5 March, 2021

Zero to six-figure hero

Tom Wade, esports specialist and software engineer, speaks about growing esports affiliate SickOdds from zero to a six-figure sale.

SickOdds was, and still is, one of the leading affiliate platforms in the esports space. Myself and my co-founder, Nick, started developing SickOdds as an odds comparison platform that we'd want to use ourselves as gamers back in 2016.

Esports has been running on a large scale for substantially longer than when we first started, but the betting industry had only recently begun offering markets and covering esports titles. Due to this, when we started, there were very few affiliates in the space and especially those solely dedicated to esports as an emerging market. This turned out to be a double-edged sword.

On the plus side, we quickly gained a large segment of the market and ranked highly on well-targeted SERPs with very little effort required. We focused on title-specific landing pages for games, whilst supplementing this with relevant news, bonus and betting content. This was even before sportbooks had launched a bidding war on PPC terms, so Google life was good.

With SickOdds we spread our bets, so to speak, on emerging esports titles. The aim was always to facilitate any title that had betting markets from any of our top partners and this gave us an advantage over competitors. We covered 20+ esports titles with varied levels of relevant content.

Roughly 80-90% of all esports betting traffic is powered by just three games: League of Legends, CS:GO and Dota 2. The remaining 10-20% is made up of the remaining 21 that we also covered. We made an early decision to, of course, cover these top three titles, but also focus on the niche titles in order to face less competition.

A small number of titles flourished (e.g. Fortnite, Call of Duty and Rocket League), but the majority of tier 2 and 3 titles never really became commercially viable. This was a learning experience, but one that needed to be taken as new esports titles emerge and fade over time. For the ones that did solidify themselves, we had a solid foothold on SEO and content which was a major advantage.

When the first Fortnite World Cup took place we had secured a top spot for the search term and we sent an average of one click every 3.5 minutes to our betting partners over the 48-hour event.

The downside of this was the traffic, in line with traditional more established sports, was negligible in comparison. We're talking less than 1%. This is always the trouble when targeting a niche, but we were looking at the long game and knew that building a solid foundation would pay dividends over time.

In the summer of 2020, we were approached by an established affiliate network, which prefers to remain unnamed, with the intention to acquire SickOdds as the flagship of its esports branch. Below is a brief explanation of the journey from where we started to where we ended, with all the little bumps along the way.

Development Led
During development we wanted to offer something above just news posts and simple links of where to place bets. One of the key components of our infrastructure was our internally developed Odds Engine. At its peak this amalgamated, normalised and compared odds from 28 sportbooks across 24 esports titles.

One of the first questions we asked potential sportbooks when signing up was: 'Do you have an API or data feed?' If the answer was yes then we would prioritise getting their live esports odds fed into the Odds Engine. Allowing us to pull out comparisons for matches, show upcoming matches with the best odds for targeted geos and so much more. If the answer however was no, without hope of a 'sneaky' way to gleam esports betting odds, then as a rule of thumb we passed until they did. The Odds Engine became a key part in both our platform's growth and our sale. For traditional sports there are quite a few pre-built API's for this, but with esports being in it's infancy there was a definite gap that we filled.

COVID-19
Covid-19 affected not just the sporting industry, but the world as we know it. Though while the majority of businesses suffered, the esports industry was a rare exception that seemed to flourish. The virtual world slowly built upwards, from a primarily online-only scene, to filling packed stadiums along the way. So reversing these advancements back to online was a relatively simple step with the infrastructure in place.

With this, esports had a strangle-hold on the betting market with large numbers of traditional sports bettors looking for similar esports titles to satisfy that 'itch'. Football fans turned to FIFA, basketball to NBA2k and esports titles saw betting growth of 200%+ over the span of mere weeks.

With this surge of interest, the eyes of the betting industry as a whole turned to esports and lit a fire underneath it. There were some traditional sportbooks such as Betway whose efforts in esports I've admired for many years though they are the possible exception. As more sportbooks focused on esports, SERPs quickly became hot property for PPC, pushing our organic terms further down so we had to begin to expand our approach. Another double-edged sword.

Social
In an effort to compliment our SERP positions, we looked to branch out and gain a social presence. We quickly became known in the esports ecosphere and always strived to offer usable, informative content that wasn't just farming clicks through the site. This was greatly helped by a passionate writing team of esports fans who wrote about what they loved, and it really came through.

With its online focus, esports is a 24/7 global ecosystem so there are plenty of people to engage with, regardless of time. It's vitally important that you know what you're talking about, though, as each title has it's own nuances and are keen to sniff out an imposter.

A number of affiliates work solely through social platforms and it can be a great tool at your disposal. If you are looking to quickly bolster a following, there are plenty of in-game items ready to be given away to snowball your growth.

HLTV acquired
In early 2020, CS:GO esports specialist network HLTV was acquired by sports betting affiliate Better Collective for € 34.5m ($41.7m). This was a huge moment for the esports affiliate scene seeing such a large news-focused community with near-to-no betting content, and recognised for such a high amount shows the vast potential there. Since its purchase we've seen plenty of odds tables and betting content start to be implemented and fortunately it has been done quite tastefully.

Takeaways
For someone wanting to undertake the esports affiliate journey, I'd definitely recommend it wholeheartedly. The market is far more established than it was back in 2016, but this comes with a number of benefits. We've seen in HLTV and ourselves how success can come from this in time.

The esports community is thriving and betting is a core concept that many already understand from gaming. Lootboxes are betting personified, which has been a recent hot topic, and gamers are inherently competitive. This combined nature and nurture creates a very strong betting candidate.

What's Next?
While at SickOdds I interviewed emerging UK-licensed sportsbook, Midnite, and have since began working full-time as a Software Engineer. On the affiliate side I'm also now working on a Call of Duty focused esports affiliate, codbets.co.

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