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Here we are! The final segment of our year-end editorial feature, ‘Top 3 Developments of 2020.’ In this editorial series, we focussed on the top developments that significantly impacted the poker industry in 2020.
In the first two installments, we talked about the legal bans implemented by Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu against real-money online gaming and the impact of COVID-19 on the live poker tournaments. Both of these, while important developments, had negatively affected the domestic poker industry. Well, in today’s feature, we will talk about the biggest and by far the most positive outcome for the poker industry in 2020, the online poker boom in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic!
If you have been following our end-of-year editorials for the past few years, you would have noted that every year, bit by bit, online poker had been gaining ground among the masses. With the advancement of technology, hundreds of affordable smartphones, tablets, and laptops are launched every year in India. Add to this fast and cheap internet connectivity, and we get the perfect recipe for games like poker to prosper.
However, 2020 definitely mixed things up significantly. The COVID-19 outbreak led to the shutdown of multiple industries, businesses, and establishments. Not only was live poker no longer an option, but most other means of recreation were eliminated as well. While live poker’s unavailability did contribute to the increase in traffic on online poker sites, the more significant surge came from recreational players who suddenly found themselves stuck at home with cinemas, restaurants, malls, gyms, and, more importantly, office (for many), out of the picture.
The lockdown turned out to be godsent for online poker operators, with sites witnessing an unprecedented spike in turnouts. The MTT flagships began registering guarantee-smashing traffic, and even the traditionally slow days like Mondays or Tuesdays started resembling blockbuster weekends. Capitalizing on the massive inflow of recreational players, most established online poker operators started hosting massive guaranteed tourneys almost every day. Many of them even introduced new tournaments to cater to increased demand.
But it wasn’t all about massive entry fields, jaw-dropping guarantees, and mouth-watering prize money. The worldwide pandemic also allowed online poker companies to flex their PR muscle and give back to society through targeted CRS activities.
While the new players joining the online felts was a significant boost for virtual traffic, towards the end of 2020, the surge in online traffic started losing steam. With people gradually accepting the lockdown and the pandemic as the ‘new normal,’ life slowly started getting back to how it used to be. Offices began to open, alongside other public establishments like malls and restaurants, albeit keeping ‘social distancing’ regulations in mind. Even casinos in Goa and Sikkim got the government nod to reopen.
Not surprisingly, online poker traffic got back to the pre-COVID lockdown levels. Overlays were back, and a sense of ‘online poker exhaustion’ seemed to have set in. All in all, 2020 may not have been a great year in many ways, but it was undoubtedly a pathbreaking year for online poker that got a significant boost because of the pandemic.
Let us now take a closer look at how online poker prospered amidst a global pandemic.
Millionaires Galore: When ₹1 Crore GTD Became Commonplace
The above headline may seem absurd, but this really did happen. After the nationwide lockdown was announced around mid-March, traffic on the virtual felts steadily began to spike.
India’s biggest-ever online poker tournament, PokerBaazi’s ₹5 Crores GTD EndBoss, was the first of many big-ticket tourneys to decimate its guarantee. EndBoss was announced during the 2020 Baazi Poker Tour January edition. At the time, it looked like a daunting task for any site to gather approximately 5,000 entries to meet such a humongous guarantee. Running from April 15 to 19, the ₹11,000 buy-in event ended up posting 5,847 entries through four starting flights. A recreational player from Pune, Abhishek Maheshwari, became the first player to bank an eight-figure (₹1 Crore) winner’s paycheque on a domestic poker platform for shipping the EndBoss.
If PokerBaazi hosted the biggest-ever online poker tournament, Spartan Poker took it upon themselves to host a Millionaire tourney every week. In May alone, the brand hosted five Millionaire events. Eventually, there came a time when more than one online poker site was running a ₹1 Crore GTD (or more) tourney every weekend.
Spartan Poker was undoubtedly one of the most aggressive brands to capitalize on this opportunity and launched several new stops like the Grand Poker Series, the Freezeout Master Series, and the Final Table Series. The site hosts two IOPC editions every year; the lockdown effect saw the series promise ‘never-seen-before’ prize pool guarantees!
With Adda52 running several successful editions of the AOPS and the ₹1 Crore GTD Full House Finale and PokerStars India chipping in with its ₹1 Crore GTD The MAMMOTH and INCOOP, eight-figure guarantees became a weekly thing.
It’s a Streamers Paradise: When Poker Streaming Became the ‘In-Thing’
While famous faces like former India cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni joining PokerStars India as a brand ambassador was a fantastic start, the spike in poker streaming brought in that missing ingredient required to establish poker as a spectator sport.
During the lockdown, many poker players, both established names and up-and-coming players turned to poker streaming. Young Gun Siddharth Karia, Raj Juneja, Young Gun Anujkumar Kodam, Kshitij Kucheria, Shobhit Bhargava, Aditya Wadhwani, Chirag Sodha, Jaideep Sajwan, Nikhil Segel and many others became a part of this growing legion of streamers that played their part in bringing poker closer to the masses.
In episode 4 of ‘The PokerGuru Show,’ Sethi, poker commentator Aditya Wadhwani and poker coach Abhishek Goindi had all agreed that it was refreshing to see more Indian players creating content.
So, we can say that while streaming isn’t a new concept, but up until 2019, it was still at a very nascent stage in India. The 2020 lockdown didn’t exactly bring the domestic venture at par with international poker streamers, but it helped open up space for streaming significantly. Moreover, poker streaming has helped the community grow and helped add a new dimension to the sport.
Poker Innovation: When the FTS & PSL Brought a Bit of Liveliness to Online Poker
2020 witnessed a plethora of online poker stops, but one stood out among all others. We are talking about the India Poker Championship’s inaugural Final Table Series (FTS). The series ran from November 16 to 23 with a generous ₹8 Crores in prize pool guarantees. What’s so special about that, you may be wondering. Well, what set the FTS apart from the rest that for the very first time, the final table of the series’ six featured tourneys was live-streamed across multiple platforms simultaneously!
The series also had in its arsenal a fantastic line-up of commentators from UK’s top poker pro, Sam Razavi to two-time WSOP bracelet winner Kevin Macphee, India’s poker mom Radhika Shankar, and funny man Ramesh Thotapalli, along with guest commentator, poker diva cum world-renowned poker commentator Maria Ho!
Coming to poker leagues, they too play a pivotal role in bringing the mind sport to a mass audience and enhancing its mass appeal. This is primarily because poker leagues were usually broadcast on national television. But in 2020, that sadly couldn’t happen.
Not to be undeterred, Poker Sports League (PSL) shifted to the online felts and announced its newest avatar, i.e., PSL – Virtual (or PSL – V). The action took place on the free-to-play Hashtag Poker app and was streamed for viewers on the app and the Hashtag Poker YouTube channel.
Both the FTS and PSL went a long way in bringing a live feel to online poker and was well received by poker lovers.
There’s a 1st Time for Everything: When WPT Hosted its Annual India-Facing Series Online!
This past year had seen several firsts. A majority of them were first-time online poker series. Joining this bandwagon was the WPT Online India series. The difference here was that before 2020, WPT India had always been the mega live series that ended the live poker calendar. It was one of the biggest live poker festivals, often drawing in record-breaking crowds to the floating Casino Deltin Royale in Goa.
COVID-19 made sure that this was out of the question. Nevertheless, WPT decided to go ahead with its India-facing series by moving it online. WPT had a lot of experience from moving many of its international stops online and extending its long-standing association with Adda52; it made an easy transition online. Hence, the WPT Online India (WPTOI) series was born!
The series ran from November 5 to 22, offering a massive ₹13.5 Crores in prize pool guarantees. Similar to the FTS series, the WPTOI also live-streamed a host of events at the online series.
Talking about the success of the series in retrospect, WPT Live Events Specialist Danny McDonagh said, “The WPT Team, as a whole, and I personally was extremely happy with how WPT Online India fared. This was the first time I had closely followed an Adda52 online series, which gave me tremendous insight into the typical range of buy-ins and player demand for such an event.”
“To get just over 60,000 entries for the 154 events was a huge mark in my mind, and even more pleasing was the performance of the 31 trophy events in relation to guarantees set and in some cases exceeding the guarantee by a long way to result in total prize money of over ₹15 Crores.”
Following the example set by the WPT, even the Asian Poker Tour (APT) will be hosting its first-ever APT 2021 Online Series India on PokerBaazi from January 15 to 26, featuring more than ₹8 Crores in guaranteed prizes!
In conclusion, this was conceivably one of the best years in terms of progress for online poker. And there is light at the end of the tunnel with the Government of India preparing to launch a pan-India COVID-19 vaccination drive starting January 16. Keeping this latest development in mind, the possibility of live poker tournaments making a comeback before the end of 2021 is stronger than ever.
All we can hope for is a better 2021 for the poker industry!