DraftKings CEO Jason Robins has been through a lot. He cofounded his daily fantasy sports company in 2012, and he had to pitch scores of venture capitalists before finally scoring venture money in 2013.
In 2015, a DraftKings employee was caught making bets on football games on the rival FanDuel site, using data before it was released publicly. Then Nevada banned daily fantasy sports as illegal gambling, and other states weighed in. DraftKings had to spend a ton of money on legal bills fighting for its life. But with 41 states, DraftKings prevailed in arguing that daily fantasy sports was a game of skill and therefore wasn’t gambling.
DraftKings battled with FanDuel to become the leader in a half billion dollar market. The two companies agreed to merge in 2017, but the Federal Trade Commission didn’t like the idea and the companies called it off.
But lately, things are going better. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law and lifted a ban that prevented states from specifically allowing sports betting. With that ruling, daily fantasy sports isn’t living under a legal cloud anymore. DraftKings opened its first Sportsbook in New Jersey last month, where it can offer legal online and mobile sports betting in the state. And Robins is considering how to enter the business for esports fantasy betting. And while the company had trouble raising money early on, it has now raised more than $600 million to date.
Robins spoke recently at the Techcrunch Disrupt event in San Francisco, and I interviewed him afterward.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Did you have a main theme to your talk at TechCrunch?
Jason Robins: I don’t know if I’d say there was a theme. It was more talking about the history and the ride we’ve been on. Looking forward, what does the sports betting stuff mean? It was more like a news interview than a conference interview.
GamesBeat: Since we last talked, it looks like federal or state judges aren’t running your business anymore.
Robins: [laughs] For now, at least.
GamesBeat: The [U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that lifted a ban on sports betting] back in May meant a lot of things for you.
Robins: It was big. One, it opens up a huge new market opportunity. We’re in a perfect position to go after that. We were the first to get a sports book license in New Jersey, and the results are just blowing away our expectations. Two, it was also something where — almost symbolically, it puts the whole fantasy discussion to rest. All right, we’re moving on to sports betting. It was nice to be able to focus on what’s next and not go backwards anymore. That’s a good thing for everyone.
GamesBeat: As far as the states go, how many are proceeding in a favorable way? How many are still figuring things out?
Robins: As far as fantasy, everything is good everywhere that we’re operating now. There are still nine states where we don’t operate, and of course we’d like to be in there, but in the other 41 states everything is very positive.
On the sports betting side, it’s too early to tell. Reading the tea leaves, it seems like there’s good momentum in a number of states. There’s a lot of interest. It’s just very hard to predict. Only a handful of states are in legislative session now. State legislative sessions mostly run January through mid-year. Until they get into it and start having debates and bills start getting drafted, it’s hard to know. Sometimes at this stage a lot of people aren’t as focused on it. They’re taking summer vacations or whatever. Once they get back into session is when you can tell what’s moving.
GamesBeat: How many states can you legally operate in now as far as sports betting?
Robins: The only one we’re live in now is New Jersey. The way the process works, first they have to pass a law. Then they have to issue regulations, and then they have to issue licenses. New Jersey, because they were the ones who brought this case, they were very prepared. The moved at a lightning pace once it was done. They were already ready, because they had started to do this before the injunction was brought and the court case happened anyway.
Other states have passed laws, about a half-dozen states. But they weren’t going to issue regulations and licenses until they could figure out if they could even do this yet. They’re a little more behind. We expect some of them to get up and running this season. Probably the next one is going to be West Virginia. They’ll be able to move faster than some of the other states, because they’re granting reciprocity to New Jersey. If New Jersey has licensed you, West Virginia is good. There are some slight variations, but they essentially copied the New Jersey regulations. That makes sense for them, because it allows them to move quickly and cut administration costs when it comes to having to oversee and license this whole thing.
That will hopefully be an approach that’s adopted by some other states around the country, but I expect that bigger states will be less willing to do that. Another example, Pennsylvania has also passed a law allowing for mobile and online sports betting, but I seriously doubt they would consider something like what West Virginia did. They’ll go through the whole process, and that could take months. There might not be anybody up and running on mobile there before the end of the year.
GamesBeat: How big has the fantasy sports business become now, across the whole industry?
Robins: I can’t speak for the whole industry, because we only have access to our own data. We’re probably about 60 percent, so I can give you a rough estimate. It’s in the $400-500 million range as far as revenue.
GamesBeat: To you, is the expectation for sports betting that it’s going to be bigger?
Robins: Of course it’s going to depend on how many states allow it, but assuming that it’s going to be relatively available in three to five years across various states — the other key factor here is what the taxes and regulations will be like. If it’s costly and burdensome to operate, the market’s going to be much slower to grow, and ultimately a lot smaller.
A lot of those costs have to be passed on to the consumer, and since most of the activity is happening on the black market now, on offshore websites and mobile sites where they’re not paying taxes or dealing with regulations, they’re significantly advantaged. They’ll just undercut the whole market. It’ll be hard to transfer from the black market. But assuming that there’s reasonable taxation, and so far that’s what we’ve seen, this could be a market worth tens of billions of dollars. Hundreds of billions in bets and tens of billions in revenue.
GamesBeat: But it’ll take a few more years for regulation to happen?
Robins: Absolutely. It’s not possible to imagine — I mean it’s possible, but it seems almost impossible to imagine that it’ll be less than two or three years. Our thinking is that five years from now, maybe this is a $10 billion revenue market, if it’s rolled out well and there are good regulations and taxes in place. Long term, we think much bigger. We’re just being appropriately conservative in how fast we expect to develop. Typically government doesn’t move at lightning speed.
GamesBeat: You have these new products out in the meantime, like the flash draft.
Robins: We’re going to launch that in a couple of weeks. We’re very excited about it. Here’s the analogy I would make. For daily fantasy sports, it’s sort of like what daily fantasy sports did for season-long fantasy sports. The whole thing with season-long fantasy that daily fantasy solved is, if you draft your season-long team and three weeks in you’re 0-5 — if that team you thought was great isn’t doing well and you’re not having any fun — the same thing exists in daily once the game starts. Maybe you picked your team at 1PM Eastern and you were really excited about it, but by the time 2PM rolls around you’re not so excited anymore.
We’re trying to give people an opportunity to keep playing. We’re trying to get as close as possible to where people feel like they can always be playing. An example would be, maybe you’re on the west coast and you didn’t get out of bed and get your lineup ready by a 10AM kickoff time. Those people should still be able to play. What flash draft does, it’s a contest that starts and ends with every quarter of a game. Even if you miss the kickoff, or you’re not so happy with your team an hour into the game, you can play again.
Fantasy is an interesting kind of game. It’s different from video games, different from most other games. With a multiplayer mobile game, something like that, you can sit down and play it whenever you want. You’re done whenever you want to be. Fantasy isn’t like that, because it’s on a schedule alongside the games. We’re trying to get as close as possible to what’s the great thing about most games, which is that you can sit down and play them whenever you want.
GamesBeat: And you have this team pick ‘em as well?
Robins: Yeah, that’s something we also launched. We were trying to create something a little more casual, and something that could play on the excitement around the country about the new potential sports betting laws in the coming years. Also, a lot of the feedback we got last year around some of our promotions said, “This is great, but I don’t think I can win.” We wanted to set up something where people felt like they could win.
The way it works, you pick from all the games going on, and if you get at least half of them right in week one, you get a piece of the million-dollar prize pool. I think a lot of people feel like they can pick half of a week’s games right. Then we’ll keep running it in subsequent weeks. There won’t be as big a prize pool — the big one is for week one, the million — but we’ll keep running it with something like $10,000. We’ll see how people like it.
GamesBeat: How do you look at some of the opportunity for betting on esports? Is that a totally different business, or is it similar?
Robins: I’m a big esports fan personally. I think that over the long term–we already have daily fantasy esports, so I don’t think there’s any reason a spectator sport, which esports clearly is, shouldn’t have games that allow you to play fantasy and bet and things like that. It only makes sense. It works that way for all sports.
The challenge for esports is that New Jersey, at least, has chosen to prohibit esports betting as part of their initial sports betting laws. I believe people will want to bet on esports and we’d like to see that allowed at some time in the future. I do worry a little bit that future states will copy what New Jersey did there. It’s just something to keep an eye on that may make it hard to create those kinds of products in a way that’s widely available.
Obviously if it’s allowed we’d like to do it. We think the customers who watch esports — the ones who are of age, of course — I understand the reason they prohibited it in New Jersey was because they felt there’s a heavy skew to younger people that follow esports. But there are also plenty of 21 and over customers who watch esports, and I’m sure some of them would like to bet. In the meantime we’ll continue to have our fantasy offerings for esports. That’ll be a good product for us for many years to come.
GamesBeat: Back to those two products you’re introducing, do you think you’re heading toward a nanosecond-long attention span among players?
Robins: I don’t know that it’s about the attention span. It’s more just on demand, if you will. The way the world is going, people want to be able to consume the products they want, when they want. They want them available at their fingertips on demand, as opposed to at scheduled times. Obviously sports is a little different, but if you look at content consumption, that’s where everything is going. Mobile has increased that trend, because it truly does make anything available to you at any point in time. You have constant access to information, to communication, to social media.
I just think the world is increasingly moving in a direction where everything’s available on demand. The more that products that are content-driven, like ours, adapt to where the world is going, the more they’ll continue to grow and have an audience over time.
GamesBeat: You’ve had to think about this for quite a while, then.
Robins: I always look at where the macro trends are headed, where the world is going. If you can figure that out, which is hard sometimes — we have a vague understanding sometimes, but we don’t really know — but the more you can figure that out, the more you can make sure that what you’re building is going to actually grow and retain customers in the future, and the more you’ll be ahead of the curve. With technology and entertainment, if you’re not two or three years ahead, or maybe more, if you’re not thinking that way all the time, somebody else is and you’re going to miss the next thing.
GamesBeat: We’ve seen a ton of sports spectating happening online as well, live streaming on Twitch and things like that. Do you feel like that relates to your business in some way?
Robins: I think so. There’s a very clear tie between our product and people wanting to consume content. Given that our product’s digital, I think streaming is an easy way to integrate content. There’s a virtuous cycle. The more people play with our products, the more they want to consume content, and the more they consume content, the more they want to play our products.
GamesBeat: Does it tempt you to do anything like going into that business, becoming a broadcaster?
Robins: I don’t know if we’ll become a broadcaster. We might do it more through partnerships. But we are absolutely working toward integrating streaming and other types of content into what we offer. We already have a lot of video clips and other sorts of content that we put out every day. We’d like to have streaming for games available directly through the DraftKings platform.
GamesBeat: You’ve found an area that had some hyper-growth to it. Not everybody gets that opportunity. A lot of popular games are out there, but they don’t take off the way daily fantasy has. Did you learn any lessons about dealing with that kind of growth that were valuable to you in hindsight?
Robins: Regardless of what field you’re in, whether you’re a game developer or anyone else, that hyper-growth is always tough to deal with. Probably some of the things I have to say are not specific to this field. But first, make sure you’re keeping a high bar for people. You’re going to need to hire quickly, and you’re going to need to make sure that you get people onboarded, but you can’t let that bar slip. You have to have the best people.
Also, there’s always a balance between wanting to invest in your long term, your technology platform, and the kind of smaller bug fixes that increase the quality of your product. What we’ve found is that trying to only do what’s absolutely critical there, and focusing on getting new games and new features out in the market, that’s what you want to do in the hyper-growth phase. Those are the things that keep the growth up. The other things, when you optimize them later, if it’s on a bigger base, you’ll get more out of them later too. Sometimes companies are too focused on trying to perfect everything early on, instead of capturing 80 percent of the value with 20 percent of the effort and then moving on to the next big opportunity.