The schedule for this year’s Spring Championship of Online Poker (SCOOP) was released earlier this week, and one sense, it’s nothing special. No new formats have been introduced this time around and there’s a whole lot of No Limit Hold’em to be seen, with the most common variations being short-handed tables and the ever-popular progressive knockouts.
The total guarantees for the series have been increased to $55 million, up from $40 million last year, but this was made possible largely through the addition of a massive Phase tournament as the first event of the series; SCOOP-01 will have starting flights running for a full week before the rest of the series kicks off on May 7, and additional flights most days before reaching its second phase on the final day, May 22.
The main difference between this year’s schedule and last year’s is a scaling back of sorts. Although the series is quantitatively larger than ever before, the main qualitative changes have been subtractions. Gone are last year’s abundant re-entries, as well as the Stud Hi and Ante Up events, for instance.
That’s not to say there are no gimmick formats at all, however. Win the Button makes three appearances, in the form of one No-Limit Omaha event, plus two No-Limit Hold’em: a lower-buy-in Progressive Knockout and a higher buy-in Freezeout. Back by popular demand is the 3-Max Turbo Zoom Progressive Knockout, which is sure to bring out all the action junkies, plus a 100% Progressive Knockout tournament (that is, with no regular prize pool at all) similar to the one that ran during this winter’s Turbo Championship of Online Poker (TCOOP).
Although anyone hoping for novelty is likely somewhat disappointed by the schedule, PokerStars’s most frequent critics – the denizens of the TwoPlusTwo forums – are unusually approving for a change. That’s unsurprising, however, as the most frequent complaint heard there when tentative schedules are presented for feedback is that there are too many mixed game and oddball format events, and not enough straightforward full ring or six-max No-Limit Hold’em.
Many small tweaks were also made at the request of users there: Raising of certain buy-ins, keeping the 3-Max Turbo Zoom Progressive Knockout event, and so forth. Overall, it seems that PokerStars has attempted to give the more serious contingent of players what they want this year, and that effort has been noticed.
Not the only game in town
One likely reason for this year’s approach is competition with rival series, in particular PartyPoker’s Powerfest. Starting last year, PartyPoker, 888poker and MPN all began running their own tournament series during the three major annual events at PokerStars: TCOOP, SCOOP and the World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP). All of these seemed to benefit from the strategy and have stuck with it in 2017. The thinking, presumably, is that many professional and aspiring-professional players step away from cash games and other obligations and dedicate those periods of time to tournaments; when the currently running tournaments at PokerStars are unappealing, or they’ve busted out, presumably they are likely to open up other sites for alternative options.
PartyPoker has recently been extremely aggressive in attempting to re-establish itself as a go-to site for tournaments. Its weekly Sunday lineup, historically headlined by the $109 Heavyweight: Main Event and $530 High Roller, has been expanded to include a $215 Heavyweight: Title Fight and $2,600 Super High Roller, and additional experiments are ongoing.
Similarly, each of its Powerfest series has been bigger than the last. The latest, which of course will be running alongside SCOOP, promises $20 million in guarantees; that’s over 35% what PokerStars is offering, which is no small promise given that there’s a more than tenfold difference between the two sites’ cash game traffic.
One particularly noteworthy aspect of Powerfest is that although there is generally a wide range of buy-ins available, there is extremely little variety in terms of game type and format. Powerfest events are almost entirely vanilla No-Limit Hold’em, and most of them full ring at that. This, combined with the sheer volume of events, makes Powerfest appealing to high-volume, multi-tabling tournament players.
Neither TCOOP nor WCOOP seem to have been significantly hurt by this newfound competition, presumably because they differentiate in other ways; TCOOP is of course dedicated to turbos exclusively, while WCOOP features higher buy-in events than any site outside of PokerStars can offer. SCOOP, on the other hand, is positioned much more directly in competition with Powerfest, especially its Low and Medium stakes tiers, buy-ins for which very closely match those of Powerfest.
Extending an olive branch to the TwoPlusTwo crowd with the sort of SCOOP schedule they’ve been asking for may indicate that PokerStars is starting to rethink its overall strategy a little bit. 2016 was a year of aggressive changes which were unmistakably designed to make the site less appealing to high-volume grinders. Other sites, particularly PartyPoker, capitalized by running promotions incentivizing the same sort of high-volume play PokerStars was attempting to rein in.
There have been a few signs lately that PokerStars may have decided that it doesn’t actually want its professional contingent to leave entirely. For one thing, there’s the recently-announced All Stars league, which will let profitable high-stakes players play rake-free, but only against one another.
It also came out this week that PokerStars is dropping its expensive marketing contracts with soccer stars Neymar Jr. and Cristiano Ronaldo; where those marketing dollars go instead remains to be seen, but it’s obvious that this sort of celebrity endorsement matters only to the most recreational of players, so almost anything else PokerStars could do would be of greater value to its regulars.
It’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever see PokerStars go back to its old ways of courting high-volume, net-withdrawing players. It may be the case, however, that they’ve realized they cranked the knob too far the other way, and are starting to dial it back somewhat.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.