This is a far cry from the situation just a few years ago, when poker was arguably the most talked about aspect of iGaming in the U.S. But that’s what happens when a vertical that relies heavily on liquidity doesn’t see its population reach increase for five years and counting.
Now, at best, online poker is a modest revenue stream that garners little excitement — a status that probably won’t change until Pennsylvania and at least one other big state enters into an interstate compact with the existing New Jersey, Delaware, and Nevada markets.
Yet in the face of steadily declining revenue and an overall lack of interest, there is one aspect of the legal U.S. online poker industry that has remained more resilient, and that’s major tournament series, which continue to reverberate with the community.
As the large series have become more important, this is an opportune moment to examine the focal point of each, the main events, which haven’t seen the same upward momentum.
The performance of the first two PokerStars Championships of Online Poker (NJCOOP) mains had been remarkably consistent, with the 2016 and 2017 versions coming within a tick of hitting their $200,000 guarantees. The 2017 NJSCOOP Main Event 32-H fared even better as the only $200,000 guaranteed main event to have an excess (final prize pool of $204,450).
Different story this year as the climax of the 2018 NJSCOOP saw a large overlay, which may have resulted in the 2018 NJCOOP Main Event having its guaranteed lowered to $150,000; a mark it barely reached.
This downward trend, however, is only true of the “High” tier tournaments, during which the main event buy-in tends to be $500. The NJSCOOP series also include a lower tier series, with $50 buy-ins for their main events which tend to overperform. The 2016 low-tier event resulted in a ~$34,000 pool for the $30,000 guarantee, which was then surpassed in 2017 with a pool of ~$43,000. This resulted in the 2018 NJSCOOP raising the low-tier main event guarantee to $40,000, and the final payout was ~$53,000.
What this indicates is that the pool of interested pros and recreational players with larger bankrolls is diminishing, while there is a modest uptick in interest among lower rollers on PokerStars. This could result in even more aggressive “low” tier main events, with buy-ins honed in around $50, and guarantees in the $50k range. Just don’t expect any $200k+ GTDs at the $300 – $500 price range anytime soon.
The popular Borgata/Party Garden State Super Series also sees similar outcomes. In 2016 the culmination of the spring GSSS IV just barely dipped into the fees for the $150,000 guarantee. The fall GSSS V then had an increase in the guarantee to $175,000, but that event was cancelled due to massive technical failures.
Since then the subsequent GSSSs have seen their main events just barely exceeded their $100,000 guarantees. That is, at least until the most recent fall series in 2018 which significantly underperformed. There were conflicting final reports at to the exact numbers of re-entries, but the tournament appeared to have an overlay of more than $12,000. This single data point, however, may prove to be an aberration instead of any indication of a trend.
This trend suggests to us that the Borgata poker brand never fully recovered from its 2016 GSSS V debacle, with players less apt to trust the network’s ability to run a top-flight tournament. It’s also clearly a reflection of cannibalization, as competitor WSOP/888 has stolen significant market share away from both Borgata and PokerStars in the wake of shared liquidity with Nevada/Delaware, without necessarily growing the overall market.
WSOP.com tournament series remained less ambitious than those of the other two networks until about a year ago, when the network’s interest in such events ramped up. The results also stand out: the New Jersey Poker Classic (NJPC) series held in November of 2017 had a $100,000 GTD Main Event which paid out a pool of ~$123,000, and then in February the main event of the NJPC II resulted in final pool of ~$127,000.
Then, in May when New Jersey finally entered into a shared liquidity pact with other states, WSOP gained the ability to link its pool with that of its site in Nevada. The network instantly put together a Coast to Coast series. The main event had a guarantee of $200,000, which it blew away with a final prize pool of ~$246,000.
A second Coast to Coast in August did not see quite as favorable results. Despite good performance for the series overall, the $250,000 Main Event required a decent sized overlay yet still drew over $220,000 worth of entries. The most recent third series returned the guarantee to $200,000, and resulted in a pool of $215,000.
It is possible to see WSOP’s results as evidence that $250,000 is too high a bar for this shared market, but more realistically the network is just reacting to the liquidity share by increasing its hunger for large series, and will soon ease into a more stable pattern like its competitors, with main event prize pools stabilizing in the $100k – $150k range across closed liquidity sites, and around $200k on WSOP.com outside of the summer (WSOP traffic stands to be significantly higher in June-July to the influx of poker tourism in Las Vegas).
Overall all the networks manage to generate significant revenues from these series (and temporarily boost liquidity) despite the struggle to maintain active player pools during the periods between such series. While it is still hoped that overall liquidity will slightly improve or finally surge after Pennsylvania joins a compact (and PokerStars and Party can finally enjoy multi-state benefits), in the short-term it’s likely going to be more of the same of what we’ve seen: series that see their overall prize pools slightly increase, but with their main events holding par.
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