The line between online gambling and gambling at casinos continues to be blurred

How COVID-19 Pandemic Awareness Could Drive Convergence In The Gaming Industry

What will the casino industry’s “new normal” look like? That’s very hard to say, but it’s a good bet that new digital technologies will be a part of it. Electronic table games, which have previously found only limited success, may now warrant a second look.

With the reopening of New York’s commercial casinos this week, the industry is as close to full throttle as it’s likely to be for a while. Limited capacities and strict safety measures are the name of the game, and roughly a hundred smaller casinos remain closed. However, anywhere in the country that had casino gaming to begin with now has options available.

Not everything is equally close to being back to normal, however. Slots, being a solitary experience, haven’t had to change very much. Table games are a different story.

Gone are the days of a dozen craps players packed shoulder-to-shoulder around a table, shouting and high-fiving. It may be many years before that experience is possible. When one door closes, however, another opens. Casinos aren’t going anywhere, but they will have to evolve.

Hard Rock Vancouver preparing an experiment

Evolution is, by its nature, a hit-and-miss proposition that requires experimentation. One Canadian casino is poised to try such an experiment, to see if now is the time for electronic table games to shine.

Casinos remain shuttered even now in some Canadian provinces, including British Columbia. Hard Rock Casino Vancouver has taken advantage of the downtime to set up new electronic table options from Scientific Games.

The new games will have a dedicated space on the gaming floor, and straddle the line between a solitary digital experience and a more social, dealer-driven one.

When the casino reopens, guests will find what electronic table games companies call an “arena” setup. This will consist of 20 individual player stations facing four podiums for dealers. Behind these is a massive screen, 6 feet tall and 30 feet wide, to offer players a better view of what the dealers are doing.

The product itself isn’t brand new, but the context is. As recently as a year ago, such a setup may have seemed like nothing more than a gimmick. Now, it’s a creative solution to a new and very serious problem.

Convergence is the way of the modern world

When casinos shut down, online gambling activity spiked. It isn’t a perfect substitute for a live casino experience, but many people enjoy it or even prefer it in some ways. There will certainly be some lessons that brick-and-mortar casinos can take from the online space in seeking to reinvent themselves for the new world we now live in.

Convergence is a hot topic in the tech world. It’s the idea that as technology advances, formerly distinct products start to take on one another’s characteristics and functions. Eventually, the line between one and the other gets blurry. It’s the reason that the device in your pocket is simultaneously a camera, a web browser and a portable gaming device, but you still call it a phone.

Even before COVID-19, we saw convergence taking place in the mobile gaming space. Live dealer products, for instance, are an attempt to bring together the best of both worlds. They’ve proven very popular, though for the time being, New Jersey is the only US market in which they’re available legally.

Customers recognize corner-cutting, and they don’t like it

Similar attempts to integrate digital elements into tables on the casino floor have been going on even longer. Although they’ve found a niche at some casinos, however, they haven’t been very popular in general.

From the operator’s point of view, such games are appealing in terms of their impact on the bottom line. Whether they’re fully automated or use an arena-style setup, they require a lower ratio of staff to players. Casino employee unions hate them for the same reason, and customers can see what’s going on as well. All the bells and whistles are no substitute for the individual attention players get from the dealer at a conventional table.

Before COVID, the main advantage casinos found in electronic table games was as a gateway product for young customers. There are always missteps involved when learning a new game, and the presence of other players and a dealer can make it intimidating or embarrassing.

When certain Colorado casinos tried installing the games, they found them most frequented by players under 24 years old. Most of these players subsequently moved on to play the equivalent games at traditional tables, then didn’t move back. Thus, they were deemed most useful as an introductory product.

Reduced socialization is now a selling point

COVID is a game-changer for electronic table games because it turns the product’s biggest shortcoming into an advantage. Self-conscious rookies won’t be the only ones who now prefer a more individual experience.

This won’t be a temporary situation, either. The current pandemic will pass sooner or later, but its effects on society will be around long after the disease is under control. During flu season, or at the first sign of a new outbreak, many people will be looking to maintain social distance. Some may never again feel entirely comfortable in a crowd without precautions.

Additionally, new advantages of electronic gaming in the short term may encourage companies like Scientific Games and its competitors to make investments in innovation for the longer term. Small scale electronic tables resemble a cross between traditional games and a slot or video poker machine, but don’t have any particular advantage over either. Arena-style setups, however, leave plenty of room to create unprecedented experiences, if companies see enough potential to make the effort.

Could live dealer and electronic table games meet in the middle?

One potential outcome of that is even further convergence. Live dealer and electronic table games are each a convergence of live and digital gaming. However, they themselves could likewise begin to grow together.

Neither is really a single product, but rather a range of products with varying amounts of dealer interaction. Arena-style electronic tables like the ones being trialed in Vancouver are not all that different from the most interactive live dealer products. In those, each dealer manages a virtual table with only a few players, who can interact with him or her directly.

Because the two are so similar, it shouldn’t be too hard to unify them. With cameras on the dealer podiums and an online app similar to the software at the player stations, online players could participate in the very same game taking place on the casino floor. At that point, there would be a full spectrum of options from fully live to fully digital, for all player preferences and risk tolerances.

There’s even precedent for this in the US. Golden Nugget offers a live dealer roulette product that streams directly from the casino floor, rather than a studio. The leap from there to connecting an online casino to an electronic table arena is a small one.

At the moment, that would require a deal between multiple companies, as the makers of live dealer products don’t make electronic table games, or vice versa. That said, the most likely candidates — Evolution Gaming and Scientific Games — have an existing relationship, which they expanded last year. The foundation for further collaboration is therefore already in place.

- Alex is a journalist from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. Now site runner for Online Poker Report, he has been writing about poker and the online gambling industry in various capacities since 2014.
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