All the evidence is pointing to PokerStars entering the New Jersey online poker market in the coming weeks, a moment that is expected to be one of the biggest stories of the year, as poker players are looking to the return of PokerStars as that of a conquering hero.
PokerStars is the consensus #1 in online poker, currently in a dominant position and the general feeling is upon their return to the U.S. online gaming market they will immediately establish a new ceiling that all other operators will strive to reach; it will be PokerStars and then a trail pack of operators trying to catch them.
PokerStars is expected to ascend to the #1 spot, easily, but what about down the road?
Stars may be the biggest and best company in the online gaming industry right now, but they are certainly not untouchable, and with their own future a bit uncertain (the company was sold to Amaya Gaming in August) a challenger could emerge on the horizon.
From whence that challenge will come is still anyone’s guess.
PokerStars’ most dangerous competitor may actually come from within, in the form of Full Tilt.
The fact that they are currently owned by the same company makes Full Tilt perhaps the most interesting of PokerStars’ potential competitors. Whether they remain friendly rivals, or once again become bitter enemies following Amaya spinning off Full Tilt is unclear, and could be something that determines the trajectory of the U.S. online poker industry in the coming years.
During the post-UIGEA to Black Friday period from 2006-2011, PokerStars was the clear #1, but Full Tilt did manage to keep pace with PokerStars, forcing Stars to avoid becoming complacent.
They managed this even though Stars had a five-year head start on FTP, and (as we have come to know following the company’s internal issues coming to light after Black Friday) despite Full Tilt being grossly mismanaged –Who knows how the company would have fared against PokerStars had they had competent leadership and a business plan that went beyond doling out massive monthly dividends?
Imagine if those dividend payments were reinvested in the product (which some would argue is the best poker software in the industry), marketing, or customer service?
Furthermore, what would have happened had Full Tilt’s monopoly on multi-entry tournaments and Rush Poker not been interrupted by Black Friday? Stars was #1, but Full Tilt was the innovator.
Even though Full Tilt was a legitimate top tier online poker room from the moment they launched, thus far there has been little talk of Full Tilt returning to the U.S.
The most obvious reason is the company’s reputation is simply too tough to overcome. The term Ponzi scheme, and having your entire Board of Directors settle with the DOJ isn’t the type of press companies want to receive, and it’s the type of news consumers don’t easily forget.
There was also the “minor” issue of owing over $300 million to their players. Some of that money was repaid a year later, while some remains unpaid to this day, well over three years later.
Moving forward there are two possibilities for Full Tilt to return to the U.S.
The first possibility is for Amaya to launch Full Tilt alongside PokerStars in U.S. markets (with separate land-based partners), a move that seems somewhat redundant even though the two products differ aesthetically, but is not out of the question.
The second possibility, the more likely in my mind, is for Full Tilt to be sold and rebranded by their new owners; owners I would expect to be a major casino corporation.
If the company is rebranded (perhaps to WSOP.com or WynnPoker.com) it would eliminate virtually all of the negatives overnight. Essentially wiping the slate clean for Full Tilt.
A new company
While their most likely challenger is Full Tilt, there is also the possibility that someone comes along with some online gaming breakthrough and releases a new software product that trumps PokerStars.
The world is never short on visionaries with grand ideas.
Paradise Poker took what Planet Poker had done and released a significantly superior product in 1999, completely reinventing the online poker industry a little over a year after it launched. Then along came another major innovation, the failed PokerSpot.com and tournaments.
The point is, if you think PokerStars is the pinnacle, you’re sorely mistaken. They are currently halfway up the mountain while their competitors are still at base camp, but nobody has reached the summit.
A new company could come out of nowhere with some innovation that flips the industry on its head; perhaps 3-D video game graphics that do not use so much memory that the game is slowed down.
Or, a current competitor could get their act together.
A resurgent partypoker
One company that has somewhat been written off (prematurely in my opinion) is partypoker.
Party Poker dominated the U.S. market pre-UIGEA by appealing to casual players (grinders will remember you had to sign-up through the Party skin Empire Poker to get rakeback, and even those deals were hush-hush) and while they haven’t exactly been world beaters in New Jersey, the company does have a real business plan in place and is sticking to it.
A few software improvements, stepping up their customer service, and of course the vast U.S. market to pull casual players who like to play poker from is all partypoker needs. A task(s) that is far from impossible.