Tech

Google Play’s stance on real-money gaming leaves users vulnerable

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Last month, Google’s Play Store policies changed to permit gambling and betting Android apps that use real money in 15 more countries than before, including the U.S. Previously, gambling apps were only allowed in the Google Play Store in four countries: Brazil, France, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. Each country or state has its own limitations on what kind of online gambling is legal, with some permitting online casinos, sports betting, lotteries, and daily fantasy sports. Regardless, the change drastically opens up the market for mobile gambling — on Android, anyway. The Apple App Store has allowed gambling apps for quite some time and runs a monopoly on user access.

It’s important to note that the Google Play Store policy changes don’t permit real-money gaming apps. Third-party apps that would permit a team in CS:GO, for example, or any other video game to compete in a skills-based competitive tournament aren’t yet allowed, and this is a tremendous oversight on Google’s part.

Examples of games that enable skill-based tournaments in the App Store today that are not available in the Google Play Store include Bingo Boost from Ryu Games, 21 Blitz from Skillz and Solitaire Cash from Papaya Gaming, which are all largely casual games. In the future, this could potentially expand to more core games like Call of Duty: Mobile World Championship, Clash Royale, and Fortnite, if more studios adopted in-app skill-based tournaments.

Protecting users first

Sideloading apps is possible on both iOS and Android devices, albeit it’s not straightforward for the average user and full of security risks. Out of the box, Android phones don’t typically allow sideloading, but you can get around this by installing them manually or, from some other Android app store, you have to turn on the feature.

For real-money gaming apps specifically, it’s also unnecessary to sideload for iOS because they’re permitted in Apple’s App Store. This maintains a healthy ecosystem, where all apps are vetted by Apple, albeit with varying degree of discrimination, and downloaded directly from the App Store. And while Apple doesn’t necessarily look too closely at all apps before publishing, it’s still a far cry better than Google not looking at real money gaming apps at all. If you download a real-money gaming app from the App Store, you don’t have to worry that your money is going to the Cayman Islands and never coming back.

By Google not including real-money gaming apps in the Play Store, there’s the potential threat to users who sideload sketchy apps to be exposed to trojans, malware, spyware, click fraud, and phishing code hidden within unofficial apps. In January 2021, Forbes reported that the “Rogue” trojan had infected hundreds of thousands of phones, taking control of data, photos, messages, location, and more. To protect against infection, they strongly recommend against sideloading apps onto your Android.

Users will sideload a variety of apps, such as custom-build business apps, third-party app stores like the Amazon Appstore, cryptocurrency apps, and games, too. In fact, the most notable example of a popular sideloaded game was Fortnite for Android. When Epic Games made the decision to bypass the Google Play store and offer the highly anticipated game only via its own website, it spawned the distribution of spoof Fortnite games and Fortnite-based phishing attacks.

In 2020, Google warned users that sideloaded versions of their apps “may be compromised.” It’s clear they’re aware of the dangers that sideloading apps can pose to users. So … if they know users are vulnerable, why not allow it under their supervision?

For feature parity’s sake

Google is behind the times. Real-money tournaments in video games of skill are becoming a massive industry in the United States on console, PC, and mobile. Just consider the Call of Duty: Mobile World Championship, a mobile esports tournament with a purse of $2 million in prizes. Users want to play and they want the protection of a trusted store.

Think of it like professional golf. And much like golf, competition in real-money gaming and esports is categorized as a game of skill. The PGA Tour organizes golf tournaments just like mobile game cash tournament operators Papaya Gaming, AviaGames and Ryu Games set the purse for head-to-head tournaments, where the top performing player receives a cash prize. Today, mobile competitive gaming is only possible through Apple’s App Store, and Google is not only missing out on feature parity to Apple in real-money gaming, they’re missing a part of the real-money gaming advertising pie.

While this industry is thriving – between more games enabling real-money gaming and more players wanting to compete – Google is missing out on the advertising revenue that tournament operators are all prepared to spend to drive player engagement on its Play Store platform. With millions of users accessing the Play Store daily, it’s an opportunity not only for real-money gaming operators to reach a massive new audience, but for Google to capitalize on that market need and become the leading app store for real-money gaming.

Are gambling apps possibly a sign of changes to come?

While Google hasn’t explicitly stated that skill-based tournaments will eventually be allowed in the Play Store, if they’re watching the growth of the market and their App Store competitors, perhaps they’ll consider a pivot on real-money gaming. The Play Store opening up to real-money gaming would be a huge opportunity and boon to the already growing market.

Further, if Google continues to lag behind what is acceptable culturally and leaves users vulnerable behind opaque and unpopular policy decisions, it’s welcome to do so. But Google can’t simultaneously claim its store monopoly is protecting users and not just for extracting value. Google can have the only store, or it can ban a category of legitimate businesses, but it can’t do both without leaving the users they claim to protect vulnerable.

Nick Contino is the business development lead at Ryu Games, and previously, he was the director of gaming at 4G44 Esports, responsible for planning and coordinating Lost Tribe Esports’ events, community development, and strategic planning.

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