Exploring the history of online gaming

The first online bet was placed in 1994, following the passing of the Free Trade and Processing Zone Act in Antigua and Barbuda. Now, 30 years on, Gambling Insider’s Beth Turner investigates the history of iGaming and where we can expect the industry to go next.

Despite the earliest versions of the World Wide Web existing as far back as the 1980s, it wasn’t until the early-to-mid 1990s that we saw the internet coming to homes. For those who need a refresher of what this era of the internet looked like, or those whose time came after the early 1990s, allow us to paint you a picture: Computers were still large and blocky, with a glass screen and a CD drive. It took several minutes for an image to download; good luck if you ever wanted to watch a video. Social media was yet to become a global pastime and websites were held together with HTML codes and hyperlinks. It is during this age of the internet, in 1994, that the first online bet was made.

The Free Trade and Processing Zone Act

The Parliament of Antigua and Barbuda passed the Free Trade and Processing Zone Act in 1994. The Act, which allowed for the creation of licences for online gambling companies, opened up the possibility to not only create a gambling operation online, but do it legally. The World Wide Web gave the unique opportunity, in the early days at least, for players around the world to access gambling sites based around the globe.

Before the act was passed, the technology to make online bets was available, with countries across the globe hard at work to create software that could accept bets effectively and take payments safely. By 1994 safe payment technology had become viable enough for public use and online bets were beginning to emerge. Between the newfound capability of online payment tech, the proof of lottery bets to be made online and the new legality offered by the Free Trade and Processing Zone Act, the online casino was born.

Around this time also came the dawning of the ‘Dot-com bubble,’ a trend that saw investors begin to understand the value of the internet and online platforms, with existing companies rushing to the online space while wholly new brands began to enter the market.

Early players and Microgaming

We spoke to a range of individuals about their early memories of iGaming. One name that popped up on multiple occasions was Microgaming, as industry insiders who worked for the suppliers in the early 2000s explain.

“I first got involved in the gaming industry in 2002-2003. I was recruited by a company called Microgaming, which had a signfiicant market share of the online casino sector back then. At the time, there was no other company that provided or made games and was what you would call a supplier. Microgaming were the only ones in the entire industry.”

Everybody else made their own online casino and made their own games. If you were a sportsbook, you made your own sportsbook. Same with casinos. Microgaming was the first one I knew that actually made games and then supplied them to other people.

There were some others that were big in themselves, Casino-on-Net, which was probably the biggest, certainly spent the most on advertising everywhere, online and offline. It was just a casino. Very simple. Basic table games and a few slots, maybe 10. Golden Palace was another one…

“I would say the majority of the people playing were in the US. There were a few people who saw a great deal because there was no legislation, no restrictions, no rules. The internet was new. Broadband is only just starting, you couldn’t play on a mobile phone. It was only on a computer and even then, laptops were rare. The biggest restriction really was the number of people with access to the internet.”

Another executive who has seen the winds of change over time is the CPO at Ezugi, Fredrick Bjurle. He has been in iGaming since 2000 and attended the ICE London (soon-to-be-Barcelona) tradeshow since that time:

“In the year 2000, ICE was actually an arcade fair and that arcade fair was massive. Then we were iGaming; we were basically up in the loft. Later, we were roughly eight or nine providers. It was Boss Media, it was Microgaming, it was a few others and it was really early days.”

“The 90s were the wild west, and if you could get your hands on a licence, your business had the world at its fingertips.”

Around the world

While online betting was still becoming legalised, the industry began to boom in certain countries and leak out across the wider web. Outside of Antigua and Barbuda, Costa Rica became a destination for many businesses attempting to capture the potential of this new form of gaming. The market was loose in its regulation, allowing businesses to legally operate without the need for a licence, making it ideal for new businesses looking to test the waters.

“Costa Rica became this massive hub of sports betting companies,” industry insiders tell us. “They were employing tens of thousands of people there; huge operations. They were taking bets out of America. It wasn’t to hide from the authorities because I don’t think there was any rules to say ‘You’re doing something illegal’.”

The 1990s were the Wild West and, if you could get your hands on a licence, your business had the world at its fingertips. Companies were popping up across the globe. In 1997, Virtual Holdings Limited (now 888 Holdings) launched Casino-on-Net (now 888casino). Admittedly, the site looks slightly different from how it does now, but the foundations have remained the same.

Even the original name of the site, Casino-on-Net, is indicative of the era and users at the time. The excitement of the casino came from the fact that it was online – still a rarity in those days. Being a casino on the internet was new and exciting, and challenged perceptions of what the internet at the time could be; it wasn’t just for sending emails and research into fun facts on the latest movies, but a place where you could experience the fun of outdoor leisure activities from the comfort of your home.

Casino-on-Net changed its name to 888casino in 2010. The move made sense as, following a decade’s worth of existence for online casinos, a casino being online was no longer a novelty, but an expectation placed upon operators by consumers. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

Governments get wind

The free-for-all market created in the early and mid-1990s was not one that could last forever. Before the turn of the century, the iGaming market was generating hundreds of millions of dollars annually, with new and existing businesses migrating to digital platforms. The market was developing new sectors and niches, as even affiliates began to make an appearance by the tail-end of the 1990s.

Intertops, which formed in the early 1980s, took its first online bet in 1996 – one of the industry’s first, according to the company. As an Intertops spokesperson explains: “Affiliate marketing did not exist at all, while the World Wide Web was in its infancy. Tracking mechanisms, which are required for affiliate marketing programmes, did not exist. Intertops launched its affiliate programme back in 1999, combining sports and casino profits of referred players, with poker then added in 2003.

“The whole online gaming industry did not exist [20] years ago. Intertops had to invent, plan, develop and programme everything itself through every single service. Today, you can more or less get everything from scratch and easily adapt to changing environments.”

It was during this time of market development that the US Senate was presented with the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act (IGPA) of 1999. While successfully lobbied from being passed, the bill marks a point of significance for the market – the sunshine of the Wild West was setting and a new era of regulation and legalisation was on the horizon. Another notable moment came with the establishment of the Malta Gaming Authority (MGA) in 2001.

Operating today as one of the market’s longest-running authorities, it was the goal of the MGA to monitor the jurisdiction’s iGaming market to ensure compliance and deliver licences. It was unlike previous jurisdictions, like Costa Rica, which employed a hands-off approach where operators could work legally without a licence. Malta wanted to establish a sustainable, high-standard and above-board iGaming industry, with the MGA given the authority to do just that. Today, Malta is a foremost iGaming hub, with talent from across the globe setting up camp there.

A new century

As previously discussed, the start of the 21st century saw iGaming go under the microscope as laws and authorities sprung up to try and bring order and integrity to the market. It is understandable, considering the following statistic; by the end of 1996, there were less than 20 iGaming platforms taking bets. By the next year, this grew by a factor of 10. The industry had well and truly taken off. By 2005, there were over 1 billion frequent internet users across the globe. It was no longer a technology restricted to work and schools, nor was it a niche interest or hobby.

More homes than ever before had their own computer, with broadband and processing speeds now allowing for quick image loading and the ability to watch, upload and share video across the globe. Social media like Facebook and MySpace allowed for communities to grow and share ideas, and the technology had become so accessible that even children could use it aid free.

With such an environment, it is understandable why, in 2005, the UK Government passed the Gambling Act. The Act regulated online gambling in the UK for the first time, creating the Gambling Commission and awarding licensing powers to local authorities, impacting both land-based and online gaming.


The mid-2000s also saw the rise of online poker. Poker is a social game and the world has just been introduced to social media. It was a logical progression. Pictures and videos could load quickly, meaning games could run smoothly and effectively. Finally, a regulated market meant players could get involved with confidence and trust.

“It all started when an online poker player called Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker in 2003,” industry insiders reflect. “He brought everybody’s attention to it. Then, for the rest of the 2000s, poker almost took over. The whole conversation of online gaming was poker. It was cool. All these celebrity poker players were heroes.”

Back then, there were a handful of major poker sites; although while the UK had the Gambling Act, things looked slightly different in the US. In 2006, following on from the IGPA, the US Senate passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA). This Act prohibited businesses from “knowingly accepting payments in connection with the participation of another person in a bet or wager that involves the use of the internet and that is unlawful under any federal or state law.” While the Act excluded fantasy sports, intertribal gaming and, to some extent, state lotteries and interstate horserace wagering, in the 2000s, poker was certainly on the chopping block.

“There were five or six big poker sites. But then, obviously, when it became illegal and many pulled out immediately and lost a lot of their liquidity. PokerStars, for example, has since reached a settlement in the US.”

The amount of poker that could be played online was significantly more than what could be played in land-based casinos, no longer limited by the physical number of poker tables a single venue could fit on its floor. It was an evolution of a classic gambling sector elevated by the internet. Although the next development would take online gambling to even greater heights.

“Being a casino on the internet was new and exciting and challenged perceptions of what the internet at the time could be.”

FanDuel, DraftKings and the sports betting era

If the computer shook up the gaming market, then the advent of the smartphone re-wrote the rules. In 2007, Apple released the first version of the iPhone, with the Samsung Galaxy launching two years later. By the turn of the decade, a smartphone was a must-have piece of tech, giving users access to the internet on the go in a way that was accessible and customisable. Alongside this, apps became the latest trending technology for brands, with their uniquely designed UIs to create immersive, personalised experiences. This is where the history books in the US start to see the rise of apps like FanDuel and DraftKings (whereas big operators in the UK would also start to develop their own apps, like bet365, Sky Bet, Ladbrokes, William Hill and more).

As previously mentioned, fantasy sports platforms in the US were not affected by UIGEA, provided they met certain criteria. FanDuel was launched in 2009 with DraftKings following shortly after in 2012, developing an audience with their interactive fantasy sports products. Developing such an audience, especially in the US where leagues like the NBA and NFL dominate the sporting conversation, gave these two operators a headstart when sports betting became legalised in the US.

Unlike the UK, where high-street bookies like William Hill had been taking online sports bets since the 1990s, in the US, sports betting had been banned since 1992 following the passing of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA). However, this ruling was overturned in May 2018, opening the floodgates for states to begin legalising online sports betting on a case-by-case basis. With a fantasy sports betting audience already established, it is no wonder FanDuel and DraftKings were able to go on to dominate the market. Today, they are the two biggest US sportsbooks by market share, with FanDuel since having been bought by industry giant Flutter Entertainment, and DraftKings going public in 2020.

Online sportsbooks provided options that physical betting shops could not. Greater options, more ways to play, instant cash-outs, video replay and other features made betting on a phone a significant part of the overall gaming market. And ‘significant’ would soon become ‘dominant.’

This is not to say that sports betting was the only market development in the 2010s. By this point, practically every land-based operator had a website, be it for taking sports bets, booking hotel stays or even playing games online. As smartphone proliferation grew, online gaming sites and casinos crafted their own apps, bringing the experience of online gaming to users’ pockets. It made play more accessible, with a more diverse playerbase developing compared to the pre-smartphone era.

And, thus, we find ourselves in the iGaming market of today.

Looking ahead

When we ask Bjurle about how the industry has changed since 2000, he responds:

“It has grown exponentially. It’s probably grown 100x since I joined [Evolution] in 2009. We got into live dealer and live dealer has grown insanely. If you go around ICE, you will see there are a ton of competitors that turned up, making the industry much bigger than it was back in those days.”

A similar sentiment was shared by Eeze CTO Victor Herman, who joined the iGaming industry eight years ago.

“It feels like eight years ago, things were quite straightforward, quite simple. At some point, they started to advance.”

He tells Gambling Insider that, currently, companies have been trying to implement AR, to combine the AR with the UI, but it doesn’t feel like a real game. It doesn’t feel like an experience that’s immersive. Yet I’m really looking forward to that [being done correctly]. I think it’s really exciting and it can provide a new experience, especially for the younger generations coming in.

Intertops added:

“There have been so many changes. You have the change in payment methods, from credit card to wallets to Bitcoin, regulatory requirements, tools such as heat mapping, SEO, competition for attention from social games and entertainment platforms such as Netflix, and also how people talk, with social media having emerged.”

With sports betting and casino gaming firmly established within the iGaming market, our expert consensus is that the development of new technologies simply isn’t going to slow down anytime soon. As smartphones become more powerful and spaces like the metaverse become more accessible, what the market will look like in the coming years is hard to predict.However, if the last 30 years have taught us anything, it is that we should expect the unexpected.

Source: gaminginsider.com

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