Virginia Lawmakers To Scrutinize Skill-Based, DFS Pick’em Games This Month

Written By T.J. McBride on January 2, 2024 - Last Updated on January 3, 2024
Person looking through magnifying glass on story about Virginia legislators taking a look at skilled games this month.

Gaming is sure to be a hot topic when the Virginia General Assembly reconvenes this month.

Now that law enforcement can once again take action against businesses operating skill-based gaming machines, some Virginia lawmakers want to make them legal.

In October, the Virginia Supreme Court lifted an injunction that barred police from taking legal action against businesses housing them. Soon after, municipalities began setting dates when enforcement against businesses housing the machines would begin. Some of those business owners say the ban should continue until the legality of the machines is spelled out by Virginia lawmakers.

At the same time, lawmakers are expected to decide whether daily fantasy sports pick’em-style games are a form of sports betting.

Cities and counties can now decide when to begin enforcement

There are currently three Virginia casinos:

The skill-based games in question are not in the casinos. They can be found in bars, truck stops and convenience stores across the state.

Originally, the ban on the machines went into effect in 2020. Soon after, an injunction was enacted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It barred enforcement of the ban. The court lifted that ban in October, sending shockwaves across the state.

It was then up to each city and county to decide how and when to begin enforcement. Some began immediately, informing businesses to get rid of the machines or face legal action. Others, like the town of Lynchburg, set Jan. 1 as the day law enforcement would begin taking action against businesses housing the machines.

In Virginia Beach, the enforcement process is beginning with public education, Officer Jude Brenya of the Virginia Beach Police Department said in an interview with WTKR.

“We’re trying to take that education route and let them know, ‘Hey, the laws have changed.’ As officers go around and as complaints come in, we’re going to look for compliance. And if that compliance doesn’t get anywhere, then that’s when we’ll result in issuing citations and enforcement.”

The official first day of enforcement in Virginia Beach was Nov. 26.

Some business owners calling on lawmakers to legalize skill-based machines

With enforcement now possible across the state, some lawmakers and business owners want to legalize and regulate the skill-based machines. The business owners say they operate in a “gray” area of the law that does not specifically outlaw the machines.

They contend that businesses rely on the extra income these machines bring in. That was outlined in a letter written by 11 senators and delegates.

“Small businesses in our communities are reeling and fearful that they may be forced to lay off employees or even close their doors for good without the income and stability these games provide,” the letter read. “We collectively request that your administration and the departments it oversees delay enforcement of the skill games currently in operation until the (Legislature) can convene in 2024 to develop clarity.”

Boyd Melchor, who owns Kelly’s Tavern, told WTKR that enforcement of this ban is coming at a bad time.

“We’ve seen an instant decline when we unplugged these machines and it’s wreaking havoc on our industry right now. But it’s also a bad time of year. The employees aren’t getting the tips out of these things, we’re not selling the products that we’d normally be selling. Things are definitely slower right now – bad time of year to be doing this.”

Some VA lawmakers say there are enough gambling options in the state

One such adversary for skill-based gaming is state Sen. Adam Ebbin, who will be the chairman of the Senate committee that will hear the argument for these skill games. He made it clear he feels there are enough gambling options and these are not needed.

“I think we’ve gone far enough on gaming.”

Republican state Sen. Bryce Reeves told WVTF that businesses have another gambling option they can turn to.

“Do they have a place in the marketplace? Absolutely. Did they help keep small business owners afloat during COVID? 100%. Do most of those small businesses already have a gambling institution in their facilities? They sure do; it’s called the lottery. But people don’t equate the lottery to gambling, but that’s what it is.”

Skill game manufacturers are also opposed to online casinos, as they view mobile gaming as another source of competition in addition to brick-and-mortar casinos. So, if Virginia online casinos are ever considered for legalization, skill game operators will lobby hard against it.

Virginia lawmakers also looking at DFS pick’em-style games

Lawmakers in the commonwealth are also looking at prohibiting DFS games that resemble Virginia sports betting.

In pursuit of this goal, Virginia Del. Wren Williams asked for an official opinion to be submitted by Virginia Attorney General Jason S. Miyares.

Miyares was asked if fantasy sports games that are played individually against the house should be defined as sports betting or fantasy sports. His official written opinion left no room for interpretation.

“It is my opinion that, because fantasy contests require multiple customers competing against each other, a gambling arrangement that involves customers betting on athletes’ performance metrics against an operator’s established baseline, and not the other participants, constitutes sports betting as defined in Virginia code … ”

This official opinion by the AG does not change the law, but it does provide a foundation to work from. Lawmakers can now use this definition provided by Miyares to construct legislation to change the way these pick’em games are designated.

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T.J. McBride

T.J. McBride is a writer and reporter based in Denver. He is a Nuggets beat writer and also covers the regulated gambling industry across the U.S. His byline can be seen at ESPN, FiveThirtyEight, Bleacher Report and more.

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