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Online Gambling Giant PokerStars: 'Many Things To Learn From The Video Game World'

The Stars Group Invests In Virtual Reality Product To Improve Player Experience, Attract New Players

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A Look At PokerStars VRBusiness is booming for The Stars Group (TSG), parent company of online poker market leader PokerStars. The Toronto-based gaming operation spent most of 2018 making big acquisitions and forming partnerships, which led to a 74 percent increase in year-over-year revenue, according to their third quarter earnings report.

However, poker wasn’t the driving force behind the growth, with revenue in that department down four percent.

Most of the revenue increase could be attributed to The Stars Group’s purchase of Sky Betting and Gaming last April, a transaction worth $4.7 billion. The company also made a 20-year agreement with Eldorado Resorts for online sports betting options, and most recently inked a multi-year deal with the National Basketball Association.

In 2016, online poker accounted for 73 percent of the company’s revenue. That number dropped to 67 percent in 2017, and based on the latest available figures, will fall to just 36 percent for 2018 as sports betting and other online casino games continue to play a bigger role in the bottom line.

That being said, Stars hasn’t exactly neglected their online poker product. The company continues to inch its way back in the United States following their Black Friday exit. In late November, PokerStars was granted an online gambling license by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. The site has also been operating in New Jersey since 2016.

A couple months ago, The Stars Group unveiled their virtual reality product to the online poker market. PokerStars VR, which is available to download on Oculus, Viveport, and Steam, allows players to choose their poker environment, such as Macau in the future, or a saloon in the old west. Players can peak at their hole cards, talk to their tablemates, and even pick up on tells that are usually absent from traditional online poker formats.

But is there a demand for a more immersive online poker experience, and perhaps more importantly, is virtual reality the key to attracting new players to the game?

Severin RassetCard Player caught up with PokerStars Director of Poker Innovation and Operations Severin Rasset, to find out more about PokerStars VR and what led the company to invest in the technology.

Card Player: How did PokerStars VR come to fruition and what has the initial response been to the launch?

Severin Rasset: As part of a broader program of innovation we’re looking at iterative features, new games and designs, and we’re always focused on improving the player experience. But we also like to take some bets on the future and challenge ourselves into unknown territory.

As well as poker players, we also have a lot of video gamers among us at PokerStars and VR is a technology that we believe has real potential for the near future. If VR can find a foothold in the mass market, we want to be ready with the best product and a good amount of knowledge and experience.

A few weeks since the release, we’re really thrilled by the feedback from players. They really seem to enjoy PokerStars VR and are helping us get to the top of the Steam and Oculus charts in the VR category. We had a lot of freedom to design the game for poker players and we are glad to see that they enjoy it as much as we do.

CP: Can anybody jump in and compete right away on PokerStars VR, or do you need to be an experienced gamer? Will the PokerStars VR experience eventually branch out to other casino games?

SR: The hardware may take a few minutes to get used to, as it would for anyone touching a mobile phone for the first time, (who remembers that?) but the hardware companies have done a great job at making it intuitive. Even the touch controllers are like using your real hands.

When we designed the game with Lucky VR, we took advantage of the possibility to provide very smooth gestures that we think players will understand and get used to within a few hands.

We wanted PokerStars VR to be accessible for all types of players and the pace of the game to be enjoyed by anybody, from experienced players to beginners. We have plans to work on a smoother onboarding process to make sure that beginners to poker will not be lost starting this game.

Regarding the future state of VR, I would say that we need to learn how to walk before we run. There is still a lot that we need to learn in this game before we even begin to consider new ones!

CP: Is PokerStars VR more of a response to existing player demand, or an effort to reach out to a new customer base? How much overlap is there between the two demographics of VR gamers and online poker players? Do you envision a time when VR poker is the main game and the traditional online poker table layout is retired?

SR: The player demographics are the same in countries where both our real money poker and free to play PokerStars VR products are available. Players are simply interested in an enjoyable, social and thrilling experience.

To me, there is no real competition between the two. Instead, they provide a good complementary offering for different types of appetites and available devices. Poker can be played on a mobile phone while on the subway, from a laptop, or from a comfortable set up with a VR device. All of that works together like cinema, video on demand, and Blu-ray.

CP: What else is PokerStars doing to improve the online poker experience and bring new players to the game? How can PokerStars continue to bridge the gap between gamers and real-money gamblers?

SR: There are still many things that we can learn from the video game world and the main word that sticks out for me is ‘entertainment.’ With poker, we have one of the best games that has ever been created. It is simple to understand but is several layers deep. That’s what constantly holds player interest. It is our responsibility to make sure that the rest of the experience is as enjoyable as the game with engaging features, exciting animations and renewed content to give players a reason to keep coming back to us.

We started by creating a flow of game variants and the second piece of the puzzle to me is to make sure that we deliver enhanced animations and temporary content. We want players to be positively and consistently surprised whenever they log-in to PokerStars.