2017 was a complicated year for poker: full of changes in some regards, but also as many steps backwards as forwards.
Several sites revamped their loyalty programs, most notably PokerStars and PartyPoker. PokerStars persisted in its strategy of focusing on “fun” and the recreational segment of players, while PartyPoker moved against the trend, rolling out a direct rakeback offer reminiscent of the boom years.
PokerStars has reversed its decision to dismantle its regional live tournament leagues – the European Poker Tour (EPT), Latin American Poker Tour (LAPT) and Asia-Pacific Poker Tour (APPT). The PokerStars Festivals and PokerStars Championships with which it had replaced them failed to draw out much in the way of crowds.
Power Up was launched at PokerStars, and got rave reviews from the critics, including myself. It failed to find much popularity with players, however, and its future is very much up in the air.
The Global Poker League’s first season turned out to be somewhat of a failure, and the second season has been postponed as a result. The project isn’t dead, however; it will be back at somepoint, reimagined as the “Global Players League” and incorporating esports other than poker. At the same time, the PokerGo streaming service went live and will likely be a big help to the GPL when it makes its return.
On the legal front, there was a shift away from the idea of segregated markets. France, Italy, Spain and Portugal finally managed to agree to start sharing liquidity between themselves, and the United States will likely see a four-way compact between Nevada, Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. On the other hand, some countries – most significantly Australia – elected to put an end to online poker altogether.
All in all, then, 2017 was very much a mixed bag for poker sites and poker players, but still a big improvement on the pervasive negativity of 2016. The question now is what 2018 will look like. I have a few predictions to make.
If there’s one lesson to be learned from 2017, it’s that most players and potential players don’t seem to want anything particularly new or different, and especially not anything too complicated. The lack of enthusiasm for Power Up is the most significant example, but there is also the difference in response to the new rewards systems at PokerStars and PartyPoker.
Power Up is, objectively speaking, a solid product. Looking at concepts that have succeeded in the past, it’s clear that the silent majority of recreational players prefers a faster, more intense experience: 6-max tables have grown in popularity relative to full ring, most sites now offer a fast-fold cash game option, jackpot sit-and-goes (such as Spin & Go) have proven wildly popular, and so forth. More serious players say they prefer higher-skill games where they can enjoy a larger edge. These two desires ordinarily run contrary to each other, but Power Up manages to achieve both at once, so it deserves to succeed on that basis.
But even at launch, Power Up only managed to have about 200 concurrent games running at prime time, and that figure has been cut by more than half in the months since. Officially, the game is still in beta, so PokerStars may be working on a plan to help it find traction when the full rollout comes, but it seems likely that the problem is not with the game itself but with a lack of interest on the part of players in such a large departure from the familiar.
Stars Rewards was an attempt to take a page from social gaming and apply it to poker. The chest-unlocking structure combined with periodic “boosts” was meant to create a retention loop akin to that of free-to-play games; the incentive structure was designed to encourage casual players to play two or three short sessions every day. That doesn’t seem to have happened, though the new system is arguably a success for the site in that it’s spending less money than it was before, but doesn’t seem to be suffering as a result.
Response to PartyPoker’s new system has been much more vocal and more positive, however. Naturally, one big reason for that is the amount of money being given back to players, up to 40% weekly, and whether that proves sustainable for the site is a separate question. That said, the transparency and simplicity of the system is appealing. Players may appreciate random prizes in some contexts, but when it comes to incentivizing volume, there may be a preference for a system in which the player knows what they’re getting.
Less is more
Along similar lines, it looks like the industry has found its ceiling when it comes to the size of promotions and tournament series. PokerStars has already been scaling back most of its recurring promotions for some time now, and this year’s holiday giveaways were so much smaller in scale than previous years that they barely affected traffic at all. Most other major sites haven’t tried anything very ambitious either, and of course PartyPoker devotes so much money to its regular loyalty program and frequent tournament overlays that there’s not much left to run short-term promotions.
Meanwhile, throughout 2017, PartyPoker and 888poker adopted the strategy of running their major tournament series (Powerfest and XL, respectively) at the same time as the three PokerStars “COOPs”: Turbo Championship of Online Poker (TCOOP), Spring Championship of Online Poker (SCOOP) and World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP). All three sites seemed committed to making each series bigger than the last.
There’s a limit to how many events players are willing to play, and to how big guarantees and buy-ins can be made before overlays start occurring. By the time the fall series came around, all three sites were occasionally finding themselves taking significant losses on some of the more ambitious events on their schedules.
Now, 888poker’s January “XL Blizzard” represents a huge scaling back from September’s XL Inferno and PokerStars has elected not to run TCOOP at all, replacing it with a smaller and more varied Winter Series that ran from Christmas Day through this past weekend. Powerfest will still be a big deal with 147 events, but we’ll see if PartyPoker persists in the maximalist approach later in the year, now that its competitors are scaling back.
A similar trend can be seen with live events. In 2016, the last run of the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure before its one-year hiatus, the company tripled the number of events on offer, and added a huge number of small buy-in events with gimmicky formats. Now that it’s been brought back, PokerStars took the exact opposite approach with its new schedule: There are just 31 events on the schedule this year, many of which are satellites to the Main Event or $25,000 High Roller.
This is likely to be a trend we’ll see repeated elsewhere on the live tournament scene, as many series have recently overreached with their schedules, running too many events and leaving some of those events poorly attended as a result. The summer’s WSOP will be bigger than ever, with 78 events, but elsewhere I would expect to see a shift back to tighter schedules, higher buy-ins, and more feeders to those bigger events.
More Pro Retirements
The year has already kicked off with three important pros leaving their positions as PokerStars ambassadors: Vanessa Selbst, Jason Mercier and Felipe Ramos. Of these, only Selbst is actually leaving poker; Mercier will be spending more time raising his child but still playing, and Ramos left because his contract was up and PokerStars was no longer willing to pay him what he felt he was worth.
2017 saw former number-one ranked player in the world Fedor Holz say he was stepping away from the game, and although he’s periodically shown up at high roller events since, it is true that he’s reduced his volume of play significantly. Furthermore, Miikka Anttonen, who Andrew Barber and I interviewed on the PartTimePoker podcast back in December, has announced that whatever happens with his prop bet, he’s done with being a full-time poker professional.
Now that I'm ~50% to win the prop bet, it's probably a pretty good time to announce that whatever happens, I'm done as a full-time poker pro. It remains to be seen whether I'll remain in the scene in some capacity, but I'm done gambling for a living — 10 years was enough.
— Miikka Anttonen (@chuckbasspoker) January 2, 2018
I would expect this to continue to be a trend, particularly among players currently in their 30s. There are a great many such players who rose to prominence during the pre-Black Friday boom years. All of them are now reaching the stage of life where one’s priorities tend to change, just as the game is becoming significantly tougher, edges are getting smaller, and the last of the boom-era sponsorship money is drying up.
In other words, poker’s biggest and arguably best generation of players is collectively reaching a decision point: Commit to poker as a lifetime career, with the risks and sacrifices that entails, or start looking for a new direction. Some will stay, of course, but if even a fraction choose to move on, it will amount to a pretty significant exodus. For many, the likely destination is finance of one form or another: Selbst has said she wants to become a hedge fund manager, Holz is going into venture capital, and many other pros are becoming more and more involved in the world of cryptocurrency.
The combined liquidity of France, Italy, Spain and Portugal will create a new market far larger than any segregated market we’ve seen in the past. Combined daily average traffic for the sites serving that market will be something like 20% of the worldwide total. If the experiment proves successful and the tighter regulation of that market seems advantageous, we could easily see other European countries consider leaving the dot-com market in order to join the new European one.
Between that and the resurrection of the EPT, we can expect Europe to be an even larger focus for the big international operators than it has been in the past. PartyPoker will likely ramp up its live events to compete with the EPT, and the French site Winamax can be expected to be aggressive in promoting itself in Italy and Spain in the hopes of dominating PokerStars there as it does in France.
GGNetwork in the News
You may not have heard of GGNetwork yet, but I expect it will begin making more headlines this year. Until recently, the network focused its marketing on China and the surrounding countries, so was unfamiliar to Western players, except for a few predatory professionals who registered there in the hopes of finding juicy games against high-rolling whales.
In the latter half of 2017, however, the GG began a westward push, launching an English-language flagship skin GGPoker. It has since obtained a license to serve UK customers and begun marketing itself there and in Ireland. It’s still a second-tier operator, only a bit larger than the likes of Unibet and MPN, but it’s been trying some creative things, so it’s likely a name you’ll be hearing more this year.
Day of Reckoning for PartyPoker
Finally, PartyPoker’s fate is likely to be determined this year, as the strategy it embarked on last year is unlikely to be sustainable if it doesn’t pay off in a big way in the coming months. If it can succeed in establishing itself as the primary alternative to PokerStars in the dot-com market and get a foothold in the newly merged European market, its revenues may increase enough to sustain its aggressive approach.
If not, however, it will likely have to back off from some of its bigger expenditures. Already, we’ve seen it begin to scale back its weekly tournament offerings, as it failed to attract a crowd big enough to meet the ambitious guarantees it was attempting in the third quarter of 2017.
The big question is whether its 20%-40% direct rakeback system will be sustainable. We’ve already seen with PokerStars what happens when a company scales back its loyalty system. The negative response to that far outweighs the positive response obtained by increasing rewards in the first place, so at this point PartyPoker is committed to succeeding or to failing spectacularly; if its strategy proves unsuccessful and unsustainable, then it will likely finish by landing itself in a far less favorable position than it was to begin with.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada.