Despite PokerStars remaining the runaway market leader in online poker, Julian Rogers asks whether its dominance could be slipping, and explores what rival sites and networks are doing to close the gap
For almost a decade, PokerStars has bossed online poker. To use a poker analogy, the Isle of Man-based giant has been the industry’s ‘table captain’, mercilessly crushing its rivals and cornering around two-thirds of the global market. Yet Amaya Gaming, parent company of PokerStars since 2014, has drawn the ire of pros and online grinders following controversial changes to the VIP rewards programme, which has hit these players the hardest. As well as a vociferous outcry on social media sites and popular poker forum 2+2, some 2,500 players staged a three-day boycott in December. But despite the backlash, the protests have fallen on deaf ears.
PokerStars would appear to be turning its back on the pros and going ‘all in’ with a recreational player model. Hence the hiring of soccer superstars Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar for marketing purposes and the heavy promotion of lottery-style Spin & Go’s, of which an average of 2.8 million were played a week by late last year. On top of this, it was announced in February that regular heads up cash games were to be scrapped, which coincided with the unveiling of new turn-based heads-up mobile game Duel. So with this shift in mentality, not to mention the once poker-only brand branching out into casino, sports betting and daily fantasy sports, can a rival poker site gain ground on the runaway leader by nabbing these disgruntled, high-volume players?
Well, major operators like 888poker and PartyPoker haven’t exactly been rolling out the welcome mat for multi-tabling grinders for quite some time now – years, even. They too have put the emphasis on courting the casual player who plays for enjoyment and reloads if his or her account eventually runs dry. It’s now an industry-wide strategy to acquire and firmly hold onto this user for the benefit of the poker ecosystem. Alex Scott, head of poker at Microgaming, which operates the Microgaming Poker Network (MPN), the platform supporting betting operators including Betsson, BetVictor and 32Red, says: “Recreational players are so coveted because if you increase their numbers, or extend their lifetimes, there is a domino effect on all the surrounding players and their value also goes up.”
MPN has also implemented recreational-friendly initiatives – everything from scrapping the widespread rule of English-only chat at the tables to rolling out Blazing Cannon for fast-fold variant Blaze Poker (a mini-game in the style of Angry Birds in which players fire flaming chips at a house of cards to win cash prizes). More recently, though, players have been permitted to change their aliases every 30 days or 100 hands, whichever is reached sooner. The key aim here is to insulate lesser-skilled player from sustained “bum-hunting” by sharks.