With the land-based gambling industry currently in a parlous state due to the coronavirus pandemic, one of the worst-hit sectors has been sports betting. Revenues have dropped dramatically due to the lockdown on sporting events and recovery threatens to be slow.  

But while the land-based sector is stuck with no operations, companies are instead turning to their online verticals to mitigate those negative impacts. Leading that charge is online poker, a game that has survived multiple changes within the industry and is now making a comeback on the world stage.

Traditionally, the sports betting and the poker industries have shared some similarities. According to EvenBet Gaming CEO Dmitry Starostenkov, that connection has migrated to the digital sector, and “when sports are stopped, many betters turn to poker.”

In an exclusive interview with SBC Americas, the CEO said that poker has always been a top choice for players. Land-based casino players are turning to online platforms, as well as a large number of new players, unexpected ones, a mature audience that had never played online before. 

“Online poker takes time, sometimes you need two or three hours for a tournament, and with the lockdown and quarantine, many casual players have got it,” he said. “We have no doubts that the online poker vertical will grow. Actually, the growth has started before the pandemic, and now it is speeding up.”

Audiences will be sustainable

One of the biggest challenges will be to sustain the interest once physical operations return to their usual schedules. According to Starostenkov, once sports and live gambling are back, there will be a drop in interest, but it will not be a return to the starting point, because some of the new audiences will stay and be sustainable. 

He noted: “Some of the players that were playing offline and are coming to online now will not return to casinos due to various reasons: getting used to virtual entertainment, fear and anxiety of being into crowded public places, simple convenience. Our customers and partners report 50-300% growth of players’ activity in online poker in the first six weeks after the lockdown.” 

In addition, he said that while the numbers may seem unbelievable, they don’t just include offline players, but also sports betting fans looking for new entertainment, people who have never been into any gambling in search for more distractions, and more.

Poker’s greatest virtue has been its adaptability over time. Technological evolution and innovative development have created new verticals, but the interest in poker has never waned. However, what can be taken from the traditional game to cater to a loyal audience, such as the Latin American one? According to the EvenBet CEO, the key is to keep innovating to attract new and young generations.

Starostenkov said: “Starting from implementing the best innovative tech practices in mobile gaming development and creating new types of poker games and finishing with UI experiments to increase engagement, we are always working on innovations. 

“EvenBet releases platform updates twice a month, so it is a non-stop evolving product, and we are always open for customer-induced innovations because obviously operators have more data on their users preferences than we do.”

Mobile will be key in Latin America

Mobile, he added, is key to attract a young audience in Latin America, saying: “Native mobile apps, cross-platform web app, we have everything to play on the go without losing any excitement. That’s what we are really good at.”

“In Latin America, there are a lot of casual players and a huge share of audience preferring such unusual for European poker players formats as bingos or lotteries, and we are ready to provide these in addition to poker. 

“In Asia, there are specifics for design and UI, and it is fully customizable. Some operators require locally specific types of poker games, and we develop them. The general idea is to give every operator a software product fully fitting his audience needs, and this is probably our greatest advantage.”

At the beginning of the year, EvenBet rolled out an online poker network in Latin America, aiming to diversify the offering in this emerging market. The network kicked off with eight standalone poker rooms and casino operators, and in the first two months, it managed to add four more. 

Starostenkov explained: “I think that fact alone describes the situation quite well: online poker niche is still relatively free in South and Latin America, with a lot of room for the operators to grow, and still it is a highly demanded gaming format for the audience. The network grows month to month, and our expectations for it are very optimistic.”

Legal markets leading the way

EvenBet says that the leading markets are those where online poker is legal, like Colombia and Peru. In Brazil and Argentina, where regulatory changes are imminent, the company expects disruption as “the interest in these countries is enormous”.

Since the start of the pandemic, many operators have changed their short and medium term goals, and governments’ efforts are headed towards other national problems. EvenBet’s goals remain the same, and as all the business processes adapt to working inremote teams, the company is ready to put more effort into growing its network. 

“With the closure of offline gambling, many operators have formed a strong online gambling lobby, so we don’t expect the pandemic to have a crucial effect,” said the CEO.

As a cross-channel tool, poker benefits operators across the globe. According to Starostenkov, whose company’s core offering is poker, in the past few years it has been creating a gaming platform based on its own poker solution. “Now, it includes casino games from almost 20 content providers and live sports betting options, that are available as the full-screen experience and as the side games directly at the poker table,” he said.

The CEO believes that this will help operators acquire and keep more casual players, especially in such regions as Latin America and Asia. “The games include the most popular formats there: not only classic casino games and slots, but also live games, video bingo, and so on.”