In an environment in which much of the revenue from traditional casino gambling is flat, the 30 or so seated patrons facing three dealers and large screens at Pittsburgh’s Rivers Casino late on a Thursday night represent growth.
At each of their individual machines — set up as a bank of 55 of them in stadium-style configuration — the players can push a button to play their choice of blackjack, roulette, or baccarat. They play simultaneously, seeing the outcome at their own machine or on one of the screens above the dealers conducting the games.
Nearby, other Rivers customers are playing any of those table games or other options like craps the old-fashioned way — a small group standing or sitting around one dealer and game — but the electronic hybrid version is increasingly where the action is.
Hybrid revenue has doubled in two years
In the past two years, annual table games revenue at Pennsylvania’s 12 casinos has increased just 2.2% to $885.6 mm — it actually declined slightly from the 2017-18 fiscal year to 2018-19 — while the hybrid games revenue nearly doubled from $16.8 mm to $32.4 mm.
Pittsburgh’s Rivers has been part of the trend more than anyone, even though it was preceded by other casinos in embracing hybrids. They can also be known as “fusion” games or “electronic, dealer-assisted” games, but all combine old-fashioned table play with more modern button-pushing.
In October, Rivers made 8.9% of its table games revenue from the hybrids, a higher percentage than any other Pennsylvania casino. Two years ago, it had none of them. They were recently relocated to a more prominent position in the busy center of the casino in three rows of clustered seating, adjacent to the property’s popular new sportsbook.
Shannon Redmond, the casino’s vice president of marketing, said the hybrids are particularly popular with new and younger players who may be intimidated by sitting down at a blackjack table with a few strangers.
“Some people are nervous to sit at a table game if they’ve never played it before,” she noted.
Not only do inexperienced players want to avoid looking ignorant, but others at the table might frown upon questionable decisions by others that affect their own hands. The hybrid configurations offer more anonymity to their decision-making.
Turn the gambling into more of a party
At the same time, the large communal setting in which patrons are playing blackjack or roulette simultaneously can create more of a social, even partying, atmosphere. In blackjack, everyone’s playing identical starting hands against the dealer’s same hand, but some can opt to stick while others hit.
Redmond said that millennials walking through the crowded casino after a September performance by DJ Pauly D on a Saturday night were particularly taken by the lively form of gambling the hybrids offered.
“That’s where the crowd was,” Redmond said. “People were saying, ‘I didn’t know you had this.’ … You walk through and see people playing, with their friends standing behind them watching, and it becomes a more social thing. You see more social interaction than what you would see at a table game.”
Casino executives know that younger customers raised in the interactive video age aren’t drawn to traditional slot machines in the way their parents of the baby boomer era are. The hybrids are one way of offering something more appealing to stop them on their way to a property’s nightclub, restaurant, or sportsbook.
“Your younger age demographic wants to play games and feel excitement but wants to overcome fear of making the wrong decision,” offered David Parfrey, vice president of marketing for Mohegan Sun Pocono, which has 20 hybrid seats for blackjack and roulette, split between smoking and non-smoking areas.
Wind Creek Bethlehem was actually the first in Pennsylvania and among the first in the country to put electronic table games into widespread use. A 2018 article in Global Gaming Business Magazine said at that time it had “the largest ETG installation in the U.S. to date” with 150 player stations. That was attributed partly to their appeal to the casino’s Asian patrons, as the stadium seating and hybrids had gained popularity in the Far East prior to the U.S.
Scientific Games helps set the trend in PA
Both Wind Creek and Mohegan Sun obtain their hybrids from Scientific Games, which offers a range of electronic table options that have evolved in recent years, said Erica Goldstein, product manager for electronic games for the company’s North American market.
Scientific Games’ Shuffle Master division began offering electronic table games in 2012, and it now supplies nine of the Pennsylvania casinos, Goldstein said. Presque Isle Downs just added a 20-seat configuration last weekend, she said.
Part of the appeal is the reduction in labor costs, as a single dealer in control of the games may be serving a dozen or more players instead of a few. (Dealers can still receive tips by push of a button by players.) That can enable lower minimum wagers for players, such as $1 to $5, than they may be able to get at the same time at traditional tables a short walk away.
“They’re saving on overhead,” Goldstein said of the casinos, while offering patrons something new and different they may not have seen before. Visitors whose first taste of casino gambling came in Las Vegas will not have experienced the electronic tables much, as they have not caught on there to the same extent as in regional markets like Pennsylvania.
“Most properties start with a small number of seats, see how successful it is, and then add more,” Goldstein said. “It’s easier to start small and expand.”
Pumping up the volume can help
Goldstein said Scientific Games encourages casinos to pump up the party atmosphere around the stadium, hybrid sections, maybe providing a DJ or other different music from the rest of the property.
“It’s a little more upbeat … maybe a more clubby and fun atmosphere,” she said. “It gives new players a chance to learn the game and maybe then convert slot players to table players as well.”
Scientific Games has versions of the games that are fully automated as well as dealer-assisted, and the outcomes may be connected to the actual, live games taking place in a table games pit. Some versions also include three-card poker, war, and sic bo, and tournament-style play is another option.
The company refers to most of its product line in use now as Fusion Hybrids, but its newest generation is known as a Quartz product that Goldstein said “comes with a fully redesigned player terminal and the ability to wager on up to eight games concurrently.”
That’s not yet in place in Pennsylvania. It’s likely just a matter of time.
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