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IN-DEPTH 9 January 2019
The WSOP fights back
Harrison Sayers explores the revival of the World Series of Poker and how streaming services such as Twitch are key to fuelling the resurgence of the tournament
By Gambling Insider

Take yourself back to 2011; Adele’s “Someone Like You” is on the radio, people are watching Glee, Prince William and Kate Middleton are celebrating their fairytale wedding, and online poker has all but vanished overnight in the US.

A federal criminal case, centering on several online poker operators’ alleged violation of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), came to an end on 15 April 2011. United States v. Scheinberg resulted in PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Cereus Network, operator of UltimateBet, withdrawing their cash game offerings online, on a day that would later be dubbed in the poker industry as “Black Friday.”

Coinciding with a civil case, United States vs. PokerStars, et al, which saw $3bn of assets seized from the same three companies, the booming popularity of poker had disappeared overnight. One of the fastest-growing verticals in the US gaming industry had almost completely disappeared.

Initially, some analysts thought the effects of Black Friday might be contained to the US online poker sector. However, as time went on and more and more casinos continued to remove poker tables, European online casino rooms struggled to find players. Even poker’s crown jewel, the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event, saw its entrant numbers dwindle.

But, lo and behold, the WSOP seemed to be reaching its pre-2011 heights once again in 2018. This year’s event saw 7,874 participants, making it the second-largest field in the event’s history. Still lagging behind the 2006 field of 8,773 players, this was regardless the largest turnout since UIGEA was introduced in the same year. So just why is this supposedly dying game and its most famous tournament making such a grand resurgence?

Matt Kaufman, consultant at Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, told Gambling Insider: “The average age of a Main Event entrant has increased every year since 2012. The core player demographic that was initially swept up by the poker boom in 2003 is getting older, and by extension probably earns more in discretionary income, on average, than that same group did years back.

“The wave of young players that took to poker in the mid-2000s is now growing increasingly more likely to be able to afford an expensive poker tournament buy-in and that trend should continue in the coming years. That change, and general economic shifts have certainly played a role in the WSOP’s recent resurgence.

“The age increase, of course, also suggests the WSOP is having difficulty acquiring younger players, which can be directly attributed to the availability, or lack thereof, of online poker. A large number of players of all ages used to be exposed to the game itself online and, in many cases, players won their entries to live events via online satellite tournaments. While online poker still exists, the market in the US is a fraction of what it was prior to Black Friday in 2011.”

The general popularity of poker has yet to reach its former heights and the ageing demographic of WSOP players does pose a risk to the future of the tournament, despite it currently working in favour of the tournament, as those players can finally afford expensive buy-ins. It is clear the WSOP can only count on its huge fanbase which it acquired from the pre-Black Friday disaster, for only a while longer.

However, there are also new challenges facing the WSOP and poker in Las Vegas in general. Since 2011, Macau has solidified itself as the high-stakes gambling capital of the world. Other verticals such as daily fantasy sports (DFS) have taken off in the US and other poker strongholds such as India. Dealing with these problems and finding new means to attract poker players back to events such as the WSOP has been the most pressing issue in poker.

Dr Mark R. Johnson, an ex-poker player and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta, explained to Gambling Insider: “Although the stakes of the biggest games still climb, the games themselves have moved to Macau, pulling top players along with them. Other top professionals have drifted not to East Asia, but rather to DFS platforms, offering potential for profit predicated on many of the same skills as poker. Online poker is gradually returning to prominence but it’s now slightly more mundane and less likely to produce striking, one-of-a-kind gambling events that resonate for an entire generation of players. Those most spectacular and dramatic of combatants have long moved away.

“On the other hand, online poker is being reshaped by live poker broadcasts now available, for free, over the internet. On market-leading live-streaming platform Twitch.tv, millions of spectators view live streams of some of the most skilled players on the planet showing off their poker abilities, with record winnings earned – live – in a single session sitting at around half a million dollars. Throughout these broadcasts, viewers see every decision the player makes, with their cards face up, and their thought processes explained on-air. Nowhere before in history has poker been broadcast, live, to such large crowds so regularly and for such high stakes. Live-streaming is now an integral part of the new online poker ecosystem, opening up poker to entirely new audiences who might have otherwise never stumbled upon it.”

There have without doubt been numerous developments since Black Friday which have threatened the WSOP and poker’s popularity. But new means of online streaming, increased online accessibility and a strong legacy fan base created prior to 2011 have all helped slowly revive the game and its major tournaments.

The Stars Group has been the driving force behind online poker’s resurgence. The operator has managed to return huge profits off the back of its poker businesses, leading to its acquisition of Sky Betting and Gaming for $4.7bn in 2018. In its latest financial report, revenues were up 35% year on year, proving poker can definitely still be profitable.

Eric Hollreiser, VP of Corporate Communications for The Stars Group, told Gambling Insider: “Poker is constantly exploring new media to ensure the game remains relevant, even as it competes against relatively new forms of entertainment. Twitch, for example,is a game changer for us and for online poker. A live streaming service for gamers to commentate on their own game-play to a chat community, it now attracts more than 15 million viewers daily, and it’s still growing. We believe it’s the most engaging and fun way to enjoy online poker yet – and its versatility means it also brings a new dimension to live programming.

“During the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure in January, which we live streamed, more than 1.5 million unique viewers visited our stream. At the time of writing, poker ranks 23rd in the most popular games on Twitch with our most popular streamers attracting thousands of viewers often for hours on end.

“Twitch represents a new model for poker promotion, for player engagement and for the poker economy. It is connecting withnew audiences in a thoroughly modern way that fosters greater community and injects spontaneity into the viewing experience.”
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