Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Poker eyes renaissance during sports lockdown


With Asia’s sportsbook operators scrambling for solutions as the global sports calendar remains in lockdown, one often forgotten vertical is back in the limelight.

During the mid-2000s, poker was a key driver of the online gaming revolution, but it has struggled for growth for much of the last decade.

While Asia’s grey markets do not report online gaming revenue figures, the story from elsewhere is clear: with no major sporting events to bet on and a large share of the world’s population stuck indoors, poker is enjoying a serious upswing.

In the US state of New Jersey, where sports betting revenues for March were down 22 percent on the previous month, online poker revenues more than doubled compared to February.

It was a similar story in Italy, where online tournament poker revenues increased an incredible 123 percent for March versus the same month in 2019. Sports betting saw a 14 percent drop for the same period.

And such is the excitement in France that regulator ARJEL has issued a warning to operators about offering overzealous poker bonuses to players during the lockdown.

Asian opportunity

“There’s certainly a big opportunity and we’ve already seen a sharp rise in the market for poker,” Dmitry Starostenkov, CEO of EvenBet Gaming, told AGB. EvenBet has launched nearly 100 poker rooms over the past 10 years, offering 33 different game types to approximately five million active players.

“Given the shutdown of live sports, players are looking for alternative experiences to keep them entertained, while operators are sourcing additional products to keep a regular flow of revenues during this difficult period of business.”

Within Asia, Starostenkov highlights India as the key market. “Due to the regulatory landscape with poker considered a game of skill in certain states, poker’s been on the rise for more than two years now and there’s still room for growth and new projects.”

Elsewhere, he notes that “encouraging signs” from places including the Philippines could lead to the regulatory changes required for poker to have “every chance to thrive in Asia”.

“The demand now is huge, especially for operators and vendors that are ready to meet local audience needs in terms of language localization, design and games preferences,” he added.

And there are signs that several markets in the region are beginning to embrace the game. In Macau, land-based Texas Hold’em poker reported a 32 percent year-on-year increase in gross revenue for 2019, albeit to a relatively small US$55.9m, according to Statista.

While this year’s circuit has been suspended, last year the World Poker Tour held live tournament events in casinos in Russia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, India and Cambodia. 

And the World Poker Tour itself was acquired by Hong Kong-listed Ourgame International Holdings for US$35 million back in 2015, before being sold on in 2018.

For Kim Lund, an online poker industry veteran who now runs his own startup games studio, a local approach will be key to pushing poker forward in the region.

“Before saying anything it is important to clarify what we're talking about when we're talking about ‘poker’,” Lund told AGB. 

“This could include western forms like Texas Hold’em provided as gambling, but also social poker apps and non-western variations like Dou Dizhu. I think this is especially relevant in Asian markets where cultural and regulatory differences form a different landscape. Approaching the market from a strict European set of eyes is bound to lead to some missed opportunities.”

Lund notes that that the western form of the game does have “amazing global appeal and reach”, and popularity has surged online where regulation has allowed.

He points to China, where a booming social poker market - which often served as a proxy for gambling sites - developed prior to a crackdown in 2018. “The underlying demand is there,” he said. "But I welcomed the crackdown. The game doesn't need to be served that way."

All in on poker’s future

In the mature markets of western Europe and north America, poker has faced something of an ecosystem problem in recent years, with a small number of serious players creating a challenging environment for new and casual participants.

For the game to avoid this problem in Asia, there is an opportunity to think beyond the traditional. 

“Ever since it first emerged, online poker has been an industry dedicated to trying to replicate the brick-and-mortar experience,” said Lund. “Poker has been stubbornly traditional and has not really evolved as a digital game.”

Lund suggests it looks towards the esports sector for inspiration, as he has done with his poker-based, made-for-esports mobile game Hands of Victory.

“Younger generations of gamers have developed expectations and demands that we don't think a traditional brick-and-mortar replica poker game properly serves. We're also taking poker mechanics and injecting them into what will essentially become a fantasy-themed card battler called Turncloak. Nowhere does that type of strategy make more sense than in Asia,” Lund said.

There are signs others are following this path. When the World Poker Tour was acquired by Black Ridge in 2018, it was bought alongside other esports and entertainment assets and merged into a new entity, Allied Esports.

By better positioning poker within the fast-growing esports space, there is a significant opportunity to engage the next wave of poker players.

“Overall I'm super optimistic about poker's future in Asia. I think the massive surge in activity the sector has seen in the wake of the Covid-19 tragedy speaks both to the game's almost eternal appeal, but also suggests that there is unmet demand in the ‘normal’ market,” said Lund.

“The European market has suffered from gambling companies overly commoditizing its games. Something tells me that the even more powerful gamer tradition in key Asian markets will prevent that from happening.”

 

Asia Gaming Brief is a news and intelligence service providing up to date market information for worldwide executives on relevant gaming issues in Asia.

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