The world’s largest poker site, PokerStars, has struggled to maintain its once-dominant position as the industry’s most respected operator in recent years. The site’s previously stellar reputation within the community — cultivated for over a decade following its official September 2001 launch — took a massive hit when it refused to honor promised loyalty cashback payouts to its highest volume players. Combined with its former CEO’s unique ability to capture negative headlines, an aggressive movement into casino products, pre-existing regulatory challenges and highly debatable marketing practices aimed at profitable and recreational players alike, PokerStars’ status as the bastion of online poker has been significantly challenged over the past 16 months.
The PokerStars Changes Are Really About Control (Alex Weldon – PartTimePoker – Nov 2, 2015)
Amaya CEO David Baazov Steps Down Indefinitely (Joss Wood – OnlinePokerReport – Mar 29, 2016)
Doug Polk Shares Thoughts on PokerStars’ Award Winning 2016 (David Huber – UpswingPoker – Dec 7, 2016)
PTP Podcast: “The Airing of Grievances” (Andrew Barber, Kat Arnsby, Alex Weldon – Dec 23, 2016)
However, there have been some signs recently of a shift in the way PokerStars reaches out to a new audience brought forth by the game’s highest profile personalities via platforms such as Twitch, YouTube and social media. In an ironic twist of fate, it now appears as if the driving forces behind Amaya — a company responsible for well over half of the real money Internet poker market worldwide — have realized that a battle for online poker legitimacy is at hand… and that pros currently share a space atop the poker marketing hierarchy with operators and media.
Negative press may have been one thing for the brand and its high-ranking executives, but as player criticism of the site has evolved from heated revolt to outright dismissal (and as recreational fan engagement with big-name pros soars), the need for parent company Amaya to retain its core base of accomplished veterans has perhaps motivated decision makers to reconsider their stance towards a minority group generally labeled as “entitled” since Rational Group’s assets were purchased by Amaya in 2014.
Two new products, Power Up Poker and the All Stars Cash Game competition, are coming to PokerStars soon. A far cry from rehashed tactics that are typically ignored by seasoned poker players, the new ideas represent an attempt to reinvigorate overall interest in PokerStars and its most skillful players, provide new formats to compete in, and showcase in-house creations that may be desperately needed in the modern age of Internet gambling. But will Power Up and All Stars innovate online poker and usher in a new era a credibility?
Power Up Poker
Power Up Poker is a poker-based card game that draws heavily from Hearthstone and Magic The Gathering while fleshing out concepts introduced in 2016 by the Global Poker League in its Holdem X app. Currently in ALPHA testing, Power Up will incorporate four suits and hand rankings equivalent to poker, yet the actual gameplay will strike a sharp contrast to traditional 3-handed No Limit Hold’em due to the introduction of “special ability” cards.
The most detailed description so far of how Power Up will work was provided earlier this month by PokerStars Headline Team Pro Daniel Negreanu during his Full Contact Poker Podcast. “Everyone will start with three additional cards that are not poker hand cards,” Kid Poker explains at the 28:30 mark of the video. “Each one of these cards has a specific cost associated with them.” You can listen to that episode here beginning at 27:32 for more information.
Balance and Skill-Based Edges
The main concerns of any competitive card game revolve around balance and skill-based edges. Even in highly touted turn-based video games such as XCOM 2, weaponry is prioritized over shielding (or Offense over Defense) due to turn limitations on missions, which devalues some in-game options. Gwent, a popular card game within CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, suffers from a lack of in-depth strategy that results in a large percentage of equally competent players depending on maxroll deck drawing over skill to decide a winner. Throughout the history of programming, developers have struggled to insert intricate variables into their games without rendering other facets useless and cheapening the overall experience.
OPR’s DellaFave describes Power Up as “a new poker game, not a poker gimmick” in his February 2017 article, but also references how achieving true gameplay objectivity is something that eludes even the most popular games online. Negreanu talks about this as well by going into some card strength terminology like “broken” or “OP,” then leaves open the possibility that PokerStars may update special ability cards as needed to address balance issues as they arise.
Yet assuming Power Up creators are able to reasonably maintain card strength balance, the question then becomes, Do skillful players enjoy a competitive edge over their unskilled opponents? And since this particular game will be marketed for real money wagering, Can the best players beat the rake? This is not lost on DellaFave, who informs his readers that there’s “nothing stopping” the world’s largest online poker operator from utilizing slot mechanics to impose an “oppressive rake structure” on Power Up Poker. This in turn could de-legitimize the format at least in the eyes of many longtime PokerStars customers, who might otherwise be enticed to market the game to their own fan bases.
In a nutshell, Power Up’s status as an “innovation” for online poker may ultimately be decided by the presence or absence of a Spin & Go multiplier or similar feature.
All Stars Cash Game Contest
PokerStars Launches Rake Free Cash Game Challenge (TwoPlusTwo Official Thread – Mar 9, 2017)
PokerStars Announces ‘All Stars’ Initiative (Katie Callahan – PokerNews – Mar 9, 2017)
PokerStars Sets to Find Best Cash Game Player (Daniel Smyth – CardsChat – Mar 10, 2017)
PokerStars to Launch All Stars Competition (Dan Katz – FlushDraw – Mar 10, 2017)
Earlier this week, PokerStars’ Director of Poker Room Operations Severin Rasset announced an upcoming high stakes online poker cash game competition that represents enormous marketing potential for the site and its most skilled players.
In a “throwback to the way poker used to be” (as CardsChat’s Daniel Smyth puts it), PokerStars will be contacting select winning players to RSVP their participation in rake-free $200 and $2,000 buy-in No Limit Hold’em cash games during the months of April and May.
The concept appears to recognize the marketing value that today’s most highly skilled poker players possess, and seeks to engage poker purists in a format that can be beneficial to not only the world’s most widely-known online poker brand, but also the longtime players and fans who have argued for a higher degree of legitimacy in deciphering genuine poker talent.
Feedback in the TwoPlusTwo News, Views & Gossip Forum has been generally positive in the first 48 hours following the official press release, with most negative comments focusing on whether PokerStars’ endgame is to increase its own value (a very likely scenario).
Unfortunately this form of criticism does carry weight given PokerStars’ notorious communication fumbles since being taken over by Amaya in 2014, yet the community has also shown over the years that it can adequately appreciate a profitable poker operator — as witnessed by the elevated stature in which it holds former PokerStars owners Mark and Isai Scheinberg.
The issue with poker operators has never been with them showing a profit, but rather how they represent the game, whether or not they attempt to usurp all authority of the word “poker” in a disingenuous effort to promote their own interests while devaluing players, and how they conduct business overall.
If the All Stars and Masters cash games are to be a success, then PokerStars must reach an honest understanding with its best players that enables them to co-promote their real money play through live streams and other content without discrimination. If it fails to do so, then the competitions simply become a Who’s the best poker player that also shills for PokerStars? charade that does nothing to advance the importance of skill-based prowess.
VIP Rewards Changes Looming
PokerStars Sheds Some Light on 2017 VIP Changes (Steve Ruddock – USPoker – Nov 15, 2016)
The current PokerStars VIP Rewards cashback loyalty program has already been massively overhauled since the Scheinberg era. In fact, many believe a further revamping of the structure will take place midway through this year with a new system that prioritizes casino and sports betting cross-sell over traditional poker rake contribution.
And so the debate continues. Should online poker sites cater more to loyal players who have historically patronized large operators (and in some cases win more than they lose), or direct all marketing towards those who might be attracted to super-fast, low skill and high rake gameplay but remain unlikely to contribute to the site’s coffers in relative perpetuity?
If PokerStars manages to balance that equation with its new products, the industry could indeed be on the cusp of bonafide online poker innovation. But then again, the final judgement on Power Up Poker and All Stars Cash Games will depend on player and fan engagement.
Author’s Note: All opinions expressed in this article are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of my colleagues in poker or this website. Cited material from fellow poker writers is referenced throughout this piece in an effort to share related content so our readers may form their views objectively from a variety of sources.
Follow David Huber on Twitter: @dhubermex
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