Peter Ekmark, PlayStar: gamification, regulation and the future of the US market

PlayStar Peter Ekmark
Image: Shutterstock

As more states across the US begin to open their doors to a regulated online casino market, gaming companies must find new ways to stand out from the competition. That can come in several different ways, one of which is creating a unique product offering through gamification.

But is gamification simply a buzzword? According to Peter Ekmark, CEO of PlayStar, absolutely not. In fact, he believes that gamification is a core component to creating new, elevated experiences for players.

Ekmark took the time out to discuss why he thinks gamification will become a key battleground for those looking to establish their footprint within the US casino market.

He also reflected his first six months as CEO, sharing some of the values and experiences that have shaped his leadership style, before offering his predictions on the future for online casinos across the U.S.

Gamification has been an incredibly popular topic of conversation throughout 2023 – do you think this will continue into 2024? And could this offer somewhat of a ‘silver bullet’ to rising player acquisition costs?

PE: Gamification is a necessity, there’s no two ways about it. It is something that we at PlayStar need, and something I believe the gambling industry needs too. To what extent? That is still to be determined. But it can act as a great way to enhance a game.

I’m a strong believer in simplicity. I do think that over the next couple of months and years, we will begin to see a number of different ways to approach how we use gamification.

The U.S. market is very unique in the fact that it is very brand-driven. Online gaming is viewed much more as a form of entertainment. So, I do think that alongside gamification, we may see live dealer games and perhaps sweepstakes become very popular in years to come.

What is clear about the U.S. is that sports are an inherent part of the culture, so we may see some companies link gamification tools to sports teams or sports betting in general. The gamification element may be that your NFL team is a part of the game; I can certainly see this being a concept that will be explored. Crash games have also become extremely popular with U.S. players. They are non-monetary, so it goes back to that search for entertainment that I mentioned earlier.

I don’t think that there is one single trick that will help you engage, and ultimately retain, a customer. You have to have a bit of a mix. Simplicity really is the key and is something we look to achieve at PlayStar. We place a big emphasis upon creating the best possible player experience – we are online casino-only, and that’s something we remain loyal to.

Speaking of being solely focused on online casino, we’ve seen several brands across the U.S. attempt to offer an ‘a la carte menu’ of products to try and meet the demand of every operator, rather than simply focusing on one niche. Do you think more gaming companies could learn from your approach of specializing in just one vertical?

PE: There is no one way to approach this because it entirely depends on which market you are looking at. Your strategy in a market where the online gambling industry is more established will differ substantially to your approach in a market such as the U.S., where online gambling is still quite novel.

Land-based gaming in the U.S. has been around for several years, and similar to the online space, is also very brand-led. You have a few incumbent players that have both an online and brick-and-mortar offering. Could they be the brands that gain the highest market share in the future? I’m not so sure.

There is plenty of room for exciting new brands in the U.S. to make a name for themselves. It is a big market. I’d go as far as saying I think it will be the biggest market in the world. But to be successful, you must be bold, and you must take risks. Take Tesla, for example. The U.S. is known for its love of cars – there are so many different makes and models. But Tesla came along, brought something completely different to the table, and now it’s one of the best-selling cars not only in the U.S. but in the world.

I wish I could tell you that there was a ‘secret’ behind being successful in the U.S. But at PlayStar, our strategy is very much focused on being casino-only. That gives us the opportunity to really focus on giving our players a better experience and building that loyalty with our audience. Customer service is one of the strongest ways that we achieve that; we have the ability to service our customers individually because we have that initial focus on just one vertical. We want our customers to feel important because to PlayStar, they are the star of the show.

The black market continues to be a persistent threat to the regulated gambling industry. As more states open up in the U.S., how can we effectively overcome the challenges posed by unlicensed operators?

PE: Combatting the threat of unlicensed operators is, first and foremost, in the best interest of the players. What many customers may not realize is these black-market companies do not offer the same protections that licensed operators can. There are no safer gambling measures in place, no protection for their funds. This is why it is so important that operators and suppliers are certified by the regulators – it demonstrates that we are protecting our end customers.

Before PASPA was repealed in 2018, online gambling was strictly prohibited. State and federal governments would clamp down extremely hard on black market operators – it went as far as people being imprisoned. But as more states are opening up, it seems like the focus has shifted from the black market to cracking down on any wrongdoings of licensed operators. But the threat of the unlicensed market still exists.

The entry cost for the U.S. market is extremely high – companies pay a lot to receive a license, for marketing, the technology and remaining compliant. The U.S. has a good set-up; each state has very strong regulations in place, and the authorities do a great job at ensuring everyone is meeting the highest possible standards. But we, as an industry, do need to also focus on the threat of the black market. These operators that don’t have a licence will have an impact on the industry as a whole. They ultimately hinder states’ abilities to generate tax revenues and they put players at risk.

I’m a big advocate for regulation, but it needs to be done fairly. It’s as simple as that. If everyone is contributing to the success of the industry and paying their taxes, the iGaming industry is only going to go from strength to strength. But when there’s a small handful of companies that think they can fly under the radar and bypass the measures put in place to protect everyone, that’s when problems start to arise.

One of the biggest questions that then arises is who needs to take responsibility for making sure everyone is licensed? Is it the state? Is it federal? That is a discussion that needs to be had to ensure our sustainability as an industry. In your view, could online casino become bigger than sports betting in the U.S.?

PE: If we look at the U.S. market as it is today, online casino isn’t that far behind sports betting. But then, it does depend on how you look at it. From a regulatory perspective, there are 34 states plus Washington D.C. that allow for sports betting, but only six that have a regulated online casino market. But in terms of audience engagement, online casino is becoming increasingly popular in the states where regulations allow.

For argument’s sake, let’s say that New York opens up for online casino. That is a huge sports betting state and has been since the market first regulated. But should the tables turn, and the New York legislature permit online casino, then I do think this could become more popular than sports betting.

It shouldn’t be a case of ‘one or the other’ though, there is room for both sports betting and casino to succeed. They are very different. Sports betting is arguably much more of a social experience, it’s something that you sit down with your friends and discuss. But it can also be very volatile and is much more seasonal too.

Casino, on the other hand, has established itself as an entertainment function with U.S. audiences, much more than it ever did in Europe. It is a huge part of the culture in the U.S. Around 50% of U.S. adults have been to a casino. Many will take trips to Las Vegas – not just to gamble, but simply as a form of entertainment. They look at casino in a very different way to what we might see in European markets. A win is something to be celebrated, it’s seen as a success and something to be discussed with friends. That demand for entertainment is what I think will contribute to the growth of online casino, when regulation permits of course.

When it comes to defining the success of PlayStar as a business, should we be looking at the decisions of leadership or is it more because of a company-wide collaboration?

PE: At the end of the day, a company consists of people. It is the people that make the company work. Without that, you simply don’t have a business. So, for me, people are always going to be the most important. If you can build a team that collaborates and supports each other in the best possible way, you will excel as a company.

It’s that time of year when people set goals to achieve the best that they can as an individual. But if you can achieve the best on both an individual and a team level, you will create a much more sustainable business. The resilience and strength of a team always precede an individual. That’s just how it is. I’m much happier being a part of the team than anything else. I’ve never thought that a business’s success should be down to one individual, it should always be a team effort.

As CEO, my role is to support and facilitate the successes of my team. Yes, I have directorship responsibilities and I am involved in a lot of the decision-making processes. But ultimately, I feel really privileged to be a part of the PlayStar team. And if I can support and facilitate the growth of members within my team, that really makes my day. It’s the work that we do together that really makes the company succeed. I’m truly happy to be a part of that.

Looking at the values you aim to instill within your team, where did these come from? Have these been shaped by your earlier experiences within the gambling industry?

PE: I think your style as a leader is something that grows within you and is largely shaped by your experiences. I remember when I was starting out in my career, in an interview I was asked what I thought was my biggest ‘pro’ and what was my biggest ‘con’. This question really took me by surprise. But after giving it some thought, the answer I came up with was ‘ambition’. I do think that was my biggest advantage, and still is. But I have seen that if you are overly ambitious, this can work against you and make things more complicated than it needs to be.

I am incredibly determined, but I am also very honest. I hope that this is reflected in the work that I do and something that my team is remembered for too.