Sean Chaffin looks at the rise of PokerGO on the back of the game’s resurgence.
It was a huge day for the world of poker at the Aria Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on May 30. Amazingly to most, 48 players bought into the Super High Roller Bowl for $300,000 each. The final two battling were the most successful names in poker and represent a dichotomy in the game. Daniel “Kid Poker” Negreanu was the game’s all-time cash leader. He squared off against Justin Bonomo, on one of the biggest heaters in poker throughout 2018.
It was the well-known poker star versus the poker star many outside of the game might not recognize. Bonomo would go on to win for $5 million and pass Negreanu to become the all-time money leader after also having a massive summer at the World Series of Poker (WSOP). His year included several other high roller wins for a total of $20.1 million as of mid-August.
But beyond these two huge superstars, the Super High Roller Bowl spotlighted the growth of a fairly new medium for the game – the PokerGO app and its parent company Poker Central, which created the event live from the company’s new studio right on the Vegas Strip.
To use poker parlance, the game is on a heater. The WSOP, World Poker Tour, and numerous other tours around the world are finding success as the game experiences a resurgence. While it may not be on par with the boom of the mid-2000s, poker seems to be on the rise and the people behind PokerGO/Poker Central are looking to take advantage.
Poker Central was born in May 2015 in hopes of offering a 24-hour cable TV network focused on poker. The service was founded by pro poker and businessman player Cary Katz, founder of the College Loan Corp. After running into obstacles getting carriage on cable operators, the service changed course in 2017 – introducing PokerGO to customers and offering exclusive content for $10 a month.
The company had already introduced some nice events, such as the Super High Roller Bow, but reaching a deal in 2017 to stream WSOP events not broadcast by ESPN was a major score. The service offered more than 40 hours of coverage for poker fans. The company also reached partnerships with poker pros like Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, and Antonio Esfandiari to help promote PokerGO among players and fans.
This summer, the service added even more WSOP coverage via a partnership with popular gaming site Twitch.tv, and also began showing regular high roller events from the Aria. PokerGO has become a one-stop shop for all things poker – with slick and professional production.
So far, company officials are pleased where the service is headed. Beyond the WSOP, PokerGO/Poker Central has introduced new high-stakes tournaments such as the Poker Masters and US Poker Open, offering live coverage wire-to-wire. The company also struck deals to distribute the events episodically on the NBC Sports Network.
“We could not be more pleased with the progress of PokerGO after the first 13 months of operations,” said Sam Simmons, vice president of content for Poker Central. “PokerGO has become the ultimate destination for the best events the game has to offer.”
Another move that pleased fans was the revival of the popular “Poker After Dark” series. The show returned in a live format to capture the feel of a high-stakes home game environment that was so popular in its original NBC incarnation from 2007 to 2011. Programming as well as other poker content are all available on the app at any time.
“We will be looking to continue these successes by building on these brands,” Simmons said, “while also creating new live world-class poker events and perhaps bringing back even more classic fan favourites.”
The poker offerings, top-notch production, and quality commentary have helped the service win over many poker players and fans. Barry Carter is the founder of PokerMediaPro.com and a long-time writer in the industry. He believes the general quality of programming has helped the service grow.
“I was pretty shocked that poker players would pay for content they have traditionally always gotten for free, especially because there are so many free live streams from tournaments and on Twitch,” Carter says. “They’ve proven that the market is happy to pay if the product is good enough, which I think is a valuable lesson for anybody in the industry to pay attention to. It certainly has changed my own perspective on poker content.”
That content goes beyond just streaming poker content. The service features documentaries and other shows about players away from the tables. One new offering includes ‘Hand Histories’, offering a behind-the-scenes interview-driven documentary focusing on some of the most famous poker hands ever captured on television. The original series ‘Insiders’ followed some top pros on their quest for success at the 2018 Super High Roller Bowl.
Poker is a unique game with an interesting history and colourful characters, and the service doesn’t seem to find a lack of interesting stories away from tournaments. ‘Stories from the Felt’ tells interesting stories from the game’s history, and ‘Pokerography’ tells the life stories of some of the poker’s best players.
With PokerGO, the company hopes to build a service that goes beyond the felt.
At the Aria, PokerGO not only featured two of the game’s greats, but also the company’s new venue – PokerGO Studio. The new facility was part of a partnership with the casino and was built at a cost of $25 million. The company hopes it features plenty of big-time live poker for years to come.
The studio features a full production facility for streaming the game. A large open playing area houses nine beautiful poker tables including a main area for a feature table. There’s a cool ambiance with TV screens throughout, and a huge screen backdropping the feature table. During events, producers can add in a scene of the Vegas skyline or other graphics and photos.
The 10,000-square foot facility holds millions of dollars of video and lighting equipment. The full set was built with poker specifically in mind, constructed from two adjacent art galleries in front of the casino.
“PokerGO/Poker Central and Aria have really formed a great team where we’re really happy with the product,” Aria tournament poker manager Paul Campbell said. “Aria’s really proud of the product that we offer the players and Poker Central is amazing at showcasing that product to the viewers.”
The studio also features areas for friends and family to take in the action including a lounge and fully-stocked bar. Another large room allows for player interviews, complete with green screen, and there is a room with an anchor desk for coverage during player breaks. The entire venue makes for a unique multimedia poker experience.
The investment and partnership shows how much Poker Central and Aria believe in the future of live poker. “Poker After Dark” as well as the Poker Masters, US Poker Open, and some of the Aria’s regular high roller tournaments will all be streamed from the studio. Simmons said the impact the PokerGO Studio will have on the service can’t be understated.
“Having a full-time facility dedicated to poker programming obviously allows us to host a wide variety of live poker events,” he said. “The flexibility of the space also provides a wealth of opportunities to create studio programming that may not be rooted in traditional poker play. There are a number of concepts in this vein currently in development that we’re looking forward to rolling out in the coming months.”
FACING SOME CHALLENGES
While PokerGO has found an audience and overcome some hiccups in its first year of operations at the WSOP, company officials realize there are challenges in reaching a large audience. Will there be enough poker fans to subscribe for the long-term? Will viewers and subscribers remain after the WSOP wraps up each July?
“I suspect the biggest challenge they face is simply that there is a ceiling on the number of potential customers there are out there,” Carter says. “By definition the kind of people who pay to watch poker events are already hardcore fans, which is a pretty small percentage of the overall market compared to the casual sports fan who stumbles across poker on ESPN.”
There are also competitors offering well-produced content for free including other streaming poker tournaments.
“I certainly think their product is very well produced and worth the money if you are a big poker fan,” Carter says. “The only concern for them in that respect is that some of the free poker broadcasts they compete with like the European Poker Tour stream, the partypoker MILLIONS streams, Poker Night TV, and the recent Triton Series, which are also of very high quality with no paywall.
“Not to mention just being generally in competition with Twitch streams and vloggers like Doug Polk. They really have to attract the big names and do things differently if they want people to pay when there is so much good free stuff out there already.”
Poker Central doesn’t provide detailed information on the number of subscribers to PokerGO, but Simmons says the service has seen “steady growth that has exceeded expectations since the launch of the product.”
“We face the same challenges in marketing and promotion as any other niche subscription video on demand product: providing an offering that serves the most passionate in the fan group, while not alienating the more casual fans who may not be interested in the same types of content,” he said. “It’s a balance we constantly look to perfect, but we’ve done a solid job thus far by showcasing a mix of the most notable events in the game as well as the personalities and storylines that even the poker novice will find compelling.”
The company hopes its unique shows and coverage of major events and players set it apart in the industry. Working with Twitch, PokerGO provided final table coverage of nearly every WSOP bracelet event for both subscribers and non-subscribers this summer – culminating with everyday live coverage of the $10,000 Main Event.
Simmons said the company is always looking to get better, but its coverage this year was an improvement from 2017.
“We’re pleased to see this multi-audience growth approach yield clear dividends as the Main Event field grew to the second largest all-time,” Simmons said. “We’re already looking forward to using the learnings from this year to continue improvement next year, and to implement a similar strategy across our many events throughout the year.”
The WSOP, which is owned by Caesar’s Entertainment Corp, has a multi-year agreement with Poker Central and event organizers have been pleased with where the app is headed. WSOP executive director Ty Stewart said the company is even considering renewing its agreement early.
“This model, where Poker Central takes on the production commitment to grow their platform, but concurrently guarantees continued and expanded presence on ESPN seems to be working for everyone,” he says. “They have delivered on everything we asked. We greatly expanded our original content footprint under this new model.”
Stewart said having poker people like Katz involved with the effort help ensure a quality product. It’s a relationship that works for both entities so far.
“We know with Cary Katz at the helm we have someone who truly loves the game at the core of business decisions,” Stewart said. “We are confident their multiple revenue streams, inclusive subscription product, advertising sales, and syndication will allow them to continue to grow. But we realize their heavy commitment to the WSOP is an investment and we are appreciative to be a cornerstone of their vision.”
Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Crandall, Texas. His work appears in numerous websites and publications. Follow him on Twitter @PokerTraditions. He is also the host of the True Gambling Stories podcast, available on iTunes, Google Play, TuneIn Radio, Spotify, Stitcher, PokerNews.com, HoldemRadio.com, and other platforms. Check out his book Raising the Stakes on Amazon.com.