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Building A Successful Online Poker Championship Series: Lessons From PokerStars

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With a handful of licensed and regulated poker rooms now up and running in the U.S. – and more coming online soon – it’s only a matter of time before Americans will be playing championship tournament series from the comfort of their homes. (World Series of Online Poker, anyone?)

These sites will probably feel pressure not to copy the offshore sites who created the very concept of such series. But if they’re smart, they’ll learn from what came before them and use that knowledge to offer American players the experience they’re accustomed to.

The World Championship of Online Poker, started in 2002 by PokerStars, was the gold standard in online poker championship series from day one, and each of its spinoff series has only added to Stars’ reputation in this area.

I’ll admit to a bias here: since 2008 I’ve covered more than 130 of those tournaments for the PokerStars Blog. But in the course of that coverage I’ve watched an already successful series consistently grow to unprecedented heights thanks to a few key characteristics.

They’re very simple, and together they provide a basic template for anyone who wants to create a brand-new online poker championship series.

Variety, variety, variety

Variety in an online poker championship series is important is three particular areas: the games offered, the buy-ins, and the tournament formats offered.

Games

Hold’em might be the most popular game in poker, but alone it’s not enough to keep a tournament series afloat. Though some poker players specialize in one game or another, most are either already skilled in multiple games or eager to diversify.

Diverse events give these players a chance to make some money from hold’em players, and it also encourages them to play in a few hold’em event or two of their own. This is why it’s important to spread plenty of other games in a tournament series, both as one-off events of their own and as components of mixed games.

A glance at the most recent WCOOP schedule shows the ideal way for this to be done: there are events in almost every imaginable game, from Badugi and Courchevel to Stud/8 and 2-7 Triple Draw, and five of the 66 total events being played in some sort of mixed format.

You don’t have to match this level of granularity to be successful, but there needs to be more than a few Omaha and Stud events to placate the non-hold’em players.

Buy-ins

Attracting the high-rollers is good for publicity. (So is keeping them happy – but more on that later.) But the fact remains that there are a lot more small- and medium-stakes players out there than high rollers. Building a successful tournament series means finding a way to involve these players through more than just cheap satellites or “step” tournaments.

PokerStars did this first with the Spring Championship of Online Poker (SCOOP), which offers a tiered buy-in format of low, medium, and high buy-ins for each game and format offered (e.g. $11, $109, and $1,050 versions of an Omaha Hi-Lo event).

They went a step further and created the MicroMillions, which routinely offers huge prize pools for buy-ins as a low as a single dollar to give small-stakes players a chance to enjoy big tournament competition just like the high rollers.

Even WCOOP has always offered a range of buy-ins from as low as $109 to as much as $25,000 in some years. Giving everyone a chance to play means more money for the players and for the room.

Tournament formats

This isn’t 1980. All other things being equal, any tournament series that’s all or mostly freezeouts isn’t going to be very popular.

Today’s online poker players want re-buy events, second-chance events, shootouts, heads-up brackets, mixed-max events – the list goes on. If there’s a way to structure a tournament and you’re not offering it, you’re missing out on a chance to draw more players to the tables.

Again, WCOOP is instructive here. Among the different formats featured were heads-up, 4-max, 6-max, 8-max, and full ring; freezeouts, shootouts, rebuys, 2x Chance, 3x Chance, 1 rebuy/1 add-on, and 2 rebuy/1 add-on; Knockout, Super Knockout, and Progressive Knockout; and 10-minute levels, 30-minute levels, and turbo structures.

Even if you don’t know precisely what some of those formats are, it doesn’t matter. Just look at how many of them are and realize that they reflect the players’ desire for innovation beyond what the old-timers were playing when everyone in poker was still wearing a ten-gallon hat and smoking at the table.

Guaranteed prize pools

Generally speaking, the larger the guarantee, the more players you’re going to attract.

But what might be more important is the psychological impact of the number of guaranteed prize pools on the schedule, regardless of their actual sizes. In the land-based tournament world, where players’ decisions as to which tournaments to play are influenced by travel and lodging expenses, it’s simply not feasible to offer a guarantee on every event.

Online is a different matter altogether. When nobody has to travel farther than their laptop or iPad to play there’s no real expense involved on the player’s end outside of the buy-in, meaning there’s no excuse for not guaranteeing the prize pool in every single event.

Even if you think we shouldn’t expect new U.S. online sites to live up to the industry standard from day one, a look back in PokerStars’ history is still instructive. The very first WCOOP, held 11 years ago when the online poker industry was in its infancy, had guaranteed prize pools for most of its nine events. The largest guarantee that year was $100,000 for the WCOOP Main Event. You could do a lot worse than making that figure a baseline for basically any major-series, no-limit hold’em tournament in 2013.

Customer-responsive innovation

At their core, all these successful elements are really the same thing: innovations introduced in response to customer preferences. Players don’t want to do the same old thing all the time. Variety in games and tournament structures feeds their desire for something exotic. Guaranteed prize pools tell them that the games will be worth their time and could potentially give them a serious bankroll boost. And consistent innovation tells them that the poker room values their business, which will keep them coming back to the tables time and again.

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Jason Kirk
- Jason Kirk is a freelance writer. He has covered poker, both online and offline, since 2005. He lives with his wife and two dogs in Nashville, Tennessee.