2015 will likely be remembered as a transitional year for the online poker industry, one in which the continued decline of liquidity led to the widespread abandonment of traditional business models in favor of those that prioritized net depositing players.
The long term ramifications of this paradigm shift are largely unknown, as many of the changes have either just gone into effect or aren’t slated to take hold until early 2016.
What is known is that online poker suffered through another downtrodden year. Yet, amid the chaos, a select few operators and markets offered glimpses at what could be a prosperous new direction for the industry.
Here’s a glance at the most notable industry trends of 2015.
The announcement provoked the ire of the online poker community, with disgruntled high-volume and high stakes players going so far as to organize a boycott against the operator.
In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, cash game liquidity dipped 6 percent, which might not seem so significant until one considers that in years prior, November was always an up month for the operator.
As for the December 1 – 3 boycott, it was effective only to the extent that high stakes prevalence was notably down. However, any negative traffic impact was offset tenfold by the onset of the operator’s Christmas Calendar promotion. Since November 30, liquidity on PokerStars is up over 14 percent.
Worth noting is that most Christmas Calendar promotions shared two attributes in common:
The Christmas Calendar hints at one conceivable future for PokerStars, one where the operator pumps the tens-of-millions in net revenue benefits from the VIP Club cutbacks back into the poker ecosystem in the form of promotions that benefit different player archetypes equally.
In fact, this may be one of the only ways PokerStars will be able to stave off a horrendous Q1 2016, when high-volume and high stakes players who feel duped by the operator (and rightfully so), cut back on their play or abandon the site completely in search of greener pastures.
Over in France, Winamax.fr succeeded at integrating a fun, fresh innovation into its cash games that visibly lifted liquidity.
Introduced in July, Cash Game Bingo awarded prizes randomly based on a player’s starting hands. The side game was an overnight sensation, with liquidity surging 66 percent in the promotion’s first week.
More impressive is that Winamax was able to sustain the majority of this initial growth, eventually prompting the operator to upgrade Cash Game Bingo to a permanent fixture of the site. Today, liquidity is 36 percent higher than it was prior to launch.
The beauty of Cash Game Bingo is that it draws and keeps players at the ring game tables, all at a minimal cost to the operator. Thus far, the format has only paid out 318,000 euros, roughly the equivalent of $63,000 per month.
Other operators would be wise to take a page out of Winamax’s playbook, as the operator was also the pioneer behind the widely successful lottery sit & go format.
After gaining little ground in 2014, the offshore US-facing market experienced healthy gains throughout the past 12 months.
The leader of the pack remains third ranked site Bovada, which has seen its cash game liquidity grow by 24 percent since January. WPN and the Chico Network have also recorded sizable gains in 2015.
WPN, in particular, is poised for accelerated gains in 2016, as since the middle portion of this year, the network has adopted an exceedingly aggressive marketing and promotional strategy.
As per CEO Phil Nagy, the ultimate goal is for the network to enter the top five by summer 2016. While it still has a ways to go before that becomes a reality, WPN grew at an alarming pace throughout 2015 – cash game volume is up 128 percent to date, pushing the network to as high as 12th place in recent days.
Other sites too should experience growth, as the US is a largely underserved online poker market. Furthermore, strong payment processing and an increasing presence on popular streaming outlets such as Twitch will continue to benefit illegal, offshore sites.
The hope, at least for regulated iGaming proponents, is that the growth of US-facing sites will serve as a much needed wake-up call to states currently considering online gaming legislation. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of time before the pitfalls of playing on offshore sites again reveal themselves, damaging both player bankrolls and the reputation of the online poker industry in the process.
From the time of Event #1 to the onset of the Main Event, traffic ballooned 28 percent, reaching an all-time high on July 6. Not coincidentally, volume reached its apex right around the time of the online bracelet event and the 25-Seat Scramble, the latter of which gave away an unprecedented 30 seats to the Main Event.
Despite this, cash game liquidity didn’t grow at quite the same pace as last summer, when the live Series precipitated a 39 percent liquidity surge on WSOP NV. Granted, the site was starting from a much higher point this year, but still, one wonders if last year’s surge was just the byproduct of market novelty.
After seeing the results for 2015, operators may start to wish that they had begun reinventing their brands sooner.
In the absence of a Christmas miracle, 2015 will go down as one of the worst years for online cash game traffic.
The rate of change in recent years is as follows:
Although last year’s drop-off was marginally worse than this year’s, recall that in September 2014 PokerStars launched Spin & Go’s, a format so screamingly popular that cash game players left their regular games in droves to try their luck. By the looks of it, Spin & Go’s alone accounted for approximately 40 percent of the decline in cash game popularity.
The industry has no such convenient excuse this year, but can at least take solace that tournament revenues are generally on the rise.
2016 will likely be one of the most telling years in online poker history, as we’ll begin to see if the increased focus on net depositing players and new poker variants will bear fruit or only serve to ostracize the industry’s most loyal customers.