The poker community held its collective breaths last year when the Amaya Gaming Company acquired PokerStars. Questions swirled about what a change in leadership at the world’s largest online poker room would mean for the future of the game – both online and live. Over a year later, it should be clear to anyone paying attention that Amaya did decide to fundamentally alter the PokerStars brand.
That decision itself isn’t the problem. Industries change; businesses models adapt. Everyone agreed that poker needed a new marketing strategy. What’s troubling – and what the core poker community is not talking about nearly enough – is that Amaya’s “PokerStars” seems to become less and less about poker almost by the day.
To be clear, steps to return poker to the recreational player base are important. But the devil is in the details. Under Amaya’s watch, there is a deliberate, slow (sometimes not so slow), creep towards detaching the PokerStars brand from the game that is its namesake.
While poker can survive this strategic decision, I’m not so convinced about PokerStars.
“You dance with the one that brung ‘yah,” as they say. What increasingly seems to me to be Amaya’s underling assumption – that you can slowly detach poker from an online gambling site while still attracting the poker crowd to it – is very far from the fait accompli it is being treated as.
Really disgusting announcement from Stars today. Cloaking a blatant money-grab in the guise of "good for the game" is insulting.— Mike Gorodinsky (@gordoMG) November 2, 2015
Putting the Gamble Back Into Poker
There are two main ways that PokerStars has shown its focus is increasingly about anything other than online poker:
Spin & Go
Putting a gigantic spinning prize wheel on a computer screen and selling it to the world as “poker” is one of Amaya’s greatest coups. No doubt many new players flocked to PokerStars to pay rake faster than ever before, wait, no, sorry… hit a slots jackpot…wait no, sorry, that’s not right either… be introduced to poker? Yeah, that. That sounds good. Definitely to try and turn $1 into $1,000 in 5 minutes or less…you know, play poker.
No matter how inspired this marketing slight-of-hand trick may be, does anyone really believe that Spin & Go is growing poker in any meaningful way? Spoiler alert: it’s not. What it is doing, is attracting more gamblers looking for a big score.
Elimination of Supernova Elite from PokerStars VIP Club
Chris Moneymaker brought the dream of being a poker pro into our living rooms. During the poker boom, PokerStars’ “VIP Club” tapped into this by encouraging new poker players to grind harder and longer than they ever thought possible. Many careers were launched from the hundreds, if not thousands, of hours the VIP Club encouraged you to sit in front of your monitor. Being a “Supernova Elite” on PokerStars was a badge of honor; it was something to strive for.
No more. That all changed last week, when PokerStars (or rather, the Amaya Corporation) eliminated the top tier of the VIP Program, effectively putting the world on notice that grinders are no longer welcome on PokerStars. What will Amaya do with the money it saves with the elimination? Pay huge names in global football such as Neymar Jr. to be pitchmen for the brand. Will this encourage more short term depositors? Maybe. Will it attract any long term grinders? If I were a betting man and not a poker player, I’d put my money on “not many”.
Filling the Void
If you want to play online poker, you go to PokerStars. Or at least, you used to go to PokerStars. Now, it seems like the brand that brought online poker into the mainstream moves farther away from growing the game with each passing day.
Nov 1st, 2015 – The day PokerStars formally announced they no longer care about their customers. https://t.co/zCHTtJR7G9 There will be riots— Justin Bonomo (@JustinBonomo) November 1, 2015
As this shift occurs, the competition is starting to realize that there are opportunities opening up in the industry. Already we’ve seen the Microgaming network make drastic reductions to its micro-stakes rake in an effort to attract new poker players to the site. No one knows what the future will bring for online poker. However, you can be sure that someone will be capturing the hearts, minds, and rake of the next generation of poker players.
It just remains to be seen if it will be PokerStars.