Playing the Odds: Inside the Budding World of Esports Betting

Can a deep knowledge of the game help you outsmart the house?

If this was any other sport, Vince Collotti Jr. might be in the midst of a scandal. The 31-year-old has dedicated his life to League of Legends, as both an analyst and a player. His personal apex within the League Championship Series came after being named the head coach of a Challenger team—effectively the triple-A farm system for the North American premiership—whose roster rubbed shoulders with other amateurs destined for greater glory.

Now, years after that peak, Collotti is left with a very rigid skillset, an esports savant without a conventional place within the industry. He remains a tape fiend, able to suss out the strengths and weaknesses of an average League roster with VODs set to double or triple speed, and there are few people on earth with a better understanding of the game’s transient compositional meta shifts. What other vocoation could put those tools to use? What career requires an encyclopedic knowledge of Jinx’s patch history? Collotti found it eventually, by migrating to the underbelly that all sharps make a home in when the above-board work dries up: the betting lines, set by the poor saps who know far less than you.

“What appealed to me is that a lot of the stuff was just wrong. [The lines were] straight up wrong, not even close to correct, like the information was bad,” Collotti said during a phone call with me from his New Jersey home, as he explained to me what first seduced him to the world of esports gambling. “Like, the information is bad. A lot of time the line wasn’t factoring in a sub or anything like that.”

And so, Collotti discovered a vibrant secondary income, one that was accidentally forged through the endless hours he sunk into the Riot ladder. Over the past few years, a number of online gambling institutions have started offering odds in esports leagues, and according to those who lay the money, betting on competitive gaming is one of Vegas’ few major fissures—easily exploitable, as long as you know every wrinkle of Summoner’s Rift. As Collotti racked up winnings, he laid the groundwork on a small multimedia empire. Today, he gives out his weekly favorite wagers on his blog, he routinely annotates the action on his Twitter, and he hosts a podcast where he either celebrates his victories or licks his wounds. Through all of that, Collotti has made himself into an esports gambling microinfluencer, and he won’t stop until he starts losing.

Nobody can say for sure what is going on behind the scenes at BetOnline, or MyBookie, or any of the other cyberspace casinos processing esports wagers. But Collotti has a few theories. As far as he can tell, those services treat League of Legends bets like a rounder’s backwater. He speculates that the lines are drummed up by an algorithm, rather than a team of conmen eager to separate overzealous Cowboys fans from their hard earned wages.

The reasons for that vulnerability are ambiguous. Perhaps there isn’t enough traction on the esports lines for it to be a primary concern for the book. Perhaps there isn’t a pit boss on staff with an ironclad knowledge of League of Legends. Or perhaps those websites are raking in plenty of money without any human intervention. But that’s what makes people like Collotti salivate. Sports betting is supposed to be predatory, to sucker in a bunch of well-meaning blockheads who think Conor McGregor had any chance in hell against Floyd Mayweather. But esports is too young, and too volatile, for someone like him to get outwitted. Simply put, it’s the only field where Collotti knows the deck isn’t stacked against him.

“I started feeling more comfortable when I realized that there was nobody behind [the curtain.] I’m not going up against, like 10 analytics dudes going over everything,” he said. “In League betting, since you’re just basically playing against the computer more or less,” he adds “It’s more about just having the right side, and abstaining when the lines get too ridiculous.”

League of Legends Debonair Vi skin promotional art.
Credit: Riot Games

Collotti bets as a side hustle. He tells me it’s good supplementary income and a perfect way to allay the miles-deep League addiction he was already carrying around. Career gamblers, on the other hand, are either the stupendously intelligent, or the stupendously ballsy. That includes the 31-year-old Detroiter John George, who stands as one of the few esports high-rollers—maybe even the only one. Like Collotti, he thinks the betting lines for pro League of Legends is a tasty weakness in the house: something to get customers in the door with the hopes that they’ll burn money in other losing games like blackjack or roulette. But unlike Collotti, and perhaps unlike anyone else on earth, George lays some truly bankroll-altering wagers on a free-to-play MOBA.

“We talk about everything in units. My units are $1,000. In general, I’ll be playing about $1,000 a game. So, on an average weekend, where there’s LCS, LCK, LCL, I’ll play $15, $20, $25,000,” he told me over the phone. “One of the juiciest things you can do in esports gambling right now is futures, where you bet who might win the LCS before the season starts. That’s something that’s really available right now. I had the ability to win just over $50,000 in futures.”

George knows he’s in rarefied territory. For one, he has the financial capital to risk a lot of money, but more importantly, he has the credibility to keep the house off his back. A lot of esports sharps—the most successful bettors—get limited by their gambling service of choice, after they start costing the casino too much cash. George has stared down those limits in the past, but he’s also a former poker mainstay with a lot of wins and losses already under his belt. With one call to customer support, he can neutralize any inquisition.

“One of the only reasons I’ve managed to do it is because I’ve played poker for so long. I just send a message and say, ‘Hey, I’m trying to play on your site here,'” continued George. “If you want to bet $20 a time, it won’t matter, they’ll never care, but I have a number of friends that would bet $3,000 to $5,000 a game if they could, but the sites have them limited down, so they have to try different sites every so often to beat their limits.”

George has a unique posture in his gambling strategy: He likes to bet the narrative. He spends hours reviewing the dispatches from all the teams in League of Legends, in search of any potential chemistry-destabilizing discord. “I think some of our biggest wins have come from reading Twitter chat, professionals talking to each other on Twitter, and it seeming like there is something wrong in the locker room,” he said. It’s one of the more unique variables in esports—you can’t get by on athleticism alone in a game like League, and a bad vibe can be lethal.

Still, Collotti tells me that nobody should treat the pro gaming lines like free money. It is plenty easy to get your ass kicked, and he routinely feels the wrath of a very bad beat. Part of that is due to the brutal ways that esports is tilted. Unlike the MLB, NHL, or NFL, which have a catalyzing random streak baked into their DNA, upsets are rare in League of Legends. The favorites usually win, because the pro scene’s talent pool is concentrated at the top within a small cadre of elite organizations. The bookmakers know this, and that means that often in League betting, you need to risk a lot of money to make a little of it back.

Collotti compares it to betting on a fringe Division III college football conference, where, say, a rural school in Pennsylvania might dominate the competition every year. That polarizes the odds—the school might enter each season with a -1000 payout to crush their crosstown rivals. The same can be said with League esports, which sees relatively little variance in the major contenders every split. Those heavily weighted lines run counter to the cardinal rules of sports betting: Value is the top priority, and risking $1,000 to win $100 isn’t good value. So in order to become a trenchant esports shark, Collotti needed to relearn some of the basic tenets of the sportsbook—to play like a maniac, in order to write a new almanac.

“You gotta be willing to lay a large amount of money, and traditional knowledge would say that that’s bad. Yeah, you only need to lose one of those to be in trouble, but that’s only going to happen once every nine times,” he said. “You [go against] the conventional wisdom.”

Both Collotti and George have been active in esports gambling for about four years. In that time, they say the book-keepers still haven’t caught up, and betting on League remains a winning gambit. And yet, the future looks murky from here. Esports is an extremely capricious business, and there are few things casinos are more prudent about than covering the leaks in their games. If, for instance, Riot Games decides to cut bait on the famously cost-heavy LCS, then the dream is over as quickly as it started. Maybe then people like Collotti and George will learn a new game—like Counter-Strike or Overwatch—which isn’t a fate than befalls many other sports bettors. For as much grousing as Rob Manfred does about the health of the game, people always have, and always will, bet on baseball. It’s curious to consider the full weight of things resting on esports’ tenuous, venture capitalist-funded speculation. It will take everyone with it if it comes tumbling down. Yes, even the stragglers at the payout window.

For now though, this remote sect of League hustlers are enjoying a hidden golden age, laughing all the way to the bank. The 2019 World Championship just kicked off on October 2nd, and Collotti likes G2 Esports -1.5 over Fnatic.

Header image: League of Legends Debonair Ezrael skin promotional art, Riot Games

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