Real-money skill-based games are very popular across the world and the United States is no exception. Generally, real-money skill games allow players to compete against others in various games where the outcome is determined by the relative skill of the players (as opposed to chance). In simple terms, it is the same betting your friend $5 on a game of darts or pool at the local pub. Except these games are played online – most frequently on smartphones. Games range from timed solitaire contests (using the same deck), to knife throwing or cup flipping games, to trivia contests. Because chance does not determine the outcome, most states’ anti-gambling laws do not prohibit skill-based games. U.S. based and international companies have been working to invest in this space, using the increasing availability of the internet and smartphone apps to provide entertainment to players seeking to compete against others and win some money in the process.
I have written extensively about legality of skill gaming, as well as the obstacles that developers need to overcome to get their games up and running and advertised.
Besides private company gatekeepers, local law enforcement, and regulatory authorities, there is a new obstacle for skill-based gaming companies. This time it comes from the IRS and could have broad market implications beyond simply paying taxes.
In 2020, the IRS issued two related memoranda regarding Daily Fantasy Sports (“DFS”) wagers. Recall that DFS is an accelerated version of traditional fantasy sports, giving players a chance to set lineups and compete on a daily basis, rather than having just one team for the entire season. DFS is available in 43 states through the two major operators: DraftKings and FanDuel. Similar to pure-skill games, DFS distinguishes itself from gambling by emphasizing that relative skill of the players determines the outcome (as opposed to chance). In some of the 43 states, DFS operates pursuant to government license. In other states, DFS is unregulated and either expressly or implicitly exempt from the statutory definition of “gambling.”
In the first 2020 memo, the IRS considered whether DFS operators (i.e. DraftKings and FanDuel) were required to pay excise tax on wagers pursuant to IRC §§ 4401 et seq. Under federal tax law, each “wager” is subject to excise tax – sportsbooks are very familiar with this provision that requires the bookmaker to pay tax on every bet accepted from a patron. In answering in the affirmative, the IRS defined “wager” without any reference to an element of chance:
At the same time, the IRS did not overturn Revenue Ruling 57-521, which was a 1957 opinion on whether a puzzle contest was a taxable gaming transaction. Rather, the IRS distinguished that in the puzzle contest “the contest participant’s own skill was the only factor involved in winning the puzzle game and there was no chance element at all.” In DFS, the participants use their skill to select a lineup, but then earn points based on the real-world performance of the selected athletes (over which the participants have no control). The IRS emphasized that no matter how educated and skilled a DFS participant may be, there is always a chance that the chosen player or players will perform poorly that particular day, get injured, or suffer adverse effects on their performance from the weather or officiating. Thus, the IRS concluded that the “skill” involved in DFS was similar to the skill involved in traditional sports betting or horse race “handicapping.” Finally, the IRS also explained that that the rate of excise tax (0.25% or 2%) depends on whether DFS is “authorized” under the law of the state where the wager is accepted. The IRS did not explain whether “authorized” means DFS is operating pursuant to express state license or is simply outside of the particular state’s anti-gambling legislation.
Two months after the excise tax memorandum, the IRS relied on essentially the same analysis to conclude that DFS wagers are “wagering transactions” that can be used to offset wagering income during a taxable year under IRC § 165(d). Effectively, DFS wagers are treated the same as gambling losses under the IRC. In its legal analysis, the IRS reiterated:
Why does the IRS’s DFS analysis matter for skill-based real-money gaming? Two main reasons: (1) The IRS’s interest in DFS transaction could signal increased tax scrutiny for real-money skill-gaming operators; and (2) the IRS’s legal analysis of whether a skill game is actually gambling/wagering could be adopted by states that currently do not regulate skill-based gaming.
1. Do real-money skill-based game companies have to pay federal excise tax?
There is no doubt that pure-skill games are still exempt from the definition of “wager” and “wagering transaction” for tax purposes. However, it is unclear whether there can be “any” chance at all. The first IRS memo cited a 1957 puzzle game ruling to distinguish pure-skill games, noted “there was no chance element at all,” and concluded that “[t]he existence of chance indicates that DFS contests are distinguishable” from the pure-skill puzzle game at issue in the 1957 memo.
In the second memo, IRS revised its position slightly to conclude that “the test is not whether there is an element of chance or skill, but which is the dominating element that determines the result of the game.” Regardless, the IRS took the position that the outcome of a DFS contest is predominantly determined by chance (as opposed to skill). DFS industry leaders have predictably issued statements opposing the ruling, calling it “deeply flawed” and inconsistent with state court decisions that have held that DFS is a game of skill.
If you are a real-money skill game developer, it is critical to determine whether your game has any element of chance at all. In other words, is your game more fantasy sports or pure contest? If there is any element of chance at all, you must determine whether skill “is the dominating element” of the game. Most, if not all, real-money skill games will pass this second test. At the same time, if your game is more like fantasy sports (for example a stock market or cryptocurrency picking game), your game will likely be considered to involve taxable wagering. This obviously subjects you to the excise tax under IRC §§ 4401 et seq. An added wrinkle is whether you owe tax at the 0.25% “authorized” rate or the 2% “unauthorized” rate. Most skill-based operators operate without a license or governmental approval – but at the same time, they only operate in states where their activities are not prohibited by state anti-gambling laws.
2. Will states adopt the IRS definition of “wager” to regulate real-money skill-based gaming?
Additionally, the IRS analysis may be adopted by states seeking to regulate or prohibit real-money skill games. For instance, if you are paying excise taxes to the IRS, a state regulator can easily use that fact to argue that your game is actually “wagering” and therefore constitutes “illegal gambling.” This is especially troubling because the first “excise tax” memo seems to require “chance only. It is also possible that real-money skill games will be considered “wagering” for the purposes of excise tax imposed by IRC §§ 4401 et seq but not “wagering” for the purposes of IRC § 165(d).
Stay tuned for more on this developing area. It is likely that DraftKings and FanDuel are headed for a showdown with the IRS over the excise tax issue. Any resulting Tax Court decision (or even settlement) will have significant repercussions for the skill-based gaming industry.
Disclaimer: This guide is not intended to be and does not constitute legal or tax 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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