With Casinos Closed, Poker Tournaments Bet on Digital

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Photo: WPT Enterprises/ TheWrap

With Casinos Closed, Poker Tournaments Bet on Digital

“Online has been a savior for the World Poker Tour, and it’ll continue to keep us going strong during this time,” WPT Enterprises president Adam Pliska says

As Las Vegas casinos remain closed during the coronavirus pandemic, virtual poker tournaments broadcast on social platforms like Facebook Watch, Twitch and YouTube are growing in popularity.

Although the Nevada Gaming Control Board, which oversees all gambling activity in Vegas, released procedures for casino reopenings last week, the Board said there is not yet an official reopening date. Two of the industry’s largest poker sites, Poker Central and World Poker Tour, have shifted their events online in lieu of packed casinos.

“Even pre-COVID, these sites had been around forever and needed new users, and Twitch was a new way to acquire new customers,” Scott Ball, president of marketing group End Game Talent and former global head of poker partnerships for Twitch, said.

PokerCentral said its direct-to-consumer streaming video on demand offering PokerGO saw annual subscriptions up 272% in April from the month prior but would not disclose specific subscriber counts. World Poker Tour said its over-the-top viewership was up 125% in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same period last year.

Poker Central’s online platform, partypoker, was launched in 2001 to host poker competitions ranging from amateurs to pros and has been key to the survival of its events business. The company also owns the rights to U.S. poker tournaments including the World Series of Poker, which it bought from ESPN in 2017.

PokerGO broadcasts virtual poker tournaments on traditional linear channels, as well as Facebook, YouTube and Twitch, a platform usually reserved for gamers and esports streamers. The company has streamed on Twitch for roughly two years, Poker Central chief business officer J.R. McCabe told TheWrap.

For the first time, WPT moved the competitions it typically would hold in casinos worldwide onto partypoker, and will hold the WPT Online Championship from May 10-26 on the platform. The World Poker Tour’s WPT Final Tables event will also broadcast on PokerGO and FOX Sports.

The WPT Online event was “our first official WPT series to take place exclusively online to a global network of players,” WPT Enterprises president Adam Pliska said. “So far, the numbers are doing well and we expect the WPT Online Championship to be our largest field in 18 seasons of WPT Main Events.”

McCabe said Poker Central moved a key summer event, the Super High Roller Bowl (May 23- June 1) and several other competitions onto partypoker in lieu of physical events. The company decided to move forward with online competition after its Poker Masters Online tournament gained enough interest to double the prize pool to $35.4 million. The tournament was held online April 12-26 because of social distancing mandates.

“After a successful Poker Masters Online tournament, we knew we had to continue the momentum with an online Super High Roller Bowl series in lieu of a live tournament this year,” McCabe said.

Pliska said WPT hit record viewers in both linear and OTT syndication during its first quarter this year. WPT Studios, which produces the content, increased syndication by 25% nationwide in first quarter 2020 by inking new deals with AT&T, Cox Sports, and Sinclair Networks, among others.

According to Pliska, OTT viewership hit 8.2 million viewers in first quarter 2020, up 125% annually. WPT distributes its content on PlutoTV, SamsungTV and Xumo. In addition, he said that more people are buying into WPT’s virtual poker gaming subscriptions, with virtual currency sales on its ClubWPT platform growing 68% annually in the first quarter of 2020 and new registrations up 39%.

“It’s clear thousands of people have been visiting the site who are new to the site since the pandemic in these last couple of months, and that will drive revenues,” Pliska said. McCabe pointed out that fans are clamoring for poker stars to do live-stream events on social platforms as other entertainment productions remain on hold.

“We don’t think just one platform is a smart strategy. For us Twitch is important and part of the mix,” McCabe added.

Poker is steadily growing its audience on Twitch, said Doron Nir, chief executive of streaming analytics group StreamElements.

Since it was given its own Twitch category in 2015, “poker has continued to increase in popularity, almost doubling in hours watched when you compare April of this year to April of 2019 when it recently crossed the 7 million hours mark,” Nir said.

An April charity celebrity poker tournament livestreamed on Twitch helped boost those numbers, “in addition to the shelter-in-place mandate that has driven up viewership of live-streaming across the board,” Nir added.

Although table games are growing in popularity, Ball said they still don’t come close to the amount of gaming viewers.

“The market share is very small, Twitch is massive and casino stuff is so specific,” Ball said.

But even if table games don’t command a large share of Twitch, it can still be lucrative.

“It is a small market share but to (poker sites) it’s the most valuable market share in the world because it’s the cheapest way to acquire new users by far,” Ball said.

Similarly to video gaming, gambling firms are finding that celebrities and athletes playing games on live streams in their newfound free time brings new viewers to the sport.

“The influencers of the sport are always asked to do more,” McCabe said of Poker Central’s player roster. “Social (poker) fans always want to see more of the influencer-based poker players.”

WPT’s hosts Lynn Gilmartin, Tony Dunst, Vince Van Patten and Matt Savage each frequently stream live virtual poker matches on Twitch. The platform brings a natural cross-over between esports and gaming talent, which is being felt more lately as everyone has to stream.

“There’s a lot of influencers being paid to play poker to expose a new audience, and there’s certain poker streamers that have esports backgrounds so there’s a reasonable amount of cross-pollination,” Ball said.

Pliska said “online has been a savior for the World Poker Tour, and it’ll continue to keep us going strong during this time.”

WPT and other gambling programmers are eager to keep competition broadcasting to fill in the gaps left by live sports.

“The WPT TV show continues to be a key asset for global programming as new content to replace sports on television,” even as WPT faces its “greatest challenge across 18 seasons,” Pliska said.

Casino closures were mandated across Nevada and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy closed each of Atlantic City’s nine casinos March 16. Roughly 460 American Indian-owned casinos shuttered temporarily, as well. Establishments that are unable to move events online are facing mounting debts — the Indian casinos requested an $18 billion federal bailout in March according to Reuters, and Atlantic City estimated in April it loses $540 million each month casinos remain dark.

Although online tournaments are seeing a growth in engagement and bets, the lack of live events is still hurting organizers’ budgets.

“Ad sales are directly impacted” by the pandemic, McCabe said. “If there aren’t live events that shifts where the ad dollars are placed. It’s a domino effect — the events that don’t allow for TV production or distribution don’t allow ad sales to follow.”

McCabe said that for both Poker Central and others, this “affects both content creation and revenue generation … this entire pandemic has had a domino effect on the entire sports business.”

The sustained closure of over 15 casinos and hotels on Las Vegas’ typically bustling Strip is unprecedented — even after 9/11 and the 2017 shooting at a music festival casinos were only closed temporarily.

Nevada Gaming Control Board senior research analyst Michael Lawton said the Board anticipates “it will be a minimum of 12 to 18 months to return pre-COVID economic status.”

But the online gambling audience and player base is only expected to grow even if casino closures are prolonged.

“The interest will definitely increase; it was growing before COVID happened, so I have no reason to think it won’t continue to grow,” Ball said.

Samson Amore