Silicon Valley bets on online gambling

Zynga, which has developed popular casual online games, is making gambling a centerpiece of its new strategy.
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press/file 2011
Zynga, which has developed popular casual online games, is making gambling a centerpiece of its new strategy.

SAN FRANCISCO — Look out Las Vegas, here comes FarmVille.

Silicon Valley is betting online gambling is its next billion-dollar business, with developers across the tech industry turning casual games into occasions to wager.

At the moment these games are aimed overseas, where attitudes toward gambling are more relaxed and online betting is generally legal, and extremely lucrative. But game companies, from small teams working out of the living room to Facebook and Zynga, have their eye on the ultimate prize: the rich US market, where most types of real-money online wagers have been cleared by the Justice Department.


Two states, Nevada and Delaware, are laying the groundwork for virtual gambling. Within a few months they will most likely be joined by New Jersey. Bills have also been introduced in Iowa, California, Mississippi, and other states, driven by the realization that online gambling could bring in welcome streams of tax revenue. In Iowa alone, online gambling proponents estimated that 150,000 residents were playing poker illegally.

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Legislative progress, though, is slow. Opponents include an influential casino industry wary of competition and traditional antigambling factions.

Silicon Valley is hardly discouraged. Companies here believe that online gambling will soon become as simple as buying an e-book or streaming a movie, and that the convenience of being able to bet from your couch, surrounded by virtual friends, will compensate for the lack of glittering ambience found in a real-world casino. Think you can get a field of corn in FarmVille, the popular Facebook game, to grow faster than your brother-in-law? Five bucks says you cannot.

‘‘Gambling in the US is controlled by a few land-based casinos and some powerful Indian casinos,’’ said Chris Griffin, chief executive of Betable, a London gambling start-up that helps companies negotiate licenses and handle the betting aspects of the business. ‘‘What potentially becomes an interesting counterweight is all of a sudden thousands of developers in Silicon Valley making money overseas and wanting to turn their efforts inward and make money in the US.’’

Betable has set up shop in San Francisco, where 15 studios are using its back-end platform.


“This is the next evolution in games, and kind of ground zero for the developer community,’’ Griffin said. Overseas, online betting is generating an estimated $32 billion in annual revenue, nearly the size of the US casino market. Juniper Research estimates that betting on mobile devices alone will be a $100 billion worldwide industry by 2017.

“Everyone is really anticipating this becoming a huge business,’’ said Chris DeWolfe, a cofounder of the pioneering social site Myspace, who is throwing his energies into a gaming studio with a gambling component backed by, among others, the personal investment funds of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, and Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman.

As companies eagerly wait for the US market to open up, they are introducing betting games in Britain, where Apple has tweaked the iPhone software to accommodate them. Facebook began allowing online gambling for British users last summer with Jackpotjoy, a bingo site; deals with other developers followed in December and this month.

Zynga, the company that developed FarmVille, Mafia Wars, Words With Friends and many other popular casual games, is advertising the imminent release of its first betting games in Britain.

‘‘All your favorite Zynga game characters will be there, except this time they’ll have real money prizes to offer you,’’ an ad says. ‘‘Play online casino games for pennies and live the dream!’’


DeWolfe’s studio, SGN, is ­also on the verge of starting its first real-money games in Britain.

Firms ‘that have a critical mass of users that are interested in playing real-money games are going to be incredibly valuable.’

“Those companies that have a critical mass of users that are interested in playing real-money games are going to be incredibly valuable,’’ he said.

Mark Pincus, the chief executive of Zynga, said that the company was just following the market.

“There is no question there is great interest from all kinds of people in games of chance, whether it is for real money or virtual rewards,’’ he said.

Zynga, which has been buffeted by missed revenue expectations in the last year, is making gambling a centerpiece of its new strategy. It has applied to Nevada for a gaming license.

The powerful Las Vegas and Indian casinos have mixed attitudes toward online gambling. Caesars Entertainment in 2011 acquired the Israeli start-up Playtika, developer of the popular Facebook game Slotomania, for about $180 million, offering it a springboard into the digital world. But Sheldon Adelson, the Vegas magnate and major Republican Party donor, is opposed to online betting because he thinks children will end up gambling.

In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie has had different qualms. He has vetoed two online gambling bills, the second earlier this month. One concern: The state’s take, a proposed 10 percent tax, was not large enough.

The measure, which is likely to be refined and successfully resubmitted in the next few months, followed the state constitution, which mandates that Atlantic City is the only spot in the state where gambling can take place. And so only the casinos were allowed to offer online games, although they could partner with tech companies; the computers allowing the gambling would have to be housed in the casinos. And, of course, players had to be over 18 and physically located in New Jersey.

Meeting those last two requirements seems a tall order to Doug Creutz, an analyst at Cowen & Co. who follows online gambling closely.

‘‘The Internet isn’t bound geographically,’’ he said. ‘‘There are other problems too, like preventing money laundering. Online gambling is going to be a complex issue that will take a while to sort out.’’