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Brett Abarbanel

Executive Director, International Gaming Institute, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Brett Abarbanel

The International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is America’s premier gaming research hub, led by Executive Director Brett Abarbanel. Since its inception, the IGI has been instrumental in fostering innovation, developing executive talent and advancing regulation across the industry. Having been at the school in various roles for more than a decade, Abarbanel is a leading figure when it comes to gaming research, policy, responsible gaming and other high-level topics. Abarbanel spoke with GGB Managing Editor Jess Marquez via Zoom in May. To hear and view a full version of this GGB Podcast, visit the podcast episode.

GGB: You’re about a year and a half into your tenure as executive director of the IGI. What has been the most difficult part of stepping into the lead role?

Abarbanel: The IGI is a really walls-outward institute; huge chunks of what we do are not even on campus. I was ready and prepared for it, but it was the internal stakeholder management that I really had to learn. A university atmosphere is almost like a small city. You have different departments that may never talk to one another, and it’s like living in a completely different neighborhood. I think I finally have a grasp of the institutional knowledge that one needs to be a leader in that environment.

The IGI is the only large gaming research hub in the U.S. Does that make your job harder?

There are definitely pros and cons to being who we are. We do have the benefit of getting to work with different universities and other academic institutions all over the world. There aren’t very many that really look at gambling in the holistic way that we do. But sometimes when we get a really neat project, it can be a struggle to find the right folks to work on that project. We’re very lucky that we do have a network that we’ve cultivated over many years to be able to reach out and put together a really useful and thoughtful group of people for different projects. But it absolutely can be a challenge.

Shannon Bybee was a friend and former boss of GGB Publisher Roger Gros. Bybee was an instrumental figure at the IGI. How do you think the institute is carrying on his vision?

The goal of the IGI has really largely stayed the same since (Bybee’s) leadership, and I like to think we are continuing that to this day. One of the things we’ve always tried to maintain is a really balanced look at all of this, because gambling’s not inherently positive. It’s not inherently negative; it’s just something that we do as human beings, this risk-taking activity. We want to make sure that we’re emphasizing the positive, we’re emphasizing the negative, while at the same time maintaining the level of compassion that Shannon championed.

You’re very interested in esports and video games—what draws you to that side of things?

I love this subject. Even if you’re not a gamer, if you don’t participate in it yourself, it’s a really interesting phenomenon that has just spread across a lot of the ways that humans consume entertainment. And it’s a huge overlap with gambling, but it becomes an area where we have this pretty convoluted space that is very difficult to unpack from a regulatory perspective, from a commercial perspective. It is really fascinating to work in the broader gambling gaming industry and be able to explore the really interesting ways that we have innovated in this space over time.

What do you think we as an industry should be monitoring as this evolution unfolds?

The biggest thing is to be open to learning. There should be almost an open-door type of policy to learn more about what this space looks like. If you’re doing some sort of product development or you’re trying to figure out a new space, there’s also proactive outreach by the industry that can be done to regulators so they are aware of what’s going on, of what this thing looks like. It’s really important to be mindful that they have to regulate a pretty big industry that clearly is regularly changing, and so it’s hard to stay on top of all those changes if they’re not doing that themselves.

Jess Marquez is the managing editor of Global Gaming Business. A lifelong Nevadan, Marquez has communications experience across multiple sectors, including local government. Prior to joining GGB, he was the communications and advertising director for a prominent personal injury law firm based in Las Vegas and Seattle. He also founded and hosted The Pair O’Dice Podcast, a weekly show that focused on sports betting news and predictions. He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2019 with a B.A. in journalism. Outside of work, Marquez is passionate about professional sports, classic literature and leatherworking.

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