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Although the World Series of Poker (WSOP) and online poker have both been around for a long time, this will only be the fifth year the series contains an online component.
With nine events this time around, online poker will now make up more than 10% of the WSOP schedule and will account for millions in prize pools.
Online poker, specifically online qualifiers to the WSOP Main Event, has been crucial to its explosive growth ever since Chris Moneymaker took it down in 2003 after winning his seat online.
Unfortunately, it took until 2014 for online gaming to be legalized in Nevada, and the first online bracelet appeared in 2015. Ever since, though, online poker has been taking off in a big way at WSOP Nevada and WSOP New Jersey.
For the first two years, there was only a single online event priced at $1,000 and pausing with six players remaining to have the final table played out live at the Rio All-Suites Hotel in Las Vegas.
The idea of the live final table proved unpopular; however, so from 2017 onwards, online events have been single-day affairs played out entirely online. The $1,000 event is a constant throughout and, this year, it officially has the championship title.
In 2017, we saw the addition of two new events to capture players of different bankrolls, one priced at $333 and one at $3,333. Then in 2018, the pot-limit Omaha online event was added.
Despite these expansions to the schedule, there still seems to be unmet demand, as demonstrated by the fact that the field for the core $1,000 event increases in size every year, rather than being cannibalized by the additional events.
The growth has been rapid as well.
Entries rose 38% in 2016, 5% in 2017 (despite the switch from one event to three) and 25% last year. For reference, the annual growth in the field size for the WSOP Main Event over that time has been between 5% and 9%.
The additional events have also drawn large fields of their own. The inaugural online event had a prize pool of $859,750 and generated $45,250 of revenue for the WSOP, while last year’s four events produced combined prize pools of $4.6 million and almost $325,000 in revenue.
This year’s schedule includes four events roughly equivalent to last year’s (albeit with a couple of buy-ins raised slightly), plus five new events:
Based on the trends so far, an optimistic prediction for this year would have the $1,000 championship see entries rise 15% to about 1,900, and total combined prize pools to crack $8.5 million.
Whether that’s realistic depends on a couple of factors, however, only one the WSOP can control: Whether this year’s spacing of events causes them to compete with each other and what’s going to happen on the legal front.
Starting with the latter point, last year was the first where players were able to participate in WSOP online bracelet events from New Jersey since interstate poker between the two states began in May.
At least some of last year’s increase in attendance must have been due to that, though how much is unknown. It’s probably a good bet that the lower buy-in events — $365 no-limit hold ’em and $565 pot-limit Omaha — would have attracted some of the same New Jersey players that play the big Sunday tournaments, but that many of the players in the market for four-figure online buy-ins would be attending the series in Las Vegas anyway.
Three of the five new events have buy-ins of $600 and below, and it’s mostly for these that we’d expect shared liquidity to be important. Unfortunately, only the first two events on the schedule — $400 no-limit hold ’em and $600 pot-limit Omaha — are guaranteed to benefit from that.
The remaining seven fall after the June 14 enforcement deadline set by the Department of Justice regarding the Wire Act, and it’s still up in the air whether or not these will be available for players in New Jersey.
That problem is compounded by the other factor, namely event spacing.
When the series went from one online event to three in 2017, there wasn’t much cause to be concerned that entries would end up getting split between them. The sort of players interested in a $333 event and a $3,333 event don’t overlap all that much.
Now there are six events with buy-ins between $400 and $800, three of which fall in a 10-day window between June 9-16. The latter two of those come right after the DOJ enforcement deadline.
When the WSOP first introduced the Colossus in 2015 – the first sub $1,000 buy-in open field event the series ever had – the schedule had it, the Millionaire Maker and the Monster Stack all placed in quick succession toward the beginning of the series.
Although the Colossus was a big success, the latter two saw attendance drop significantly that year. Likely because of that, these big-field, low-buy-in events have since been spread more evenly through the series.
It’s entirely possible that some of this year’s new lower buy-in online events will pull from each other’s player pools similarly, especially if New Jersey finds itself cut out after June 14.
That said, the WSOP has found ways other than the buy-in to differentiate the events this year.
Events in 2017 were all identical (save for the pricetag). The same was true in 2018 except for the addition of the Omaha event. This year’s new events shake things up a little by the inclusion of a knockout bounty, a turbo, a double stack and a short-handed event.
Whether these are different enough to appeal to various segments of the player base is questionable, but it is true that bounty events have historically been popular at the WSOP, while turbo formats are more popular online than off.
All in all, this year’s expanded online schedule is an ambitious proposition and one that could go either way.
If the steady growth we’ve seen in previous years continues for this expanded schedule, we could soon see the WSOP’s online component stand on about equal footing to its traditional live tournaments.
On the other hand, there’s a distinct possibility that we’ll discover this year that there isn’t enough demand for more than a handful of events.
Expect event No. 38 on June 16 and No. 46 on June 19 to be the bellwether; if these tightly spaced events can both draw decent fields – say 2,000-plus – with or without shared liquidity, then it’s likely that the new schedule will be deemed a success.