Those who thought that regulated U.S. online gambling would quickly usher in an Internet poker Renaissance in the country were badly mistaken.
The state-by-state, ring-fenced nature of the industry essentially crippled the vertical before it began, severely limiting player pools and leaving online poker lobbies virtually desolate.
But that didn’t stop several companies from trying to make headway in the market anyway. Five years in, though, a number of previously optimistic online poker operators have already crashed and burned, while a few others remain on life support.
Yet now, in the wake of a compact to share player pools between New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware – and with Pennsylvania likely to join when its industry goes live – there is renewed interest in poker from gambling stakeholders.
Unlike other half-baked attempts to conquer the legal U.S. market, the UK-based gaming behemoth may just have the goods to put up a fight.
The IGT poker platform: revamped and ready
IGT is one of the world’s largest slot machine manufacturers, and has produced countless titles for both land-based and online casinos. What the company is not well-known for, however, is its online poker offering.
But IGT is working to change that. Two years ago, the company stripped the legacy BOSS Media poker platform to its bones and gave it a massive overhaul.
The new desktop client now features a sleek and modern design, and is easily customizable to fit the preferences of each individual player.
With more patrons looking to play on their smartphones, IGT spent considerable time reworking its mobile app as well. The company has created a number of different innovations for the small screen, like unique thumb controls, which allow players to smoothly size bets and respond to game action, while reducing the risk of tapping in error.
Currently, IGT’s poker product is only deployed in a few markets – the company’s biggest poker clients are Svenska Spel in Sweden and the Italian site Lottomatica.
In Pennsylvania, IGT looks to become a major player, and has inked partnerships with both Penn National and Valley Forge to provide not only poker software, but a full-fledged online casino platform.
But while the IGT poker software has been completely reworked and polished over the past few years, it will be competing against at least two premier poker brands which already have years of experience in the U.S. market: PokerStars and WSOP.com (powered by 888).
Lessons from NJ
When PokerStars finally launched its poker site in the Garden State (some 2.5 years after online poker first went live in NJ), it quickly became the dominant force in the market. PokerStars has historically enjoyed a stellar reputation amongst players and is known for developing the most stable and advanced poker software in existence.
Indeed, its rise to the top in New Jersey seemed predestined, and did not come as a surprise to anyone.
While the site unfortunately would not go on to grow the market as a whole, it did manage to cut out a large slice of the pie for itself, easily out-earning Borgata- and 888-networked sites.
But that all changed when the compact between NJ, DE and NV went live earlier this year, allowing 888, which operates sites in all three states under both the 888 and WSOP.com brands, to connect player pools.
Overnight, traffic on WSOP.com skyrocketed, leaving PokerStars, which does not have a presence outside of New Jersey, in the dust.
This trend might quickly be reversed when regulators give the green light to launch in PA (and possibly connect with other legal states), as PokerStars, already partnered with Mount Airy, will surely link up with its NJ companion. WSOP.com, which will launch under the Harrah’s license, will still cover more geographical ground, however.
IGT, on the other hand, will have the opportunity to merge players intrastate between its Commonwealth sites, but will still be landlocked inside Pennsylvania. Of course, it could make the risky move of opening up shop in New Jersey, jumping into an already overcrowded pool. Or it might be banking on other states to come online, such as New York and Michigan.
At the start, though, IGT will be facing two established competitors boasting player pools connected to two or more states, with at least one offering superior software to boot.
While IGT may have plenty of resources to back up its product, it might find the going rough if it can’t quickly expand both in-state and out-of-state.
The U.S. online poker graveyard
The regulated U.S. poker landscape has thus far been harsh, a reality which IGT may soon come to experience first-hand. That said, let’s look back at the companies that have already tried and failed to gain a foothold in the market:
- Ultimate Poker: The much-hyped site was the first fully legal online card room to debut in the U.S., first launching in Nevada then later in New Jersey. The site, which relied on clunky, custom-made software, never caught on enough to become profitable. Its New Jersey operation shut down in September 2014, with the Nevada flagship closing down a few months later.
- Real Gaming: Real Gaming was backed by the South Point Casino in Las Vegas, but never gained any traction. It died a slow and somewhat confusing death.
- Betfair Poker: Many might not remember that Betfair originally launched its own online poker site in New Jersey using the Ongame platform. After several months of making virtually no revenue, however, it astutely shut the operation down. Betfair has gone on to do big things in the market, though, and runs one of the state’s top-earning online casinos.
Whether IGT will become another casualty of the U.S. poker war is yet to be seen. Either way, it will be interesting to see what the company has in store.
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