The Year in Review

From industry-altering acquisitions to network migrations, it’s been quite the year.
The Year in Review

PokerStars’ $731 million deal for Full Tilt on July 31, 2012 was undoubtedly the biggest headline in the last twelve months. The Isle of Man-based operator relaunched the site on November 6 and saw an initial spike in traffic, though liquidity has waned since.

It’s been the most audacious deal the online poker industry has ever seen. The agreement with the Department of Justice allowed PokerStars to take over Full Tilt’s assets and work towards a repayment plan for players, while ending the civil forfeiture proceedings against the beleaguered company.

Though federal legislation has failed (or at least stalled for a Congressional session or two), PokerStars is positioning itself for a regulated market at the state level. In early December, the operator entered into discussions to acquire a casino in Atlantic City.

If completed, the deal would allow PokerStars to obtain a license in New Jersey, who approved online gambling legislation on December 20. The state now awaits Governor Chris Christie’s signature to pass the bill, which would authorize Atlantic City casinos to provide internet gambling, into law.

Meanwhile Nevada continues to prep for its own poker launch, expected in the first quarter of 2013. On June 21, gaming equipment and software providers IGT and Bally Technologies became the first companies to receive online poker licenses in the state. Further west, Senator Rod Wright recently reintroduced gambling legislation in California.

News in Europe focused on the cumbersome regulatory challenges facing gaming operators across the continent. France has become the paradigm of regulatory failure, while Italy has continued its contraction. Spain and Denmark, both of whom liberalized their gambling markets last year, have provided better examples of successful regulation.

The calls for compliance certainly grew louder in 2012. The European Commission published an action plan on October 23, vowing to crack down on legislation out of line with EU law. Greece, Germany and Belgium—home to the spectacular Teufelberger arrest—have faced the fiercest criticism. Until now, however, little has been done. It will be interesting to see if the Commission will do more than release "detailed opinions" on prohibitive and non-compliant regulatory regimes.

In network news, the iPoker Split, which took place in early September, was the dominant headline, with Playtech carving out an elite group of sites that cater to recreational players. To make the top tier operators must maintain a base of 6,000 monthly active players and introduce 850 new players each month, as well as sustain an unspecified balance between recreational and winning players.

With a 15% bump in traffic due to the migration of Everest, Playtech has called the split a success. "Our Tier 1 partners are reporting a strong increase in revenue, and overall activity in the network has grown significantly," said chief executive Mor Weizer. "We anticipate that such a network will prove attractive to our poker licensees and address some of the pressing issues that the poker industry faces."

2012 also saw the proliferation of fast fold poker products, and the growth of the Microgaming migration, which has benefited from the closure of the IGT Poker Network. Microgaming, which recently rebranded as the MPN, is currently ninth in PokerScout's cash game rankings. However, Dan Stewart of PokerScout told PokerUpdate last autumn that the addition of traffic from IGT skins could bump the MPN into the No. 5 spot.

Another prominent theme of 2012—and one of the more exciting moving into the New Year—is the growth of the social gaming sphere. On August 7, Facebook transitioned to real-money gambling by launching Bingo & Slots Friendzy in partnership with Gamesys, owner and operator of popular bingo brand Jackpot Joy.

In early December, social gaming operator Zynga amended its contract with Facebook to permit Zynga-based real-money games on the platform, while 888 is also expected to launch real-money games on the social networking site.

Sure the last twelve months have been hectic, but much is left unresolved. While Full Tilt has relaunched in Europe, and PokerStars is gearing up for a U.S. return, American players are still awaiting reimbursement, and the road to regulation is far from clear. While the United States may legislate on a federal or state level (or not at all), Europe will continue to produce a patchwork of regulatory regimes, some in line with EU law, some not.

PokerStars will further cement its position as industry leader, while Full Tilt and PartyPoker, which completed its bwin traffic migration late last year, will battle it out for the No. 2 spot. Zynga, and more traditional gambling operators like 888, will continue to expand their social gaming offerings, while Microgaming and others will lead the online poker consolidation. Let’s hope next year is half as hectic and exciting as the last.

Here’s to 2013.

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Godwin Maidment

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