For Brett Abarbanel, her experience with gaming began as a child.
“I grew up near a horse racetrack,” she laughs. “It was always in my backyard. So when I was approximately of legal age, I would go hang out at the track and watch the races with some friends and make one of those minimum $2 bets from time to time. It was just fascinating.”
As an undergraduate, she majored in statistics, and her senior project was a prediction model for horse racing. Then, as a woman with a statistics degree, she was bankrolled for a short time as a poker player, which is where she met her now-husband—and how her career in gaming began.
“I did the thing that all parents tell their kids not to do, which is to follow your partner somewhere.”
She wound up in Las Vegas, and earned advanced degrees at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. As a researcher at the International Gaming Institute, she focused on esports, video games and traditional sports. She rose to lead the research department, and when Bo Bernhard moved up to vice president of economic development at UNLV, Abarbanel was named executive director.
In the job for a year, she’s most proud of the revival of the International Conference on Gambling & Risk Taking, which was held in 2023 after a four-year pause—rather than the traditional three years, because of the pandemic.
“We were hopeful that this would mean more interest, and we were so blown away by the response,” she says. “There was a ton of interest, not just from the academic world. We sent out the call for proposals and abstracts from academic research, but from all of the different stakeholders, because that’s the main goal.
“The goals of the conference parallel the goals of IGI. We want all the different stakeholders to come and be part of this. When we think about academics, sometimes some of the misconceptions are this idea that we are there to only be educators. But that’s only half of what we do. We can’t educate if we don’t learn. And we don’t learn if we don’t work with all of these different stakeholders. And it’s our flagship event, so we were very pleased with its success.”
As the executive director of the IGI, Abarbanel must think about supporting the work of the institute via financial contributions.
“Because we are a fully self-funded institute, it means that we’re in a near constant state of fundraising to ensure we’re able to be in that kind of position,” she says. “And so, when we get the opportunity to have collaborations with groups who also are able to offer financial support, that’s very gratifying.”
She points to a recent collaboration with ESPN.
“This is massively important,” she says. “When we work with different stakeholders, it means that we can open doors and have conversations that might be difficult to have otherwise. We’re able to do that by constantly being at the forefront of these subjects, and the only way that we can do that is if we have the funding to keep people in stable employment.”
While the IGI does groundbreaking work in the field of responsible gaming, Abarbanel points out that there is so much more to the institute.
“This is education, research and innovation,” she says. “So education is broad. It’s not just classroom education—it’s workshops, it’s seminars. It’s getting people who are interested in this in a room to talk about it. There’s lots of different ways this can exist. The research space can be everything from traditional scholarly research to broader exploratory research subjects. AI is such a huge subject these days. So just like everybody else, we have embraced it as part of what we do.
“And there are so many different applications for esports and games in that area, particularly when it comes to gambling and risk taking, as well as the innovation space, whether that’s game design, or other areas of application for AI.”