The World Series of Poker and the poker world as a whole missed out on several great opportunities over the last couple of days.
A weak November Nine
What most people have been talking about are all the great potential final table storylines that fell by the wayside. Rivals Fedor Holz and Brian Hastings could have had a battle for the ages, but both busted out without ever facing each other. Daniel Negreanu and Justin Schwartz would have made for an interesting pair as well, but first Schwartz got coolered set-over-set, then Negreanu got drawn out on to go out in 11th. Kelly Minkin looked to be on course to being the first woman at a modern-era Main Event final table, but came up just short of making Day 7.
Instead, we’ve got a fairly ho-hum November Nine compared to last year’s. Several countries are represented, and “young versus old” may prove to be a storyline, but that’s about it. Most of the real drama played out on Days 6 and 7, and that brings me to the real tragedy in all of this.
Some great poker no one gets to see
What’s really a shame is not that a lot of great and interesting players busted out, it’s that no one who wasn’t at the Rio yesterday will ever see any of that play out in realtime and in full detail. Around the world, people were obsessively refreshing the chip counts, reading update posts by the in-house team and digging through Twitter for details, all the while wishing desperately that the action had been live-streamed, at least for one of the tables.
Instead, what we’ll get, eventually, is ESPN’s version of things, heavily edited for a casual and mostly-clueless audience. It’s not surprising that ESPN wants exclusive broadcast rights for the Main Event, nor that the WSOP would give it to them. It’s natural to worry that streaming the Day 6 and Day 7 action would eat into their eventual viewership when the time comes. Natural, but utterly wrong.
There isn’t just one type of poker fan, not by a long shot. Some people are into televised poker but not into live streams. There are several types of people who are into live streams, but probably not into televised poker. Probably there are also some people who enjoy both, but there, I would bet that you’d find that the two methods of watching probably support rather than cannibalize each other.
Let’s take a look at just some of the reasons people watch poker:
Human Interest: This is where edited-for-television poker excels. You can skip all the walks, the blind steals, the pots won by a continuation bet, all that dry stuff, and focus entirely on the bad beats, all-in races, huge bluffs, table talk and, of course, the big prize at the end. The people who are looking for this are mostly casual players and non-players; they need fancy graphics, commentary pitched at a low level and fast pacing – all the things that a company like ESPN can provide in spades.
Strategy: Lots of people like to watch poker to try to learn something. These are mostly aspiring pros, semipros and grinders. A lot of them are going to be online players, so an online distribution medium makes more sense than television for them. Also, for them, the most important thing is not the visuals, but knowledge of the hole cards and preferably some commentary pitched at a high level. For this group, you could almost do away with the cameras entirely and just have an audio stream, as long the commentators have access to the hole cards via RFID.
Personal Stake: Almost anyone playing in a tournament has a few people out there rooting for them, and the deeper someone runs, the bigger that rail tends to get. Pro players also tend to have a lot of side bets in effect, further increasing the number of people with a keen interest in keeping up to date on their performance. What’s important to these people is real-time information on the outcome of hands, chip counts and an interactive format which allows them to decide who they want to pay attention to. Text-based live updates and chip counts are fine here, although the visuals are a plus if a stream exists; commentary is of considerably lesser importance. Pre-recorded televised broadcasts are useless for these people, however, because by the time the show airs, they will already know the result.
Secondary Media/Blogosphere: Then there are people like me, who are keeping up to date on the progress of a tournament because we’re in search of a story for our website, blog, podcast, forums post or what have you. We’re the smallest and arguably most under-served of all these groups, but perhaps we shouldn’t be; after all, we’re valuable not just as viewers, but for our role in generating attention and customer retention for the industry as a whole. For us, the key thing is that we get as much detail as possible, either in real time or soon after the fact, and with easy retrieval. It’s in this last regard that pretty much all existing modes of distribution fail for us: streams go down after the event is complete and are often only archived after a delay, if at all, while live updates don’t include hole card information.
The point is that each of these types of person is best served by a different format, and they’re not going to tune in to a format poorly suited to them just because it’s the only thing available. Someone only interested in strategy is not going to tune in to a heavily-edited broadcast with beginner-level commentary any more than the casual, human-interest poker fan is going to sit at his computer refreshing chip counts. In some cases, people may not even have a choice in the matter: not everyone can afford to stay up late to watch a tournament play out in realtime, while plenty of young, internet-savvy people don’t even own a television these days.
The advantage of multiple channels
At the same time, some people are interested in poker for more than one reason. Speaking for myself, I’m usually partly tuning in to find something to write about, but also to hear some strategic commentary for the sake of my own game. Whenever there’s a live stream, I load it up, but I’m often either working, playing poker myself, making dinner or taking care of my son, so a lot of the time I’m just listening to the audio and not watching the visuals at all. You can equally imagine people with any other combination of the above reasons for watching, listening or reading.
What this means is that multiple distribution methods can boost one another; if I’m listening to the audio of a live stream and hear something interesting, I’m going to go check the live updates on the website to find the hand in question and bookmark it to reference for my article the next day. Someone who reads that article because they’re interested in my analysis for strategic reasons might then decide to tune in to the live stream themselves for the next day of the tournament. If that viewer finds themselves rooting for one particular player, then they’re likely to watch televised appearances by that player later on, or search for highlight videos on YouTube, or what have you. Interest begets interest.
This is not unique to poker, of course. Whatever the industry, when you attempt to force people into consuming your product through one particular channel, you might achieve some success, but for every person grudgingly jumping through the hoops, there are ten more potential customers that you’ve lost and who you’ll never even know about. Poker desperately needs a boost in the level of attention it receives, but to get there, the big operators need to understand that poker is a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and you need to keep as many doors open as possible if you want them all to come in.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.