Parsing The Impact Of The PokerStars Boycotts

Second PokerStars Boycott May Have Backfired, But Future Of Site Remains Unclear

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It’s been nearly two weeks since PokerStars went live with its VIP Steps program, hailing a massive reduction in the amount of benefits received by high volume players and the elimination of benefits at high stakes cash games.

In protest of the changes, high stakes players on Two Plus Two, in conjunction with and social network Tiltbook, organized a follow-up to December’s boycott.

Once again, protesters dug a deep hole for themselves from the onset, this time going head-to-head against the post-holiday seasonal surge and one of the most concentrated promotional efforts in PokerStars history.

High stakes prevalence rises during boycott

Last week, PokerScout conducted an analysis of the strike’s impact in its twice-weekly publication, the Scouting Report.

The report reveals that from January 1 – 6, the prevalence of high stakes games on PokerStars was at its highest point in the past two months.

During that span, high stakes games accounted for 1.3 percent of all cash games played on the site. Comparatively, high stakes prevalence averaged 1.0 percent in November and just 0.7 percent – 0.8 percent throughout December.

What’s confounding about these statistics is that high stakes games comprised a greater segment of the cash game lobby despite the presence of the strike, and perhaps more importantly, despite the fact that most high stakes games ($5/$10+ pot-limit and no-limit, $20/$40+ 8-game and limit) no longer offer loyalty points (VPPs).

The Scouting Report logically infers two possible explanations for what it deems this “particularly fascinating turn of events”:

  • In the aftermath of PokerStars’ holiday promotions, “microstakes volume decreased, causing the market share of other stakes to grow.”
  • Middle stakes players took advantage of the absence of high-profile pros by temporarily jumping up to the high stakes.

If the latter is true, it effectually means that the strike backfired, driving traffic to games where PokerStars does not incur any costs via loyalty benefits, and possibly setting off a domino effect whereby games at other stakes were temporarily softer, resulting in a marginally healthier poker ecosystem.

PokerStars carried by strong seasonal winds, new promotions…

Turning to the broader picture, overall cash game liquidity on PokerStars is up nicely since the VIP Club cutbacks went into effect.

According to the Scouting Report, “cash game averages for the first six days of January were up 2.6 percent over December, as opposed to an average gain of 1.4 percent over equivalent comparison points for the past four years.”

Going further, PokerScout data tells us that 7-day cash game averages on PokerStars are currently up 7 percent since the New Year, which taken at face value implies that the site’s new approach to promotions, which tends to reward random luck over skill at the tables, has been effective.

…but impact may have diminished by VIP cutbacks

All of this is not to say that the VIP Club cutbacks, the recent boycott and Team Pros parting ways with PokerStars isn’t having a negative – and arguably a devastating – impact on the operator. Quite the contrary.

Consider that the dot-com industry as a whole has grown 8 percent since January 1, or at an accelerated pace compared to PokerStars.

What’s more, some top 10 operators have blown PokerStars out of the water when it comes to recent growth. Liquidity on iPoker is up 17 percent so far this year, while traffic on the Microgaming Poker Network (MPN) has surged 26 percent.

Yet PokerStars has only climbed 7 percent, which wouldn’t be so bad if the operator hadn’t invested what we estimate to be upwards of $2.5 million on its January promotions, or if second place operator 888 Poker didn’t manage to climb by the same 7 percent in the absence of new promotional vehicles.

In short, strong seasonal tides and an aggressive promotional schedule may be offering the illusion of prosperity, when in reality, liquidity would have plummeted under more ordinary circumstances.

On the plus side, any negative impact related to high volume player tendencies will likely be short lived, meaning that if PokerStars continues to reinvest the money saved from the VIP Club cutbacks into events designed to attract and retain net depositing players (which is its stated plan), we could begin to witness cash game traffic trends that exceed the global industry.

Spin & Go’s are also bound to see increased activity thanks to a strong promotional focus and PokerStars’ increased emphasis on luck-based games and events.

It’s all very much in the air at this point, and we won’t even be able to glean a somewhat accurate picture until Amaya releases its Q1 2016 financials, but one thing is for certain: For better or worse, this is not the same PokerStars we once knew.

Additional boycotts scheduled for February and beyond

Going forward, the protesting community has loosely planned to stage another strike from February 2 – 11, and has stated its intention to launch a month-long boycott against the site once it reaches 5,000 signups.

At the time of this writing, it has 767 active protesters.

Its stated goal: to reduce Amaya’s rake by 20 percent, a lofty endgame considering PokerStars will likely be taking in increased rake from its new signups, but also a conceivable one should enough of the high volume community (i.e. those with the highest player value) participate.

Still, even in the most optimistic scenario, it’s difficult to see Amaya backtracking on some of the more controversial changes, namely rewards at the high stakes and a reversal of the SuperNova Elite cutbacks for 2016.

But a concerted and sustained effort could serve as a much needed conversation starter.

Or it could backfire.

- Robert DellaFave is a game designer and avid poker player. He writes for several publications centered on legal US online poker and the regulated online gambling industries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
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