In a press release today, Mediarex Sports & Entertainment (MSE) – owners of the Global Poker Index (GPI) brand – announced that they’d secured $4.9 million dollars in funding to pursue the development of poker as a spectator sport. Towards this end, the GPI has announced that as of early 2016, it will be launching an initiative called the Global Poker League (GPL).
The focus of the press release is on the funding and therefore light on details about how the GPL itself will operate, but we spoke with MSE CEO Alexandre Dreyfus about it. He says that the goal is to produce something radically different from and parallel to the current tournament poker model. He stresses that the goal is not to compete with poker as we know it, but to create a complementary model with a shared player base but a different focus. The economics of poker as we know it today mean that card rooms and casinos need to put the players first, balancing the experience of recreational players against the profitability of professionals. By contrast, the GPL will seek to produce an alternative paradigm in which the branding and marketing of teams and individual players is the focus, rather than on the rake collected by casinos and the prizes won by the players.
As you can see in our latest PR, there is no mention of the words : casino or gambling. #WeSportifyPoker
— Alexandre Dreyfus (@alex_dreyfus) July 14, 2015
A draft-based model with persistent teams
The GPL will draw heavily on concepts common to North American professional sports, starting with the way the league itself will be formed. Dreyfus envisions there being between 40 and 80 players to start with, drafted by team owners. In order to be eligible to be drafted, a player will have to be somewhere near the top of the GPI leaderboard (perhaps Top 1000, although this is still being discussed) and then opt in. Managers will then have a virtual “salary cap” used to spend on eligible players in order to form their team, similar to the system in place for various fantasy sports.
Just as with other sports, teams will be persistent between years, but with ever-changing lineups as players are traded, dropped and drafted. Dreyfus says that the draft itself is intended to be an engaging part of the viewing experience, especially once a few seasons have been played and fans have begun to form loyalties to particular teams.
Once the season is underway, it will play out in the same way as other sports, with a round-robin style regular season, after which the top teams will advance to elimination playoffs and eventually a final in which the season champion will be crowned. Then, after a break, there will be another draft and a new season will begin.
Less volatility, more recognizability
One of the problems with tournament poker as a spectator sport is that the combination of high variance and large fields means that if you tune in to any given final table, you’re unlikely to see any of the faces that you saw the last time. Once in a while you get someone on a hot run like Anthony Zinno in the last season of the WPT, or Brian Hastings at this summer’s WSOP, thereby drawing everyone’s attention for a while. Inevitably, though, these players will run cold for a while and drop off the radar.
During the online poker boom, persistent marketing of certain key poker players was taken care of by online sites, who drafted teams of sponsored professionals to promote the site and be promoted in turn. As online poker continues to slump, however, many sites are dropping their pros, or replacing them with non-poker celebrities. That means that, except for the most dedicated fans and those of us in the poker media, most people never see enough of any given player to care much about how they do one way or another.
The GPL will aim to fix that problem through its consistent lineups. No longer will fans be stuck watching a final table with seven unknowns and two people they maybe-kind-of remember from somewhere; if your favorite team is scheduled for a match, you know exactly which players will be showing up. Repeated matches between the teams will mean that there is time for rivalries and interpersonal dramas to develop as they do in other sports, producing the sort of persistent, ongoing narrative which is largely absent from poker under the current model.
Focus on China
As mentioned in the press release, a large part of the focus of the league will be placed on the Chinese market. Dreyfus pointed to several indicators that China is poised for a poker boom, including the fact that play-money poker on social gaming sites is immensely popular there and that the average member of the Chinese public is more likely than other markets to see tournament poker as a mind sport like chess rather than a form of gambling.
He’s not the only one thinking this way, either; the World Poker Tour (WPT) was recently acquired by Chinese company Ourgame. Even prior to the acquisition, Ourgame worked with the WPT to organize two stops in China, so they’ve clearly identified a demand and are working to tap the huge but hard-to-penetrate market there.
“Significant” online component
Dreyfus told us that the GPL will feature a “significant” online component, although the exact details are still being worked out. There are likely several reasons for this.
For one thing, the distribution model will – at least for the first few seasons – be online streaming rather than broadcast television. The league is highly experimental, so it will have to demonstrate itself to be popular before networks will show any interest. Dreyfus is also adamant that the events be shown live, expressing the opinion that this is a prerequisite for something to be considered a sport. This of course creates scheduling issues for television, as it’s impossible to know in advance how long a tournament will run.
Since streaming is therefore the only option to begin with, it makes a certain amount of sense to go digital from the start. It’s also a money-saving tactic, as a marketing and branding-based revenue model will obviously take some time to gather momentum, and he does not want to create a franchise that will run out of capital and fizzle out before it begins generating a profit.
Finally, there is the aforementioned popularity of social gaming in the Chinese market, and of eSports in neighboring markets like South Korea. The fans in these markets are more likely to have experienced poker in a digital form, compared to the United States, where live poker has a long history and online poker is still, for the most part, illegal.
Fantasy Poker Manager tie-in
Finally, Dreyfus added that another goal of the GPL is to tie in with MSE’s Fantasy Poker Manager (FPM). FPM works along the same lines as other fantasy sports, allowing users to draft lineups of players and compete on leaderboards, once again using the GPI points system.
Although moderately popular, FPM currently suffers from a couple of problems related to the volatility of the current tournament poker scene. As discussed earlier, the nature of tournament poker is that any given player’s final table appearances tend to be few and far between, so there is an issue with name recognition. Many casual poker fans would be interested in something like FPM, but it’s difficult to enjoy drafting a team and following its results when you don’t recognize very many of the names on the list.
Furthermore, because poker players are free agents who follow their instincts about where the money is, there’s no way of knowing which players are even going to bother showing up for events; anyone who drafted Phil Ivey this year, for instance, will have been mighty disappointed that he decided to stay in Macau playing cash games instead of attending the WSOP.
Assuming the GPL takes off in any way, its persistent teams would solve that problem as well and form a natural synergy with FPM; name recognition and guaranteed player appearances would make participating in FPM more tempting, while having one’s own personally-drafted team of players to root for will produce an incentive for people to keep tuning in week after week.
Overall, there are still a lot of details to be worked out before the GPL launch next year, and it may prove to be a tough sell for some. Still, it sounds like it could prove to be interesting, and we’ll keep you up to date as more information becomes available.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.