SBC News Lee Willows, ESG Gaming: “Managing the narrative” to prevent gambling harm

Lee Willows, ESG Gaming: “Managing the narrative” to prevent gambling harm

Through the lens of his personal experiences of gambling addiction, Lee Willows, Founder & Executive Chair of ESG Gaming – a non-profit social responsibility, sustainability and harm minimisation group – discussed consumer protection, player integrity and safeguarding.

At a session in the Esports Betting Conference during ICE London 2024, Willows expressed how he used this knowledge of gambling harms to do greater good, establishing one of the major charities in the space.

Openly discussing sensitive topics such as suicide and being at ‘rock bottom’, the Founder emphasised that, particularly with the esports community, operators and publishers must be more mindful as the fanbase tends to be younger.

“There is a lot of excitement around the potential of gambling operators getting involved with esports which is great, but also, like alcohol, gambling can be an incredibly addictive substance,” he said.

Taking us back 11 years, Willows described going to the casino for the very first time with a group of friends in London – an idea he wasn’t excited about. After using a slot machine for only a short period of time, Willows won the £4,000 jackpot.

“Everyone around me was amazed, because – what I know now is – they’d been there all day trying to get that jackpot,” he said. “But I thought at the time, I’ve won this amount of money, and it’s so easy – there was no thought needed.”

Willows described this experience as the turning point of what began his journey into an extreme gambling addiction, which he eventually overcame with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, counselling and lots of help from those around him.

“It’s incredibly difficult to stop gambling on those machines and on sports. I’d never seen another gambling addict before but suddenly, I was in a room full of them who all had similar stories. 11 years on, I’ve never gambled again.”

Turning over the page, Willows described how he wanted to change these negative experiences that he faced into something more positive.

“On the previous panel, education came up a few times as being really important, and that’s why I put my focus because I spent 20 years as a school teacher.”

On setting up the charity – which now reaches up to around a million young people every year – instead of talking about safer gambling, Willows explains how the group trained teachers to educate the generation around financial literacy and risk.

“It’s the parts of gambling that fit within the national curriculum,” he continued, adding that the charity has just celebrated its 10-year anniversary.

“But I thought to myself, I’ve got one more job left,” he continued. “I’m a bit of an entrepreneur, so I’ll take the experience that I’ve got and see if I can apply it through the lens of gaming and esports.”

Willows noted that ‘the gambling sector is one that attracts a lot of publicity’ adding that it is a sector that many people ‘don’t necessarily understand’.

“If you think about esports and gaming, it’s a great success story for the UK. But if you think about gambling it’s got quite negative connotations. So I think managing the narrative of those who want to work with gambling operators is going to be really important.”

“We’ve already seen some headlines coming through around gaming, esports, gambling operators and publishers that allow operators to work with them – are they breeding the next generation of gamblers?”

“In esports, it’s all about the community, it’s all about the fans, and it’s about doing the right thing. It’s about grassroots esports. I think some of the gambling operators may look at esports as a P&L on a spreadsheet.”

He advised: “If you are going to work with gambling operators, it will be great, but be quite mindful of that.”

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