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Offline Bowling Goes Online Amid the COVID-19 Health Crisis

Not many consumers are making their way to bowling alleys these days, so some operators see the chance to strike it big by taking bowling online. In this month’s Digital Identity Tracker, Vikram Rao, director of financial planning and analysis at mobile gaming platform Skillz, explains how bowling apps are using novel digital ID tech to strike out the bad guys and spare legitimate consumers.

America’s more than 3,400 bowling alley establishments are attempting to reopen their shuttered doors amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Bowling alleys across the U.S. are struggling to engage customers and keep their businesses afloat while also taking precautions, such as taking people's temperature at the door and sanitizing shoes.

Bowling alley operators like New York-based Bowlero are looking to engage their customers in new ways — not just at their physical locations, but also online — by partnering with gaming platforms. The amount of time consumers spend on these platforms has increased by 45 percent since the start of stay-at-home orders, making online gaming services a lucrative opportunity for brick-and-mortar gaming establishments. 

“We’re seeing accelerating inbound interest from offline brands eager to implement new ways to engage with consumers,” said Vikram Rao, director of financial planning and analysis at Skillz, a San Francisco-based mobile games platform. 

Skillz partnered with Bowlero in February to roll out a branded version of the popular Strike! eSports Bowling game. This integration will enable Bowlero to strengthen its ties to guests outside of its venues and connect 30 million registered Skillz players with Bowlero’s 300 bowling centers and 28 million annual customers, Rao said. 

Offering A Secure Mobile Gaming Experience 

Online gaming has been a comfort and entertainment for millions of consumers who are spending more time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“April was a month like we have never seen,” Rao said, adding that consumers’ engagement with gaming apps during this time has skyrocketed.

Mobile app usage was up 40 percent year over year in Q2 2020 and hit a record high of more than 200 billion hours in April, according to recent data from App Annie. Players downloaded 35 billion new apps and spent $27 billion during the same quarter. 

Along with this explosive growth in the global gaming market has come an increased risk of fraud. One in five gamers in Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States have suffered payment fraud while playing games, according to a report by games market insights and analytics firm Newzoo. 

Preventing abuse on the gaming platform is therefore key for operators. Skillz has looked to solve these problems by taking a data-driven approach to identifying suspicious behavior. The platform analyzes thousands of gameplay data points to isolate any instances of external threats, like credit card fraud, as well as internal ones, like matchmaking manipulation or unfair collusion between users. Skillz’s fraud and security team then acts on the information to maintain the platform’s fairness and integrity. 

Other platforms are considering biometric identification to deter fraudsters from hacking accounts for personal and financial information. Some online gaming operators, such as PokerStars, have implemented such tools to keep fraudsters away, offering a biometric-based login feature that enables users to verify their identities using their fingerprints or facial scans rather than passwords.

Delivering A Seamless And Secure Payments Experience 

Delivering a seamless and secure online payments experience that matches bowling aficionados’ experiences at brick-and-mortar locations is critical to engaging them online. Taking this approach not only improves usersʼ satisfaction and offers them near-real-life gaming experiences, but also ensures that bad actors are not taking advantage of platforms. Analyzing gaming and user data can help strike the balance between offering seamless gaming experiences and not letting scammers game systems.

“We brought on board a skilled data product manager and experienced head of trust and safety to help us level our systems," Rao explained. “There, we continue to heavily invest in internal and external machine learning, and primarily machine learning risk tools, to detect and deter what we consider to be suspicious activity on the system.”

Making these investments has helped Skillz stay abreast of behaviors that might detract from a fair game, he noted. 

Ensuring safe and smooth gaming experiences also helps gaming platforms establish trust with their customers. “It takes a company many interactions to build trust, but sometimes one negative interaction can destroy that trust,” Rao said. 

Skillz employs a perimeter defense system as well as purpose-built patented technology that the company developed to preserve a climate of trust. “Data security is critical to players competing for meaningful stakes,” Rao added. 

Skillz also utilizes playtest verifications to ensure gameplay integrity. “If we see a significant or unexpected change in a playerʼs behavior, for instance, we may ask that player to participate in a playtest confirmation to verify that no one else is using their account or otherwise trying to game the system,” Rao explained.

A representative may visit one of the top players to do a final playtest before presenting a major prize, in some cases. This helps the platform verify that every match on the system is fair. “Matches have to be fair to have meaningful and fair competition,” said Rao.

Skillz mathematically determines whether a game’s outcome is predominantly determined by skill versus chance. “Prior to the creation of our patented algorithm, online game makers were required to obtain a subjective opinion issued by a law firm to determine whether their game was a game of skill versus chance,” Rao explained. Machine learning (ML) and data science are at the core of protecting against fraudsters and cheaters, ensuring that player matching is fair, he noted.

Staying one step ahead of fraudster activity is an ongoing challenge, despite advances in fraud-fighting tools, and it is one that gaming platforms must continually focus on to keep fraudsters from bowling out their defense systems.

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NEW PYMNTS DATA: HOW WE SHOP – SEPTEMBER 2020 

The How We Shop Report, a PYMNTS collaboration with PayPal, aims to understand how consumers of all ages and incomes are shifting to shopping and paying online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research builds on a series of studies conducted since March, surveying more than 16,000 consumers on how their shopping habits and payments preferences are changing as the crisis continues. This report focuses on our latest survey of 2,163 respondents and examines how their increased appetite for online commerce and digital touchless methods, such as QR codes, contactless cards and digital wallets, is poised to shape the post-pandemic economy.

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