BUSINESS

Gaming Industry Profiles: Graeme Levin

TAGs: Gambling industry, Gaming Industry, Gaming Industry Profiles, Graeme Levin, iGaming Portals, Rebecca Liggero, Video

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Graeme Levin has an intense passion for games and was born with a knack for identifying business opportunities.  His career in the games industry is remarkable, having published his own magazines, opened retail stores in prime Central London locations, launching one of the first iGaming portals, creating bingo software and even working in theatre and founding security companies.

This gentle and inspiring man has accomplished so much throughout his life, but his biggest achievements were always born out a love for games.

“I invented many games, but the two that saw the light of day, actually there were more, but the main ones, one was a cricket game which I invented with a friend of mine.  We had very enjoyable research sessions watching cricket for many months, recording the types of shots that are played and I developed a card cricket game which in its time was very advanced, now of course you can do this all electronically.  And the other one was a stock market game which was based on my experiences on the stock market.  I used to speculate a lot, so I eventually developed this game which I called Speculate.

“When I was twelve, or thereabouts, I said to my best friend who I invented the cricket game with, I said, ‘Arnie, my ambition in life is to have game shops which sell every single game’ and from then on my whole life was really committed to games- I fulfilled my ambition. 

But not just one, I had thirteen retail shops, all in 100% prime locations- I mean they really were.  I had one opposite Selfridges on Oxford Street, two on Regent Street on the other side of Hamleys in intercepting positions and I had another one down at the end of Oxford Street just before Tottenham Court Road selling mainly electronic games because Tottenham Court Road was famous in those days for electronic products. And then I had another shop in Charing Cross Road selling mainly games books opposites Foyles, of course. 

And we stayed open all hours, Selfridges would close and people would fall out of Selfridges into my shop- the Game Centre. Same with Hamleys”.

Graeme also launched his very own magazine and he was the first person to ever launch a magazine dedicated to the indoor games industry.

“I had this overwhelming, this consuming interest in games and I saw there was no magazine for games so I thought, well that’s a good idea and I knew nothing about publishing, I didn’t know anything about type faces and type setting and in those days it wasn’t electronic like we’ve got now, it was all hot metal, type setting and you get one set of proofs, bromides, photographs and you’d have to make one set of corrections and that was it! 

Anyway, I didn’t even know all of this and gradually I built it up with advertising revenue, also generated cash flow by selling subscriptions on the magazine because I got a year in advance or two years in advance or five years in advance people were prepared to pay, so it was always cash positive but never made a profit per individual issue.  I made my money from selling games from the magazine and I gathered around me a lot of experts as well, and these experts were very influential in helping decide which were good games and which weren’t and this helped me decide which games to stock in the shops.

But I really became, I think, one of the world’s experts on indoor games”.

Graeme’s network and influence in the games world expanded to a point when he decided it was time to find a new platform and this platform turned out to be the internet.

“My son told me, Craig told me about the internet, I was walking two feet off the ground for weeks because all my life I had been looking for a jurisdiction without boundaries, without governments and the internet was exactly that for me.

Because of my experience with the magazine see, I said, ‘Well I’m going to publish a magazine online on gambling’ and I thought, ‘There is no such thing as an online gambling magazine is there?’

So I had this concept in my mind which now everyone calls a portal- we didn’t use the word in those days- there were only one or two others that I can remember- there was Casino City and Rolling Good Times.  My idea was to provide information to everybody who was interested in gambling and to try and do things on the site that would keep people coming back to the site and that’s where this concept of community developed for me, anyway and I discovered that the name “Gambling.com” was for sale.

As it happens, it had been on the market for six months- nobody knew its value and nobody had been interested.  I contacted him and said ‘How little do you want for this? And he said, ‘Well, I’d like three thousand dollars for Gambling.com’.  So I said to him, ‘You’ve got to be mad! Senator Kyle is going to come out with a bill that’s going to make gambling prohibited- the name will be worthless! I’m not going to pay you three thousand dollars, I’ll pay you seventeen hundred and fifty’.  So he said, ‘Alright we’ll do the deal’.  I said, ‘With three instalments’, because you see at the time I had no money.  For me, seventeen fifty was a lot of money because we all know the kind of value Gambling.com reached in subsequent years.

And it was, in fact, the best location one could have”.

Graeme recognized early on the incredible potential of the internet and launched Gambling.com in 1997.  He tapped into his games and gambling experience and capitalized on one of the first portals in the online gambling space.

“So I had lotteries on the site and auctions and raffles and fun things you could do so people would keep on coming back.  I developed our own currency – I always wanted my own currency because I don’t think governments should have a monopoly on currencies and people are prepared to trust a currency, they should be allowed to transact in whatever they want- Pepsi and Coca-Cola bottle tops if you like, if people accept them. 

So I started Ludos (from Latin) and people would do things on the site using Ludos.  We now use Ludo coins which I think is a better name, on Gambling City.  And I remember once we were sitting at a baseball match that Golden Palace invited us all to somewhere in Canada and two people sitting in front of me were talking about transferring a player and one said, ‘I wonder how much it would cost to buy this player’ and the other person said, ‘Ooo, it will be a few million Ludos’, he said.   And that really put Ludos on the map for me”. 

Graeme’s son Craig was his ultimate business partner.  He and his son founded Gambling.com together and split the duties accordingly.

“Craig was the technical person.  From the age of nine – even younger- he’s always been involved in computers.  He used to work in my shops, my game shops in the computer department- he barely saw above the counter, his nose would just be above the counter level- and he was my best computer salesman and I was the management person. 

We overlapped a lot, I wouldn’t do a thing without consulting with him.  We were on the phone ten times a day, probably and we didn’t have Skype in those days so we had mobile discussions and our phone bills were very high.  We were just simply as a team.  He would be in charge of the team on the technical side of things – he ran the team in Cape Town and all the development work took place there. 

We did other work as well, we developed a bingo operation and we developed software which we sold to Microgaming eventually. I think we were the only people on the face of the earth – in the history of the earth- of the planet- that ever sold software to Microgaming”.

Five years later, Gambling.com had grown into one of the largest gambling portals in the business with 50% of the profits coming from mailings.  However, the gambling industry was shifting and Graeme was nervous mailings would become a smaller and smaller part of the business, so naturally he feared for the profits.  To manage the risk, he decided to sell the portal in December 2003.

“Great mistake.  Very big mistake.  I should have persevered, I should have continued and worked on revenue share rather than cost per click, lots of things I could have done now in retrospect.  But I decided the time was right to sell, so I went with a steal, took the cash and have been regretting it for eleven years”. 

Graeme and his son then co-founded the bingo software Bingo Tech and bingo site Bingo Drome, both successful businesses with features that are still repeated to this day in the bingo industry.  Despite their success, the father/son team eventually decided to sell their bingo technology as well.

“There it was more obvious because we’d all reached a decision together that this was our objective, that this was an exit strategy.  We thought we’d continue operating Bingo Drome for a bit, but even that once we’d sold the software, we felt we really weren’t sufficiently involved and we got rid of the operation as well.

But that wasn’t really such a major thing in our lives, it was just a fun venture for me and Craig, anyway and actually I was overseas when the deal was done and Craig negotiated the final deal with Microgaming, so he concluded the deal two days before we got back and he was celebrating too much I’m afraid and was killed in a motor accident that night, so I remember the date of the deal very well, but that was the deal to sell the software”. 

The death of Craig crushed Graeme for years, it was such a horrible time in his life and the process from healing and moving on from Craig’s death was a challenging one.

“It was very difficult.  I really didn’t feel like doing anything after Craig’s death and in fact I didn’t.  I stopped.  I cut out everything.  You see, Craig wasn’t just my son, he was my business partner and he was my friend.  And it was a very big blow, but you know, you have to get on. 

I developed a website for him, it had tributes to him and condolences and stories, anecdotes, a guest book and pictures, photographs from his birth up until his death, and there’s a cemetery in Liepāja – Liepāja is a town, a city actually in Latvia.  My wife and my sister and I went for three years in a row to Lithuania and Latvia to see our roots and on the cemetery gate is a slogan that says, ‘Nobody truly dies until all memories are extinguished” and that’s what I put up on the memorial website for Craig and I just feel that the memories will be there for as long as this website is maintained. 

The person who helped develop it is much younger than me and will keep it going for a long time and I hope by then my grandson who is nine months old will keep it going as well.  And that’s just one way I’m trying to keep alive his memory and it helps me cope and helps the family as well”.

Craig’s memory inspires Graeme to do what he does today.  He still attends online gambling events, meets with iGaming professionals, he’s involved with cutting edge technology such as Bitcoin, runs a network of sites and his latest venture is GamblingCity.com.

“A gambling.com clone. Well its not quite because things have moved on since then, but my main activity is GamblingCity.com.  Now Gambling City is a portal site, its actually a portal network, we’ve got over one thousand sites – it sounds impressive, but its not really, the sites are very, very small- we’re a small operation compared to what Gambling.com used to be”.

When Graeme looks back on all the things he has done since he was twelve years old, since he first talked about opening up a retail store, the amount he has accomplished even amazes him.

“The interesting thing is, I don’t really reflect.  I’ve done so much in my life- I was waiting for you to ask me, ‘What have you done in your life’, and the answer would have been, ‘The better question is, what haven’t I done’.  Because I’ve really done a lot. 

I used to run a burglar bar manufacturing company. I didn’t know anything! I just knew that people needed burglar bars in South Africa.  But I saw a need, a need for security.  So I think my businesses have generally been, as you say, finding a need and then working out how to fill it”.

Despite all the challenges, losses and struggles in Graeme’s life, he’s always stayed true to his passions.  He’s a genuine pioneer and has used his experience in the games industry to propel his illustrious career.  He’s an inspiration, an icon and a friend to many in the online gambling affiliate industry and continues to be an inspiration to everyone he meets.

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