Serge Mukhanov, CEO at Connective Games, says the decline in global online poker play is cyclical, and that growth is on the horizon.
“The global online poker industry has been in ill health for several years now, with some having already written its obituary. The decline has been significant and sustained. Players have found new forms of entertainment that offer instant gratification and can be accessed via their smartphone devices without compromising on quality. In this regard, online poker has been very much behind the curve.
But recently, things have changed. Online poker operators and suppliers have been hard at work developing new formats, features and tools to ensure the vertical meets modern consumer demands. Formats such as Sit&Go, gamification elements that reward player achievements, build-in games like Wheel of Fortune, and mobile-first functionality are helping drive a slow and steady resurgence in play for some operators in some markets.
These changes mark a shift in the player demographic operators are targeting: casual consumers over experienced multi-tabling pros. They are far more lucrative and stable, and are the key to building a sustainable business in the long term. Unibet is very much leading the charge here, enjoying growth where others are struggling to fend-off decline – parent company, Kindred Group, saw poker revenues increase 64% year-on-year in 2016.
Unibet’s success proves there is a lot of life left in poker, especially with emerging markets such as India, Russia, Africa and the US edging ever close to opening their digital doors to regulated online gambling for the first time. These new regions are the lifeline the poker industry needs, but operators and suppliers entering these territories need to proceed with caution if they are to avoid similar levels of decline in the coming years.
That’s because poker is cyclical. When a new market opens, most players are relatively inexperienced and are playing for fun. But as they play more, honing their skills and confidence, they become highly competent players. Over time, this sees the former feeding on the latter, scaring them away from the game and kick-starting the period of decline we are seeing in mature markets.
How long does it take new markets to go through this cycle? Here at Connective Games, we estimate it is about six years. Seventy-two months from the first online site going live in, say, India, to it enduring the near-terminal decline seen in markets such as the UK, France and Italy. It’s not long, and countries such as India, Russia and the US are all at risk of falling into this downward spiral.
Of course, operators and suppliers are now armed with enough knowledge to help prevent history repeating itself, and those launching online poker products in such regions would be wise to heed their advice. The key to ensuring poker remains healthy and vibrant is to build an ecosystem which harmonically combines casual players environment and experienced players surroundings.
It is challenging task as these groups of players have different goals and interests. We can even say they belong to different cultures. Recreational players seek to have fun from the game. They do not want to spend much time on learning, and value the possibility to win big instantly. Professional players, on the other hand, play for money and do everything to be most efficient in it.
Firstly, casual players should be provided with the possibility to enjoy the game and grow their skills in encouraging friendly atmosphere – not through the hard aggressive struggle of professional players. There are many practices to archive that. For example, operator can introduce total anonymity in the room, or use a lobby which doesn’t allow selecting particular table to randomly mix opponents of different skills, or even segregate players, automatically analysing the reams of data players generate to assess their individual skill level and then seat them at tables with rivals of a similar ability.
And the second point, but with the same importance, is different features and game formats should be offered to each of these societies to meet their needs.
Professionals need features aimed at effective management of several tables, tons of interface settings to tailor the interface and game formats which is more skill-based than luck-dependent. Casual players prefer easy and fast access to the game, entertaining and at the same time educational missions or quests and various jackpots. Having all of these in the room ensures players are provided the type of experience they are seeking, whether it be casual or more professional.
Operators and suppliers need to continue to invest in their innovation and development pipelines, and bring new and exciting formats, features and tools to market. This, combined with new markets opening-up, will see the global poker industry go full circle, returning to rude health and year-on-year growth.
Lessons have been learned, so there is no need for history to repeat itself. The cycle can be broken.”
(Published by Totally Gaming, Online Section, June 2017)