Can Poker Grow Beyond A Fad By Embracing The Esports Fad?

Written By Martin Derbyshire on May 10, 2018 - Last Updated on September 14, 2023
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Should the Pet Rock have tried to extend its shelf life by partnering with Cabbage Patch Dolls in the 1980s? Or maybe Beanie Babies in the 1990s? Can last season’s fad find success attaching itself to this year’s latest trend?

Poker boomed in the early 2000s creating an entire industry around it. A big push came from offshore online poker sites raking in hundreds of millions of dollars along the way. Poker peaked in 2006. After that, the US government stepped in stumping the online game’s growth. Poker’s popularity pretty much plateaued, but it didn’t go away.

Fortunately for those in that industry surrounding it, poker is no flash in the pan. The game, and people’s love for it, has hardly faded in the decade since poker was the in thing to do.

Of course, many people dependent on the game have spent that decade eagerly anticipating another boom in poker’s popularity. The opportunity to get more women in the game. Selling poker to the 1.3 billion people living in China.  Getting more states to legalize and regulate online poker. No matter what it was, the thing to ignite the next poker boom always seemed right around the corner.

Most of the ideas have been slow in coming to fruition. Or perhaps they haven’t had the huge impact poker people had hoped for. Still, many hold out hope. They pray there is some magic pill that can cure what ails a somewhat stagnating game and make poker the cool thing to do once again.

Others have no time for hope. They want to see poker become popular again now. Instead of waiting and wishing for it to happen, these people go out and do something about it.

Is poker a sport?

Mediarex CEO Alex Dreyfus is one good example. This is the guy that created the Global Poker League, putting some of the world’s most successful poker players on teams and pitting them against each other in a brand new game format played inside a soundproof cube. It was an attempt to turn poker into a sport and get it trending again.

The Global Poker League can’t be considered a complete failure. It did get one season completed. However, it failed to convince the public poker is a sport. And it never grew the game’s popularity in any kind of meaningful way.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. Dreyfus gave it a go. He was reportedly still giving it a go in Asia before the Chinese government decided to follow America’s lead and crack down on poker as well. What happens to Global Poker League China now is anybody’s guess. But that’s another story.

This one is about Dreyfus’ failure to convince anyone except a series of misguided investors that poker is a sport.

The truth is, it was always going to be an uphill battle. Traditional sports involve athleticism. That takes poker out of the running from the jump.

A British outfit got the game declared a mind sport a few years ago. According to most definitions, a mind sport is a game of skill based on intellectual ability as opposed to physical exercise. In other words, mind sports are by definition, not sports.

In that sense, poker and other card games like it, are more akin to board games, or video games. A fact that brings us back around to what this article is really about.

Is poker an esport?

The popularity of esports, which is a fancy term for competitive video gaming, has had a boom of its own over the past few years.

According to the gaming news site MMOExaminer, esports’ popularity started among the people who play the games, much like poker. However, it has evolved into something even bigger, with people watching esports competitions in ever-increasing numbers and overall revenue rising alongside it.

The esports industry generated more than $636 million in revenue in 2016. The numbers grew in 2017 and are expected to be even bigger this year. In fact, some predict global revenue will surpass $1.75 billion by 2020 with an estimated audience of 600 million people watching esports around the world.

Is poker an esport?

Are esports the next poker?

Answers to both these questions can and will be debated endlessly by insiders in both industries. But in the meantime, doers like Dreyfus, including two of the most successful organizations in the poker industry, are making a valiant effort to attach poker to what appears to be the in thing right now.

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Marketing the poker-esports connection

The World Poker Tour (WPT) has plans to host multiple televised final tables later this month inside the new Esports Arena Las Vegas at Luxor Las Vegas.

The 30,000 square-foot multi-level arena has a competition stage, 50-foot LED video wall, gaming stations, and a network TV-quality production studio. All signs point to it being the perfect place for the WPT to highlight poker’s strong connection to esports. And help the game jump on this trend.

Chinese game developer Ourgame International Holdings Limited, which owns the WPT, has also laid out plans to open up to 10 esports arenas in China and the US by 2019. An Ourgame subsidiary actually owns Esports Arena Las Vegas as well. That means the WPT will likely be trying to dine out on that strong esports-poker connection for years to come.

News also hit this week that the World Series of Poker and UMG Media Corp. will be setting up a competitive gaming area at the 2018 WSOP in Las Vegas, Nevada, running May 29 to July 17 inside the convention center at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino.

The UMG Esports Stage will feature half a dozen or so competitive gaming booths. A place were spectators and poker players on a break can play games like Fortnite, Hearthstone, Madden and FIFA against each other in the same room where WSOP events are being held.

The latest trend

It could be just marketing people realizing poker and esports appeal to the same demographics. Or, maybe there really is a strong similarity between the two. One thing is sure: Poker doesn’t want to be yesterday’s news just yet and is willing to attach itself to the latest trend in an effort to remain relevant.

It’s really not a bad idea, especially if you believe something that was all the rage can get a few more miles out of sidling up to the latest craze.

Martin Derbyshire Avatar
Written by
Martin Derbyshire

Martin Derbyshire has more than ten years of experience reporting on the poker, online gambling, and land-based casino industries for a variety of publications including Bluff Magazine, PokerNews, and PokerListings. He has traveled extensively, attending tournaments and interviewing major players in the gambling world.

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