, esports are leagues are filled with seasonal variance and offer a lot of value on underdogs and new rosters on old teams.
Game-specific props – Each game has its own set of prop bets based on the ins and outs of the game. This can vary from first kill in League of Legends to any time kill with a knife in CS:GO to a win with a hunter deck in Hearthstone. This kind of bet requires the most game knowledge from the bettor and usually has the longest odds available for individual games.
Principles of a profitable esports bettors
Wagering on esports requires a breadth of knowledge of the games themselves, and thus it is a regular occurance for the most profitable bettors to be gamers or have been one when they were younger. Betting on traditional sports allows you quite a bit of wiggle room because of the law of large numbers, where such a large portion of the money is being put into action from public (uneducated) bettors that the sports books are not making adjustments to lines as drastically as they would if the majority of the money was coming from respected sources. When it comes to wagering on esports, books understand that those who are betting are usually more knowledgeable than the typically sports bettor, and thus the lines move more quickly towards the sharper side of the line.
If your goal is to bet on esports as more than just a weekend hobby for a little extra cash towards energy drinks, there are a couple structural principles that you need to understand in your process.
Bankroll management is invaluable
A standard piece of the process for betting any and every sport on the planet is having a consistent and repeatable strategy for bankroll management. There are multiple pieces of this that you need to understand like Kelly Criterion betting formulae and the ability to maintain a level head and not succumb to cognitive biases, but we are just going to cover a couple pieces of strategy that apply to esports more heavily than traditional sports.
Game knowledge is monumentally important – While it’s a regular thing to understand just the surface levels of traditional sports and being able to find some varied level of success, you will find little to no victories without an abundance of knowledge about the esports games that you are wagering on. A sport like basketball is ingrained in the minds of many people and understanding the core concepts will be enough to help you lay bets on both the game level and prop lines but in esports it’s not that simple. Unless you have played the games or studied them extensively, there’s absolutely no way to make informed decisions about the outcomes of games at any level. Trying to bet on a game of League of Legends and lay some action on who will get the first Herald requires, well, knowing what a Herald is in the first place, which to an uninformed bettor could mean any one of thousands of things. Developing a deep understanding of the concepts and important milestones throughout a game within the esports universe is the only way to make positive expected value bets. Luckily, there’s a lot of information out there on all the major esports titles that can get you up to speed, but until you have watched or played hours of a game you’ll have a hard time making money on them.
Vig is heavier in esports – Vig is the cost of doing business on a site and represents the amount of money that a bookmaker takes for allowing you to place a bet. Typically referred to as “juice”, it’s typically put at around 5-10% on the dollar for the more mainstream sports but exists anywhere from 15-20% for esports. This is because there is less volume of bets, so sports books have to make more money per bet laid in order to cover their costs of operation. Because the vig is higher, you have to be a more efficient bettor in order to come out on top since you have to win more often in order for your ROI to survive the juice. In layman’s terms, If there was no vig on a bet you would have to average a 51% win rate to have 1% profit over a sample. With 10% vig, you have to average 61% wins in order to have a 1% profit over a sample.
Underdogs are exceedingly valuable – While the best esports in the world will have a well structured skill gap between the teams in competition, they are subject to something that traditional sports are not: Inherent technological variance. You never have to worry about a skipped frame or a dropped internet connection in a game in the NFL, and you don’t have to account for any ping when it comes to a game of baseball in the MLB. There are technological speed bumps that affect all players in an esports arena and although they are mitigated to the best of the leagues ability, they are ever present and can cause a multitude of issues that can lead to upsets. When you add these small but significant hiccups onto a game that is extremely punishing in terms of both micro and macro mistakes, you have a recipe for even the best teams in the league letting one mistake early in a game lead to a massive upset. It’s commonplace to see a team as a -2000 favorite that only has a true chance of winning around 75% at best, and there’s massive value in backing underdogs.
Statistics are more rewarding – There have been significant steps forward in analytics and statistics in traditional sports over the last couple of decades, and with the esports industry being one born of technology, it would only make sense that they are not lost on the numbers behind the video games. That being said, the actual development of advanced statistics for the games is lacking due to the inherent variance and technological discrepancies that I mentioned above. Predictive measurements are much harder to come by outside of very advanced methods such as machine learning models, and thus the use of advanced analytics in esports matches is less than that of more shallow numbers. If you can find a model that is more predictive than, say, the average kill and assist totals you can find on sites such as gol.gg or oracleselixer.com, you will be putting yourself at a significant advantage over a vast majority of the field. So, while it is more difficult to depend on modeling for betting on esports, the payoff is magnitudes greater if you are able to develop something actionable.
Alternative esports betting
Outside of the regular realm of using popular esports betting sites to get your action on your favorite squads, you’ll always be able to find auxiliary routes towards getting a little skin in the game. As much fun as it is to put a couple bucks on a -1200 favorite playing at 5am EST, there are other ways to benefit from the performances of professional squads.
Skin betting – Skin betting was a popular way for CS:GO bettors to get bets down on the outcome of matches or to play casino games without actually putting any real money down. Players would wager with “skins”, cosmetic changes to in-game items or characters, as a replacement for cash and the winners would get those skins instead. Since certain skins are significantly more rare than others and therefore a more valuable piece to obtain, there was a huge community dedicated to the skins market and it became much larger than anyone had ever imagined. The issue here was that the gaming and esports industries are filled with underage viewers and players, and so gambling with skins in the game rather than real money was viewed as morally incorrect. There has been a long history of regulatory agencies and later the game’s creator, Valve trying to shut down skin betting and with that effort being largely been successful, esports bettors have since moved on to new, regulated ways to wager.
Fantasy esports – Like seemingly all sports in the modern day, there is a fantasy product available for those that want to put their skills to the test in a formatted game of player prop parlays. Esports tournaments on fantasy sites are structured in familiar ways to those of traditional sports, and are largely available in two avenues: Season-long esports fantasy leagues and daily fantasy esports. Both have their own pros and cons for those that want to have a more intricate investment in esports betting and those that have participated in regular wagering on the leagues will have to know the basic concepts of each before jumping in.
- Season-long esports has an identity much like that of season long football or baseball, and follows the same basic draft and hold format with regular waiver wires and trades throughout the regular season (or splits) of the esports leagues. Both standard drafting (snake drafting) and auction drafts exist for dedicated members of the season long community to partake and the ability to put together and manage a full squad of your favorite esports legends is a fun way to have consistent action in the matches day to day. The main difference in esports season long and traditional sports is that traditional sports can have significant outlier performances from individual players through the season that aren’t necessarily correlated with a team winning, where as in esports a losing team will very rarely produce a fantasy relevant outcome. Therefore, drafting for season long esports puts you in a position to draft the players from teams that are expected to win more often than others instead of the regular strategy of drafting players solely for their individual efficiency.
- Daily fantasy esports is a game within the Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) genre of skill games that exist on sites like Draftkings, Fanduel, and the like. For those that have never played daily fantasy sports, You must put together a “lineup” of players from the sport that you are drafting for that each have an individual salary and in order for a lineup to be usable it must stay under a designated salary cap that is static on the site you are playing on. The player’s salary is built based on their historical efficiency in scoring fantasy points based on a specific set of points given for actions in the game, so finding inefficient pricing is the name of the game. Daily fantasy sports can be thought of as building a parlay of prop bets on individual esports players to surpass their individual kill and objective thresholds in a given game, and the payouts are typically in the same equity state as those offered for an 8-player parlay. Daily fantasy esports has gained a lot of popularity thanks to world events and is one of the more accessible ways to bet on esports in America.
Popular games to bet on
In the same way that the NFL is a more popular traditional sport to bet on than the MLB, there are certain esports titles that are far more popular to bet on (and take part in) than others. There are thousands of esports leagues out there in the world, but there are only a justified few that have enough global influence to capture the eye of book makers and allow for betting of various types. As the world of esports continues to grow, who knows what games will rise to the top, but as of now these are the most popular titles to view and bet on:
League of Legends (LoL)
- Classification: Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA)
- Peak viewership: 100 million viewers
- Leagues/main tournaments: League of Legends Pro League (LPL, China), League of Champions Korea (LCK), League of Legends Champion Series (LCS, North America), League of Legends European Champions (LEC, Europe), Mid Season Invitational, and World Championship
- Beginner’s guide
LoL is the reigning king of esports and is in fact so popular in China that a star player on team Royal Never Give Up, Uzi, was named the 2019 Weibo person of the year. League of Legends is a worldwide phenomenon and is easily accessible due to being free to play, and thus captures the views and interests of gamers on a global scale. LoL has the most lucrative DFS contests and the best regulated betting markets and is a must-learn for a new esports bettor.
- Classification: First-person shooter (FPS)
- Peak viewership: 1 million viewers
- Leagues/main tournaments: ESL, ELeague, Flashpoint, Blast, Dreamhack, IEM Masters, CS:GO Major Championship
- Beginner’s guide
If LoL is the king of esports, then Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is the prince. The game’s easy-to-follow structure and action along with a modern and easy to digest viewer experience make it one of the easiest esports to watch and understand without previous game knowledge. Being an FPS, the game’s popularity spikes in regions like North America where MOBA titles are sometimes too complex to capture the attention of viewers who are not willing to invest the time to fully understand fundamentals.
- Classification: Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA)
- Peak Viewership: 1.9 million Viewers
- Leagues/Main tournaments: DreamLeague, MDL Majors, One Esports International, Epicenter Major, The International
- Beginner’s Guide
DOTA 2 is LoL’s main competitor. The games look and feel very similar because they are based on the same game: the original DOTA or Defense of the Ancients. Purists in the MOBA space will tell you DOTA 2 is a significantly more flexible and complex game than League of Legends, and they would be right to a large extent. The main reason that DOTA 2 is less popular on a global stage is simply due to the massive skill ceiling and the fact that it’s near impossible to understand what is happening unless you have a strong understanding of the game and it’s macro concepts.
- Classification: First-person shooter (FPS)
- Peak viewership: 472,000
- Leagues/main tournaments: Overwatch League, Overwatch World Cup
- Beginner’s Guide
Overwatch was once thought of as the next big esport. It has never quite reached that level, but has a dedicated core of fans. The teams in the Overwatch League represent a city or region rather than an organization like in other esports. The game plays like a mix of a shooter and a MOBA with different heroes that have different roles and abilities.
- Classification: Driving/Sports game
- Peak viewership: 140,000
- Leagues/main tournaments: Rocket League Championship Series
- Beginner’s Guide
Rocket league plays like a mix of soccer and the driving video game you played at the local Pizza Hut as a child. Players drive cars into a large soccer ball and try to defend or score goals. Rocket League’s statistics mirror those of traditional sports and that makes for an easy transition for traditional sports bettors.
Call of Duty
- Classification: First-person shooter (FPS)
- Peak viewership: 102,000
- Leagues/ Main tournaments: Call of Duty League, Call of Duty Challengers
- Beginner’s Guide
Chances are if you have only played one game on this list, it’s Call of Duty. The game has been around for a long time and has an immense player base in the U.S. As an esport with a traditional league, however, CoD is fairly new.
A game to watch for the future: Valorant
Valorant is an up and coming FPS that mixes the cut-throat elimination style objective play of CS:GO with the fast paced ability concepts from games like League of Legends and Overwatch. It was developed by Riot (developer of League of Legends) as a premier esports title that would receive regular dev support with long term goals of esports dominance. Many CS:GO and Overwatch players have left their squads in those games to blaze a new path in what should be a major player in the esports realms over the next couple years, and early tournaments and ravings about the games punishing style and insane outplay potentials have it looking to compete with the major titles for huge viewership. Developing an understanding of Valorant in an analytical sense before the rest of the betting community catches up should prove to be massively profitable, as it is already a mainstay on multiple regular betting platforms and only has room to grow.