Covid-19 Lockdowns a Watershed Moment for Internet Gambling

A gradual shift from brick & mortar facilities to desktop and mobile devices has already been underway in recent decades, but one likely consequence of the Covid-19 lockdowns—in Japan and across the world—is that the older generations, who have been reluctant to embrace digitization, are now being forced to do so, and this is true of the Asian gambling industry as well.

Currently, almost all brick & mortar casinos in Asia have been shut down by the coronavirus, with the main exception being the Macau casinos. But even they are currently producing only about 20% of their normal gambling spend, since few international travelers can even make it to Macau.

The IR industry, those formidable centers of revenue creation, and once thought invulnerable to economic downturns, have finally met their match in Covid-19. It turns out that the infectious, deadly diseases are an Achilles heel of this industry, as with so many other fields of business.

But not every section of Asia’s gambling industry is in pain at the moment. Indeed, there is a sector which is booming, with loads of new players walking through their sparkling digital doors—and that is internet gambling.

While it is a highly innovative sector, it’s also one that exists, at best, in a legal gray zone. Or, to put it more directly, much of this gambling is illegal. That is the case in Japan as well.

On the other hand, Covid-19 may change a lot of attitudes about what is and isn’t acceptable in the gaming world.

For example, pachinko and pachislot has for decades been a tolerated form of gambling in Japan, with regulators and the National Police Agency pretending that it is simply entertainment or recreation, and not a means to spend and win money.

And in the Covid-19 era, who more than pachinko players have fallen under public opprobrium due to their habitual practices? Even after Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike urged the public to stay home on the weekends, photographs emerged of hundreds of pachinko players lining up in close proximity at a venue in Akihabara. This elicited much public outrage.

Indeed, pachinko parlors practically define high-risk venues for the spread of the coronavirus: People packed close together in unventilated rooms, and pushing buttons and pulling levers where the virus could easily attach itself. Moreover, studies out this week suggest that smokers are at more than double the risk of developing serious illness from Covid-19 infection, as opposed to nonsmokers.

Compared to this situation, allowing people to gamble and entertain themselves at home on their desktop computer or on their mobile device suddenly looks like the far less risky option from the point of view of public health.

Of course, the government regulators—in Japan and in many other Asian countries—are unlikely to immediately accept the ramifications of the new work-and-play-from-home Covid-19 culture, and they may still believe that this is just a phase that will pass after just a few months of social disruption.

But no matter what happens with Covid-19 in the coming months and years, the clock will not be turned back entirely on the new age of teleconferencing, working from home, and digitization. As with all those other industries, this time of crisis is also a time for deep thinking about the future of labor practices and for all the entertainment industries. (AGB Nippon)