Poker Could Learn Some Lessons From Barstool Sports’ WSOP Debut

Written By Steve Ruddock on July 17, 2017 - Last Updated on July 6, 2022
Stools in a closed bar

I don’t know what the original plan was when FantasyLabs approached Barstool Sports with a World Series of Poker (WSOP) marketing idea, but the end result probably exceeded everyone’s expectations.

FantasyLabs came up with the idea of putting two Barstool employees, Eric “Nate” Nathan and Adam “Smitty” Smith, with an affinity for poker into the WSOP Main Event. That decision turned out to be one of the biggest storylines over the course of the first three days of the WSOP Main Event, thanks to Nate’s run-good and the drama the Barstool boys provided.

The Barstool way

If you’re unfamiliar with Barstool Sports, the company is something of a men’s lifestyle site. Barstool writes about sports, current affairs, and pretty much anything that they find interesting.

But what makes Barstool unique is the role the writers often play in creating content for the site.

Barstool Sports is part scripted pro-wrestling and part reality show. However, it’s all a byproduct of its motley crew of employees. Barstool’s employees are characters right out of Central Casting. Some of the hijinks are contrived, some are organic, and pretty much all of it is funny.

Whether it’s injecting themselves right into the middle of the “Deflategate” saga, entering a hot-headed employee into a tough-man contest, or simply intra-office rivalries, if you’re a Barstool reader you’re probably more interested in the daily goings on in the office and the lives of the site’s personalities than whatever newsy items they are writing about.

Barstool takes over the WSOP

And in true Barstool fashion, “Nate and Smitty do the World Series of Poker,” turned into a week’s worth of content and office drama for Barstool. It was also one of the more interesting storylines within the world of poker.

The Barstool credo seems to be there can never be too many twists and turns. And the deeper and more absurd the plot, the better.

And that opportunity presented itself when Nate ended Day 1 with a top-ten chip count. Nate’s success, and attempts at selling pieces of himself at a very non-Timex-approved markup, spurred on long-distance arguments. Debates over how the winnings would be doled out, as if the $8 million first-place prize was already won.

Like most things Barstool, it’s hard to know how much of this power struggle over the money was real. It could just be the group seizing on an opportunity to add to the storyline.

In the end it wouldn’t matter, as Nate busted short of the money.

[show-table name=cta-wsop]

Planned vs. unplanned content

Nate and Smitty were everywhere this week. They did interviews, ended up on podcasts, and the media followed their performance in the tournament as if they were legends of the game. Nate was even one of the people singled out on a secondary featured table.

On their end, they got interviews with Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu, and Antonio Esfandiari. Nate made a video with Maria Ho and Joe Ingram on meeting girls in Vegas. Overall, they were able to endear themselves into the poker community.

Nate even got the coveted Phil Hellmuth tweet.

All the while, the “who would get the winnings” storyline played out in the background. Nate yelled at his boss and coworkers over the phone. Later, agreements were posted on Twitter, and the Stoolies took sides. It was a scandal in the making. It would have been even more amazing if Nate managed to cash in the event.

Precisely what poker needs

What Barstool does is precisely what poker has been lacking for a quite a while. It makes you care about the people involved. Evidenced by the 2,500 likes Nate’s bustout Tweet got.

The reason? Barstool opens you up to every aspect of their content guys’ personalities. You know more about them than you probably should. As a result, it makes Barstool something like the sitcom characters you identify with, or feel like you know.

There’s a lesson in Barstool’s orderly disorder that poker could learn from. Sometimes the content is less important than the people involved. For poker, this means more back story and interest in the players beyond their poker skills and accomplishments. It also means less emphasis on the actual poker. Or, at the least, make the two work off each other.

If poker could somehow harness the same motley crew of personalities it possesses, and get them on board with Barstool-esque storylines, viewers might start caring more about the individual players and less about the play of the hands.

Poker could use more viewers tuning in because of who is playing rather than what specific tournament is taking place. If this were to come to pass, the episodes wouldn’t rely on interesting hands occurring, or big names making deep runs. And, with PokerGO bringing back Poker After Dark, there is a real opportunity to build in these types of storylines and dynamics.

Basically poker could do with a bit more drama. The Barstool way.

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Steve Ruddock

Steve Ruddock is an avid poker player and a veteran member of the gaming media. His primary focus is on the regulated US online casino and poker markets. He writes for numerous online and print publications, including,, and USA Today.

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