Having founded easyodds.com, the first UK odds comparison site back in 1999, Tony Plaskow has since been instrumental in the construction of multiple software and casino developer organisations. These past few years, his focus has been predominantly on the US and Canadian markets through his casino game software studio, Pixiu Gaming, which was founded in 2014, and as Commercial Director at Black Cow Technology. Tony took some time out to speak to TRC about a range of topics including recent developments in the North American gaming markets, and the exciting new game titles that Pixiu Gaming is launching in 2023.
AS: Thanks so much for speaking to us today, Tony. From your original days as a founder of easyodds.com, in what area do you think the sports betting industry has changed the most?
TP: I’m so old that actually when I started in the industry, you couldn’t bet on an individual football match. Because of fraud and corruption in football in the 70s, you had to bet on a minimum 3-game multiple as singles weren’t allowed. So when I started out, sports betting was completely dominated by horse racing and greyhound racing. Horse racing was over 90% of all sports betting turnover with greyhounds next and everything else making up maybe 4 or 5%.
We saw regulations change in 2002 when football singles were allowed. Plus one of the biggest changes was with the choice of football betting as well as with the arrival of in-play betting. It’s really the technology that has dominated these changes – such as with the ability to change bets, cash out, place bets during the game, etc., technology has dynamically changed everything.
In addition, we have such a huge breadth of markets available to us now. There’s an extraordinary number of markets to bet on these days, whereas you couldn’t even bet on an individual football game in the beginning when we first started easyodds.
I think the changes are mostly good, and certainly they give the player a bit more choice.
AS: Black Cow Technology provides the opportunity for its customers to operate their own RGS platform as an open gaming architecture – how do you work with your clients?
TP: We have market-leading remote game server software at Black Cow which is very specific to casino game development. We differ from pretty much everyone else in the market in that we are a pure b2b business. So what we do is we provide our platform to people and we enable them to do the things that they want to do. We don’t have any competing products or service lines. So we don’t host our own RGS, we don’t build our own games, our focus is purely on what our partners want to achieve. And that’s quite a big difference in how RGS software provision happens as most RGS tech is bought from a company that builds and hosts their own games with B2B simply as an additional revenue opportunity.
We create bespoke solutions effectively for people with their RGS, we don’t believe that one size fits all and you can buy something off the shelf. We genuinely listen to what our partners want to achieve and try to make that happen for them. And that involves a lot of bespoke development and things that are required specifically to their needs.
AS: The US market is dominated by a handful of casino and sportsbook operators such as DraftKings who use a copy of your RGS software to power their in-house content. Do you think it will be possible for smaller companies to break into the market?
TP: It’s interesting because the European market has proved over the last 20-25 years that there is an ability for companies to come in and grow rapidly and to thrive, such as Mr. Green and LeoVegas. They came in 10-12 years after the big guys started out and have built multiple €100m businesses. So in theory, there is the possibility for smaller companies to break into the market.
However, the US has started in a different way with 30 or 40 different brands that all raised money to kickstart their ventures. But it is so competitive it has proved too hard to survive for some of them and therefore we’re starting to see the likes of Fubo and MaximBet drop out of the market.
So we’re seeing the slightly skewed way that the US has entered the industry, which is that they are not building up player bases through technology and offerings, they’re doing it through spending billions on marketing. DraftKings is always the main example – I think they have lost over $4 billion since 2019, mostly on marketing spend to acquire players. An incredible amount of money to lose in 4 years which the smaller guys can’t compete with.
However, I do think there are some guys out there that have the ability to do it. I love what Betr are doing right now. But it’s really difficult as a small player at the moment in the US. You need to have deep pockets even just to stay in the market – licensing and regulation is a killer on its own. So I think for the moment it’s really hard.
Betr is an interesting one. They came to the market with $50 million, and they know that that’s not enough so they’re trying to spread the word via Jake Paul’s millions of followers. But will this be enough? It’s very tough to say. But I think that there is an opportunity for the smaller companies to come in and provide better service, better technology and better customer support, and that will win them a share in the market.
It’s certainly around the product, rather than marketing. I’ve heard some of their plans at Betr and they sound really interesting – they’re going to sync with the younger demographic, for sure.
Soon, I think we’re going to see a very different market as well because there’s a lot of people now talking about pulling back from marketing spend. So we’re going to see who has the best service, the best odds and the best customer support and those sorts of things are going to start to differentiate the winners from the losers.
AS: The evolution of AI and its involvement in how the gaming industry offers rewards, collects data and provides a more personalised experience for the customer can only be a good thing. Are there any potential negatives for having so much knowledge? Are we in danger of having to re-evaluate safer gambling regulations to ensure customers are not taken advantage of or do you feel these are already covered in current industry legislation?
TP: Too much knowledge can definitely be a dangerous thing, for example there’s the risk of being hacked and losing a huge amount of personal information. We’ve recently heard about players losing funds in the US with stolen data used to log in to their accounts.
Having too much data in itself shouldn’t be an issue, but it’s of course how companies use it that can be problematic. What we’ve seen in recent times with Facebook and some other companies is they’re not using it for the right purposes. Another example we all remember is with Cambridge Analytica – when you see what happened there and also just how data is used in general, particularly on social media is typically not for good purposes. They’re either profiteering or they are doing things that are not for the benefit of the people who own that data.
You would hope gambling sites would use this data for protective measures, responsible gaming and things like that, however, I think at the moment, they’re mostly not. Particularly in the US, they are using it to try and sell as many offers in marketing as they can. Assessing success can be difficult too when data is used this way – we recently saw some US operators double their ARPU in a matter of months but that cannot be from natural player evolution which raises concerns around responsible use of data. When you’re taking twice as much money from the same player as quarter to quarter or even half to half. That’s not responsible. So, there’s lots of data out there that I suspect can be used in a better way. And I think regulation across the board is key here, however I don’t think regulators still have a solid understanding of how much data is being collected sometimes.
I also think that it could be a much nicer, more fluid experience if that data is used in a more responsible way. Rather than just giving customers an offer, which can be a bit brutal if it’s decided only on how much you’ve lost so far. Of course, gamblers want those offers but there’s definitely a softer, more fluid way to do it.
AS: We’re nearing the end of 2022, what’s next for Black Cow Technology?
TP: We’re all about multiplayer. Our core business is an RGS remote game server but we now have an enterprise level multiplayer server system as well as a full jackpot network. However, multiplayer is the key for us. So we are working with a variety of partners, including Light & Wonder who at G2E (Global Gaming Expo) showed the very early workings of the first multiplayer slot. Raging Rhino Multiplayer, will be a collaborative multiplayer slot launched in 2023.
For us, we’re about providing technology that is efficient and very flexible to allow our partners to easily develop and manage features and functionality. For multiplayer we believe that includes players playing together and sharing emotions which are, to date, mostly solitary experiences. That mostly focuses on community bonus rounds and jackpots but there are a lot of new features we haven’t dreamt of yet.
AS: You founded Pixiu Gaming in 2014 and since then the team has created many great games, with keno being your key offering in Canada and the US. What was the motivation to focus on this particular game genre?
TP: We’re launching our next set of games in the coming weeks – with three slots and reactor-mechanics into the European market. We’ve also got lots of new table games so we are branching out from our traditional keno games. But for us, we always knew we needed to create a solid base, and keno is a massively underserved market in Canada, which is where we are a clear market leader.
I built good relationships with lots of people in Loto Quebec and British Columbia Lottery Corporation and the teams at Atlantic and Ontario Lottery and Gaming, and it became abundantly clear that no one was providing them with keno games, and there was a very clear want for these games amongst players. So it was just a case of listening and delivering.
I used to work at IGT and Bally and they would always deliver a roadmap covering 12 to 15 months which was impossible to change – full of their own slots of course. So there was no way to provide bespoke or exclusively developed content. That is the niche which we filled as Pixiu and have built on since then. Thankfully my co-Founder at Pixiu, Sovanna Phan, is a keno expert so we had a bit of a leg up to start with. It’s a seemingly simple game to build, but incredibly deep in terms of how the maths works, as well as the player journey itself. So that’s it really, it was filling a gap based on customer request.
AS: How do you choose the theme for your next title – is this driven by what your customers enjoy or do you keep a steady focus on a particular brand style?
TP: Yes we actually have about 18 games going live in the next twelve months, which for a small studio is quite incredible. And with regards to the themes, I would love to say that there’s a massively deep process involved however, we are following a bit of a tried and tested route with some of them and with keno as well. So we have an Egyptian theme, we’re doing a brand new keno game that has a fishing theme because we don’t have one and everyone needs a fishing theme, seemingly!
But actually on top of that, what we try to do is build barriers to entry which includes things like using evergreen brands. For example, we have keno and reactor titles which are branded with the hockey teams in Quebec and British Columbia, the Habs and Canucks, respectively. And we recently signed Dan Marino to build games using his brand for the US market and Canada. In addition we have an exclusive licence for Deal or No Deal for keno in Canada. So from our perspective, our main focus is trying to build hard-to-breakdown barriers around our games. However, our next set of games will feature some well-known genres too.
AS: We have a responsibility in the gambling and gaming industry to protect vulnerable individuals. How does the team at Pixiu ensure its games are only reaching licensed establishments?
TP: We’ve genuinely always had a player focus and I say that because we, as a company, firmly believe in keeping players healthy. We’ve seen many terrible things happen in our industry – around exploiting vulnerable individuals and problem gamblers which is not a good look for anyone plus it risks your licences and causes terrible societal issues, of course.
In addition to this, the data shows that if you keep your players healthy and away from danger, they are more loyal and more valuable over the long term. Tombola is a really good example of that. They have never had slot games on their site as they believed they are too aggressive for bingo-centric players. As a bingo offering, everyone knows you can drive outsized profits from slots but Tombola became the biggest player in the market without them. I know the team there who ran it always had player responsibility at heart, and we have the same view at Pixiu.
Also, we work in Canada, where we have licences in every province which means we work hand-in-hand with the provincial governments who are hard-focused on using gambling to raise funds for the benefit of their local communities. We share that same philanthropic, altruistic outlook and focus, and because of this we have close relationships with them all.
We’ve always avoided things like bonus buys, high stakes play, and auto-play for example – our most successful keno games have a CAN$10 limit which is about £6. So from a commercial perspective, it probably hurts us but actually, from a long term perspective, we were more comfortable doing it this way. We’ve always had that protection built into all of our games.
AS: What do you think will be the next big thing in the casino world?
TP: I’ve been in this industry for over two decades, and there’s only ever been a few good answers to this question – in particular live casino, in-play betting, and mobile play.
But the reality is, I don’t know what the next big thing is, and even if I did, I’m not sure I’d share it. Does the industry even need a next big thing? Megaways has been THE big thing in the casino world recently but it is really just a funky mechanic – there have been thousands of mechanics before it but this just happened to tick all the boxes and it exploded. And live casinos are taking something that was happening before interactive casino came along, and just brought it online.
So I don’t know what the next big thing is, but I suspect it’s going to be an iteration of something we already see. Everyone’s trying to change slots, and the reality is, slots are hard to change and slot players don’t want to change that much.
The one thing I would say is definitely a future-view is multiplayer – we know from the market that multiplayer is wanted, and we know that video games already use multiplayer as the heart of their offering. The younger generation is all about multiplayer, and playing together, winning together and experiencing those things alongside others. That for me is the next big thing, and I think we’re going to find out how that looks within the next five, ten years.
AS: Pixiu focuses its efforts on the North American markets, however, it’s been recently stated that iGaming in Ontario has had a bit of a slow start – what do you think is the key to igniting a real interest in this market? In contrast, US iGaming revenues are reportedly up by nearly 23% from last year in the US. What does the industry need to do to ensure a steady but controlled growth in revenue?
TP: I think the data is slightly hiding what’s actually happening in Ontario. In Ontario, some of the market leaders in the gaming market were not regulated at the start, such as Betway and a few others, so their numbers were not in the data. And also, Ontario Lottery and Gaming, who we work with, and as the lottery operator, have about a 30% chunk of the market, were also not present.
As Pixiu, we live and breathe everything in Canada so we know the numbers and we see the numbers, and they’re not what was publicised. But as I say, that’s because Ontario Lottery and Gaming and the grey market were not included which totals well over 50% of the market. So I don’t think that was the real data that was being shared. As the likes of Betway get licenced we should have a good perspective on growth by the middle of next year.
AS: US casino revenues are massively up from last year, what does the industry need to do to ensure the growth is steady but controlled?
TP: When we look at growth in the US, it’s always about new states opening – and the states that have been open a while, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Jersey have stagnated. If you look at their data over the last 12 months they have seasonal fluctuations but they’re mostly steady now. And with all the money thrown at them it would make sense to see the initial rise followed by a plateau.
So I think growth is dependent on newly licensed states and particularly new states that allow casino. Colorado is a very small state, and I think the NGR (net gaming revenue) was around $30m and GGR (gross gaming revenue) was about $1.3m a couple of months ago. Now $1.3m NGR is not going to go very far so I think we are all relying on casino more than sports betting.
Everyone is dreaming of Texas or Florida or California passing legislation, however California obviously had a massive no vote recently. Florida is quite close and I imagine it will be the next to show huge numbers. Texas seems far away though still from legalising.
AS: What have you found is the gaming preference in the US and Canadian markets compared to the UK?
TP: Sports wise, the US has a much more limited number of sports – they’re very, very focused on their own sports, such as hockey, baseball, basketball and NFL and that creates issues for them around seasonality. NFL particularly – from the end of the Superbowl in February, there’s nothing until September. So you lose 25-30% of your revenue opportunity. And they’re not massively interested in other sports, whereas in Europe, people will bet on cricket, tennis, etc. So I think from a sports perspective, the US and Canadian markets are very limited.
And then from a casino perspective it’s completely different to the UK because they have a massive number of land-based casinos and they’ve never really had online casinos. The games available at online casinos are very much linked to the brands and games that they have in their land-based casinos. Keno is a good example. Our games derive from the games people play at bars and on video lottery terminals in North America, so we are tapping into what they’re already doing.
For anyone who has been in a British casino, they’re allowed around twenty slot machines, whereas if you go to places like Vegas, there’s 3,000-4,000 machines in some of these casinos. So the main difference is that they play what they know, which is land-based style casinos.
AS: What does Pixiu have planned for 2023?
TP: So we have a huge number of games coming out. We’ve partnered with Playzido, which is owned by Light & Wonder, to deliver all our games. Playzido is in the process of getting integrated and live in North America, so we’ve had to wait for this to happen but they’re starting to roll them out from next year.
We have over 18 games scheduled for Ontario, Atlantic Lottery, Pennsylvania, British Columbia, New Jersey, Michigan, with a particular focus on keno, including Dan Marino Keno which we’re excited to launch. We have a brand new keno game called Coin Collector Keno which is our biggest and richest in terms of graphics – it has a hold and win bonus which is very much the slot mechanic that’s most successful at the moment. It’s going live probably at the end of January. And we have a massive number of table games as well which we’re excited about. So we’ve just got a crazy 2023 lined up. Multiple states, multiple provinces and just a lot of games.
AS: Which is your favourite game that’s coming out?
TP: It has to be Dan Marino Gunslinger – a new slot in development. We had the honour of meeting Dan Marino after G2E to do the filming and he’s just an incredible guy. He has his own foundation (Dan Marino Foundation) that supports people with autism, and helps them with the related challenges of getting into work as well as the wider society. They’ve raised $100m so far and 5% of all our profits from this game will go towards their great community work. He’s just an incredibly nice guy and an amazing sport so I’m looking forward to the launch of this one.
Dan Marino Keno is also really fun – we’ve managed to get a lot of videos of him popping up in the game so he’s really very much part of the visuals. I’m looking forward to these in particular.