Yerevan, Armenia

Armenia: Building an igaming tech sector in the face of conflict

Armenia has emerged as a powerhouse of the sportsbook and igaming technology industry in recent years, but the nation has had to achieve this economic success story against a backdrop of an ongoing conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan.

The conflict has largely played out away from the gaze of the Western media, but it has been running since the late 1980s and continues to have far-reaching consequences for the people of Armenia. In 2020 they had to endure a full-scale six-week war and, as recently as September this year, there were clashes on the border after Azerbaijan’s military shelled positions in Armenia.

Simon Westbury, Chief Business Officer of Yerevan-headquartered Digitain, raised awareness of the issue during a speech at the SBC Awards 2022, when he highlighted the difficult circumstances faced by professionals in Armenia’s technology industry and the resilience they had demonstrated. 

We caught up with Westbury, along with two industry executives in Armenia – Levon Nikoghosyan (CEO of EveryMatrix Armenia & PartnerMatrix and Board Member, AffPapa) and Suren Khachatryan (Founder & CEO, Technamin) – to find out more about the situation.

In the first part of the interview, they detail the impact of the conflict on their colleagues and businesses, while the second will look at how a nation of just 2.9 million people has become one of the rising stars of the global technology industry. 

SBC: How has the conflict with Azerbaijan, and the fear of it flaring up again, affected people living in Armenia and, in particular, the business community?

Levon Nikoghosyan
Levon Nikoghosyan

Levon Nikoghosyan: The conflict with Azerbaijan broke out in the late 1980s and reached the war phase several times since. The region of Artsakh (or Nagorno-Karabakh) is considered a historically Armenian land with numerous internationally recognised facts indicating that Armenians have been living in this territory for thousands of years. As Azerbaijan has been waging war rhetoric over the past decades and constantly threatening to attack Armenia, the renewed war in September 2020 was not something totally unexpected, something that turned our lives upside down.

On the other hand, Armenia is still undergoing the consequences of the war. This is felt both in the distribution of the country’s budget and in the lives of civilians, many of whom also lost relatives and friends in the war. However, the most important factor was – and continues to be – our unity in a difficult moment, when almost all companies did their work diligently, each helping the army as best we could.

Suren Khachatryan
Suren Khachatryan

Suren Khachatryan: The situation is something that all Armenians both inside and outside of Armenia are always conscious of. It’s a reality that we are faced with on a daily basis. Therefore, we must adapt. 

From a business perspective, companies are carrying on with their operations and nothing is coming to a halt. This is important because a well-functioning business sector contributes to a more robust economy, which is something crucial for Armenia during times like these. We are all pitching in to help the country while being fully conscious that the borders are currently under threat. 

A lot of people are also volunteering, which gives birth to a number of inspiring NGOs that are always helping others overcome these difficult times. As all of this is happening, we are constantly striving for peace.

Simon Westbury
Simon Westbury

Simon Westbury: I hope you do not mind but before I answer this question and the following questions, I would like to make one point clear. In doing this interview, I cannot say I am Armenian, cannot speak with the same authority as my colleagues on these issues, and I do not want to be seen as an imposter. However, the issues that affect my colleagues daily are truly close to my heart and if I can add an international voice to raise awareness as I did at the SBC Awards that is all my intention is. 

I think we need to be clear here, the recent aggression experienced by Armenia, is more than a flare up. It was an attack on Armenia’s sovereign territory. Since the events of 2020, everyone has lived with the new reality and it plays on everyone’s mind. I think the recent aggression has made people feel a little more vulnerable, but as always Armenians are strong and continue their daily lives the best they can. 

On my recent trip to Yerevan, the city was bustling and full of energy as always. I think the recent attacks have played on people’s subconscious more than we can understand at the moment. However, as a proud people the Armenians are standing strong.

In terms of the business community, it is business as normal. As I just mentioned, I have recently returned from three weeks in Armenia and work continues unabated and with the normal, passion and enthusiasm to succeed that was demonstrated in Digitain winning Employer of the Year at the recent SBC Awards.

SBC: What has your company been doing to support team members and their families?

Suren Khachatryan: Even in times of crisis, it is important to have an exuberant attitude. After all, everyone is aware and concerned; so it is crucial that we have a strong support system to care for one another. Technamin has that. 

We always keep the mood upbeat in our offices and are there for each other at all times. Our team consists of people who were born and raised in the conflict regions, and who have relatives and close friends serving in the military. We always make sure to reach out to them and let them know that we are there should they need to talk. 

Everyone is aware of the mission and the vision of the company and is working as a tightly knit team to get us there, irrespective of the situation.

Simon Westbury: The company of course does everything we can to support all employees and their families in every way. It is too personal to speak of the acts that we undertake to support employees and families who have suffered due to the recent aggression. 

I also am aware of many personal acts that colleagues undertake to support each other, it is not for me to divulge or speak on behalf of others. However, I am prepared to say, not wishing to seek wider gratification but to give an example, that I have personally paid a month’s rent for an injured serviceman for him to undergo treatment for his injuries in Yerevan.

Digitain and Armenia stand together as one family and work together to ensure that everyone has support and assistance where needed. All my colleagues have a family member or know someone on the front line, so as a leader it is important to show even higher levels of understanding and compassion during these times. 

Levon Nikoghosyan: Most importantly, I want to note that not only companies but almost every individual, regardless of the place of work, was involved in helping the army: fundraising, assisting in the packing and delivering of goods, evacuating residents. Many of my friends went to the front as volunteers.

But the companies did not stand aside either. Many offices installed food and supply points for helping citizens affected by the war. Аs for PartnerMatrix, we did more or less similar activities as all the other companies.

SBC: Against this backdrop, Armenian igaming companies have thrived and operators across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas have continued to choose their products and services. How have businesses managed to continue to innovate and deliver for clients in the circumstances?

Simon Westbury: In my impromptu acceptance speech, I mentioned other companies in Armenia and the ongoing tensions do not simply relate to Digitain. However, I can only answer this question in relation to Digitain, as I cannot speak for others on this occasion.

We have managed to innovate and deliver to partners in an unprecedented way. Not wishing to make this a sales pitch, but this year against the backdrop of the ongoing tensions, Digitain has delivered Centrivo, Live Dealer, an Odds Feed product, Virtual Sports and a Payment Gateway. Not forgetting the exciting partnership with Luis Figo. 

However, we cannot focus just on product delivery, but delivering to our partners which is the most important thing. 2022 is shaping up to be a seminal year for Digitain. We have surpassed 2021 numbers already and we are delighted to have closed some transformational deals.

So without wishing to sound disingenuous, it really has been a case of business as usual, but with an increased desire and will to succeed to show the World how good we are as a company, and for my Armenian colleagues how they can deliver in all circumstances.

Levon Nikoghosyan: Yes, we managed to unite in a difficult moment and motivate ourselves to achieve even greater success, because our economy was depending on it. 

It was very important for the PartnerMatrix team in this very shaky time to maintain the smooth work of our operators. To put it simply, clients from Brazil might not have heard of this conflict at all, but for us, keeping a client from Brazil meant supporting our soldiers’ lives here in Armenia. I think it was this understanding that helped almost all Armenian companies to stay active.

I remember that Azerbaijan – which is considered an authoritarian country according to Freedom House – turned off almost the entire internet in their country during the war in 2020. In Armenia, which aspires to democracy with its developed IT industry, this would be impossible. We had access to all the information, we were adequately assessing the situation, and did not feel pressure from the authorities. So the political atmosphere also helped to overcome the crisis in such a difficult moment.

Suren Khachatryan: Armenians are known for their strong work ethic and dedication. Combine that with our knack for innovation and pushing the limits, and you have an IT sector that is thriving regardless of the situation. 

Even during the war in 2020, companies were hard at work delivering to their clients when many of them were understaffed due to employees being drafted. This was also the case during the COVID-19 lockdowns. It goes to show that the harder the situation is, the more hardworking and resilient Armenians become. 

At the end of the day, we are all advocates for peace and peaceful resolutions, as this is what ultimately benefits everyone and every business sector. Even though it’s tough to function during times of war or crisis, that should not deter us from advancing with our innovation and pushing ourselves forward.

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