Skill-based real-money gaming has been a popular form of entertainment across the world for hundreds of years. From Roman legionnaires wagering on an early version of backgammon to $5 eight-ball games at your local pool hall, skill games have always attracted players looking for a chance to win real money. With smart phones in every pocket, skill-based gaming has entered a new era where anyone with an internet connection can play various money skill games through their phone or computer and stake anywhere from $0.25 to hundreds of dollars on the outcome.
Gaming is a rapidly growing industry and the skill-based real-money market is no exception. Indeed, there is already at least one publicly-traded California-based company (Skillz.com; SKLZ) investing substantial resources in the real-money skill-based U.S. market. However, any sort of real-money gaming business implicates federal and state-level regulation. While a government license is not necessary in most states, your game must still pass private sector review. Apple’s App Store is indispensable in the current market; advertising through social media like Facebook is another must. Banking and payment processing is likewise an integral part of your ability to run a business.
I have advised a number of companies, both international and U.S. based, on the legality of their skill-based real-money games. Through Artaev at Law, I have prepared detailed memorandums and analysis for a number of companies, as well as provided consultation to investors seeking more information about the real-money skill-games market. As a game developer, here is what you need to know:
1. Get Your Game to the Players.
If you were to get into the full-scale casino gambling market, you would have to comply with stringent state-level regulatory requirements, pay substantial application and licensing fees, and otherwise deal with an intricate governmental regulatory framework. Further, in the few states where casinos are even legal, there is only a limited number of licenses that a state will issue. In other words, it is impossible. But real-money skill gaming operates outside the gambling regulatory framework, which means you don’t have to go through a government licensing or regulatory approval process to offer your product (in most states).
Instead, real-money skill game providers find themselves faced with so-called private company gatekeepers. The popularity of real-money skill gaming is in large part due to the ubiquity of the smartphone. Apple’s App Store is the only practical way to get real-money skill games onto iPhones (no, people will not “unlock” their iPhones to sideload your real-money skill game, especially when the App Store already has a robust selection of these games that are easy to download and use). Google’s Play store does not currently allow real-money skill games, so there developers must either provide sideloading options or use a Progressive Web Application (PWA).
The bottom line is that developers must pass Apple’s “gatekeeping” to even get their app on the market. That means complying with the App Store Review Guidelines. Section 5.3.4 is particularly important:
Apple considers real-money skill games to fall into this category, even though skill games do not depend on chance like the “sports betting, poker, casino games, horse racing” examples. This guideline can be distilled into three requirements: (1) The app must be legal where you are offering it; (2) The app must be geo-restricted to only those locations where it is legal; and (3) the app must be free.
The first requirement is the most important and the most confusing for app developers. How do you demonstrate that your app has “necessary licensing and permissions” if the states where you are offering your real-money skill games do not regulate such games? This is a situation where a legal opinion or memorandum from an experienced gaming attorney is helpful. In general, such a legal opinion will describe your game, explain how the game fits within existing federal regulations, and then present a state-by-state analysis (supported by applicable statutory and case law citations) to show that the skill game does not violate those states’ anti-gambling prohibitions or any other law.
The second requirement of geo-restriction is self-explanatory. Your app can only offer real-money gaming if the user verifies their location in a state where such gaming is legal. You can still offer practice or play-money games without geo-restriction (or if the user does not want to or cannot verify their location).
The third requirement is that the app must be free. Section 5.3.3 of the review guidelines further clarifies that “in-app purchase” cannot be used to purchase credit or currency for use in the real-money gaming app. That means that you will need to set up some sort of external mechanism for deposits, link the user’s existing account and balance to the app, and ensure compliance with the external payment processors’ requirements.
Once submitted, the review process can take between several weeks to more than a month. A lot depends on whether your app is similar to other apps already approved or whether it is something completely new. Other factors, like the reviewer or the law firm reviewing the legal analysis may also impact the timeline.
2. Advertise Your Game.
Advertising is critical to your app’s success and online advertising platforms have special rules for real-money games. Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter require prior approval and permission before running your gaming ad. The process is similar for both platforms and generally involves filling out a questionnaire, selecting the geographic areas you are targeting, providing a link to your app’s website, and submitting a legal opinion that your app comports with the law where it will be advertised. Google and YouTube (owned by Google) do not currently allow real-money skill game advertising.
This process may be a bit more lengthy than getting approval from the App Store. Depending on the nature of your product, your location, and the platform, the process may take several months. The social media platform may also come back with additional specific legal questions for your counsel to answer. The level of follow up and scrutiny is hard to predict because the social media companies farm out the review to outside law firms, which have their own standards and review processes.
3. Set Up Your Payment Processor and Bank.
Once your game is live and advertised, it’s time to start making money. There are a lot payment processors out there (PayPal, Square, etc.) and each has their own set of rules and guidelines for business accounts. The federal Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act applies to payment processors, so they must be especially careful not to facilitate illegal gambling activities. Credit card companies present another potential obstacle, as credit card companies often lump skill-based gaming with gambling into the 7995 merchant code.
For example, after states started rolling out regulated sport-betting options, Visa issued guidance that made its payment services available for “all transactions that are consistent with local, federal, and international laws.” Visa introduced new 7800-series merchant codes for legal gambling, but none of those codes apply to real-money skill gaming transactions. Practically, this means that skill-gaming transactions may still fall under the blanket 7995 code and Visa may not authorize the transaction. Nor does Visa issue an MVV (merchant verification value) for 7995 merchants, meaning that skill-based real money gaming companies are limited as to their direct-pay options.
This essentially requires skill-game companies to explore options through payment providers like PayPal. Provided you are based in the United States and can link a bank account, the process should be straightforward. If you are based in another country however, there is a whole another set of hurdles to overcome.
Disclaimer: This guide is not intended to be and does not constitute legal advice. It is for informative and promotional purposes only. Do not take any action or refrain from taking any action based on this guide, and always consult with a qualified professional about the circumstances of your particular case. Each set of facts is unique and different circumstances apply to each individual business.
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