CEO Steven Holmes talks to G3 Magazine

What’s your view on the role of virtual sports in the way audiences engage with sports and entertainment on a global scale?

Over the years virtual sports have become more than a piece of filler content and have become a product vertical in their own right. However, since the introduction of video virtual sports by Highlight Games in early 2019 virtual sports have now also started to become tools for entertainment and fan engagement. Highlight Games’ products account for 50% of all virtual sports bets made in Italy and 70% in Turkey. We have found that players love the history, nostalgia and reality provided by betting on real archive sports footage. The amount staked on our games in Italy alone is testament to the engagement levels of video virtuals and this will only grow as we supplement our Serie A, English and Turkish Superlig games with ATP Tennis, MOTO GP, Ligue 1 and other undisclosed content which is coming soon.  

What is an optimal virtual sports betting experience in 2024?

Video archive. Full stop. Who doesn’t want to bet on historic goals form the likes of Ronaldo, Messi, Beckham, Ronaldinho, Totti, Zidane with real commentary and real atmosphere. We’re now seeing traditional graphical suppliers seeking their way into video virtuals via sports like basketball in a bid to get in on this growing area of the market. 

What differentiates Highlight Games’ virtual sports portfolio?

Our extensive and exclusive access to premium video archive footage from some of the greatest sporting teams and leagues sets us apart from the competition. Case in point – Highlight’s average bet in Italy is €2 more than the graphical competition. Virtual sports have evolved since their inception and players are favouring the opportunity to watch real footage of their favourite teams and players over graphical games. The other differentiation is the volume of clips we hold on an exclusive basis which no other supplier can compete with.   

What are the latest simulation technologies, graphics and physics engines, and artificial intelligence advancements, and how are they helping to mimic the dynamics of real-world sports?

The majority of this is irrelevant to Highlight as our products feature genuine archive sports footage from Serie A, LALIGA, English FA Cup/EFL, Turkish Super Lig, Greek Super League, Ligue 1, SPFL, ATP Tennis, MotoGP and IIHF Ice Hockey so we don’t need to waste our time on simulation or who looks the most real … we are real!! 

The tactile elements of cheering for a favourite team, the adrenaline of live competition, and the collective energy of a crowd are difficult to replicate in a virtual environment. What potential is there for virtual reality and augmented reality to offer users a sense of physical presence and shared participation?

Not when you own 20 years of LALIGA archive exclusively, including rights to league and club badges and player imagery. Thousands of fans have lived these games and cheered on these players on over the years and now get the chance to bet on and relive the history and memories in retail and online environments. In Ladbrokes Fanzone we supply bespoke club-based games, including our branded Manchester City game – players are cheering on their favourite teams from the vast amount of exclusive archive footage that Highlight owns. 

Licence agreements between virtual sports providers with sports leagues and teams are becoming increasingly popular. What’s driving this trend? How does the popularity of officially licensed content compare to the success of non-licensed content?

Highlight Games has driven this trend! If you’re sat at home on a Wednesday night in Barcelona, would you rather place a bet online on “El Classico” featuring the real stadia, players, archive and commentary wrapped around a game featuring LALIGA’s branding, club badges and official player imagery or a graphical game called the “Spanish league” that is imitating the real deal? I expect that leagues and associations will soon become more vigilant about protecting their intellectual property and goodwill. 

What impact does being licensed have on the development process? Is every stage and design element subject to sign-off? What scope is there for creative freedom?

Having led the way in archive video virtual sports, Highlight understands what leagues and associations will accept and we work closely with our partners to produce content that reflects their brand guidelines. Games always need approval and so we start this process from the outset but also hold freedom to innovate. For example, we are currently working with our partners to develop a MotoGP Roulette game for casino and have just launched a new ‘Lotto-Goals’ product which is the first football-themed numbers game featuring archive video footage to launch across 2,100 LBOs in the UK. 

What new sports simulations, game modes and interactive features are driving user retention and attracting new participants?

Last season Ladbrokes launched our ‘Lotto Goals’ instant win game into their online Fanzone. The game is designed to retain player engagement in a live sports betting environment and has been so popular we are now looking at developing new and additional content for next season

Give us a global snapshot of virtual sports. What is the growth rate of virtual sports? Regionally, where is the popularity of virtual sports steady, and where is it rising exponentially?

Key European markets for virtual sports currently include Italy, the UK, Turkey and Greece. Highlight Games is proving instrumental in driving growth year on year in these territories by supplying bespoke content relevant to the local market. Africa is a major growth market and Highlight is extending its presence in this area. Much is said about opportunities in the US market but is hard to know the truth in this without financials to substantiate the hype. Highlight may one day be interested in deploying content in the US but right now there are bigger opportunities in other markets.

The 21-35 years demographic segment is expected to hold the dominating share of the virtual sports market over the coming years. Going forwards, is the priority to keep these players that are in their prime gaming years engaged as their disposable income rises, or to create games that will attract tomorrow’s generation?

Highlight’s products tend to transcend all demographics in sports betting – we are seeking to create games with a lottery or casino feel. Each year we refresh our archive with new footage from the prior year’s season – for example, in Italy players who are interested in the current teams and current players can see recent goals and action in our games. Our archives go back 20-25 years, so people like me who remember the football in the 90’s can enjoy the nostalgia of betting on goals from yesteryear.

What’s next on Highlight Games’ virtual sports content roadmap?

2024 will see Highlight build new games featuring ATP Tennis, Ligue 1 football and MotoGP racing. We also have additional archive footage from the 2022/23 season to cut and build into our existing games, while also reskinning new versions of instant win and Lotto Goals games featuring our various football archives. Most importantly we will be launching LALIGA in Italy with our own regulated technology and platform. Having renewed our Serie A rights we will soon be following our LALIGA SOCCERBET launch with a multitude of new Italian games. We have just appointed a new CTO and are laser focussed on becoming the most successful supplier of virtual sports and associated games in the market.