Shalva Bukia, product director at Spribe, examines the evolution of poker, and looks at how an ecosystem that had “ceased to be entertaining” has thrived during the pandemic period and what needs to be done to ensure that that continues.

The pandemic has been a true black swan moment. But in the case of online poker, has it merely created a bubble that is ready to pop, or have gamblers’ preferences changed for the long term?

Lockdown created a perfect storm for online poker to thrive. The furloughed masses, stuck indoors with time on their hands, were hungry for new forms of online entertainment, and many found an outlet in poker. 

Meanwhile, the global cancelation of sporting events pulled the plug on sports betting, and the closure of casinos and card rooms drove live poker players online. In 2020, online poker traffic grew by a massive 30 per cent.

We believe that lockdown may have propelled new players towards online poker, but operators have good reason to believe they’re here to stick around this time. 

That’s got nothing to do with the coronavirus. It’s because of the work the online poker industry has done to reshape itself over the past decade, rebalancing the game in favour of the recreational player and gearing new formats towards millennials and generation Z. 

The game has engaged new demographics in recent years, particularly younger players and we expect this trend to continue. The industry has spent a decade future proofing and it is now beginning to reap the benefits. Latest reports predict continued growth and for the market to double by 2027. 

“Poker had ceased to be entertaining. Millennials had abandoned the game in favour of esports and other verticals”

Ten years ago, online poker was at the beginning of a global slump. The biggest sites’ loyalty programs were geared towards rewarding the most successful players in the game, the high-stakes players and the multi-tablers, because those were their best customers, the ones who churned the most rake. 

But this ignored the recreational players who, en-masse, formed the bedrock of the poker economy. These players were getting chewed up and spat out by skilled players who were using tracking software to pinpoint their opponents’ weaknesses. 

New players were abandoning the game because being preyed upon is no fun. Perhaps they didn’t mind losing a little if the process was gradual and enjoyable. But they were losing too quickly. Poker had ceased to be entertaining. Millennials had abandoned the game in favour of esports and other verticals. This was not sustainable. Slowly, poker was eating itself.

Many top pros — some of them ‘big-name’ players — felt betrayed when operators began to tweak game formats and reform loyalty schemes to appeal to the recreational players. But these were decisions born of necessity, to ensure the game’s long-term survival.

After all, the new influx of internet players benefits not just operators but the wider live game too. Online poker feeds the live pro circuit with satellite winners, swelling the field and the prize pools.   

Today’s poker is not just a game for professionals, most of the users are casual players who just want to have a little fun. Quick game modes are the new normal because the emphasis is on excitement, and they appeal to amateur players who don’t have vast amounts of time to devote to playing the game. 

Generation Z and millennials prefer their entertainment to be immediately engaging, and they lack the patience needed to sit at a table for hours folding hand after hand. Fast poker, spin tournaments, and heads up play are the formats that are driving the new poker boom. 

Now take this trend a step further with the introduction of in-game missions, social elements and other engagement tools.

Game studios like ours are also experimenting with integrating other games into poker with their offering to make it part of one universe. It’s goal is to provide millennial and generation Z players with a familiar social atmosphere where they can enjoy online gaming on their own terms.

This time around, growth is based on new game modes and casual play, rather than a professional community. It had to be this way, otherwise the online poker economy would have collapsed like a house of cards.