Hearthstone and Video Games Are the Biggest Threat to Online Poker

14/10/2015 11:19 | Updated 13 October 2016

I've been working in this industry for 11 years. Whilst I admit I was not a pioneer, I've seen all of its cycles, particularly in the poker business.

There was a time where online poker was profitable for every operator, including online sportsbooks and casinos. Online poker was glamourous, new and exciting. It was a competitive product; it was a pure gambling vertical.

Over the past decade, online poker operators have built great customer bases. Pokerstars claims to have more than 80 million aggregated accounts and I recall Zynga Poker announced it had around 50 million a few years ago.

However, because of the concentration of the market, where the leader has more than 70% of the market share, today the strategy of online poker operators is simply to poach Pokerstars' customer database.

Operators no longer invest in poker, and why would they, when the average revenue per user is probably three to four times more profitable in sportsbooks and casinos?

Online poker, whether playing for real money or not, is seen as a hobby or pastime for most users. The vast majority do not play to make money, but for the thrill of the game.

Online poker and its marketing has remained almost unchanged in the past decade, but consumers and the consumption of digital content and games has changed dramatically. 10 years ago, there was no iPhone, no League of Legends, no Candy Crush and there was no Hearthstone.

What is Hearthstone I hear you ask? It's a card game which was announced in March 2013 by leading video game company, Blizzard, and officially launched in March 2014. 18 months later, they have more than 30 million registered players. Yes, 30 million.

Like poker, it's a card game, a game of skill that includes a large 'random' element. They have huge online tournaments, live streaming of competitions, big prizes and the option of buy-in or wagering.

Daniel Negreanu, regarded as the best poker player in the world, has publicly said that he is addicted to Hearthstone and plays every day. Recently, I met the number one Italian poker player and he told me he is now spending more time on Hearthstone than Poker. Do they make more money? No, but they enjoy the game and the experience.

Google Trends Graph, October 2015 - blue represents poker, red represents Hearthstone

Apparently, the average online poker player's age in the regulated US market is 40. Without knowing officially, I'd take a guess that the average age in Europe would be around 33. My company recently conducted a survey and interestingly revealed that 50% of current poker fans have been active for 10 years. Poker is no longer a young man's game.

Although poker is already very engaging, we are failing to renew and reach new generations. Most new adults are not exposed to poker, and even if they are, it doesn't have the same allure that it used to. Millennials want to be part of the next big thing, and share what they are doing with their friends and social audience. Poker is not in that picture.

Poker needs innovation, needs fresh ideas, needs new money and needs to break some codes to bring it to a new generation and new consumers.

We, as an industry, need to accept that we need to build new experiences and take some risks. We will try, we will fail, we will fix, but the status quo can't be accepted anymore if we want strong industry growth in the next five years, and not become the 'has been game of 2000s'.