When we think of the biggest esports games today, poker and sports games hardly come to mind. Indeed, per GamesRadar the biggest titles in competitive gaming as of 2020 were about what anyone in the esports world would expect: CS: GO, League Of Legends, Fortnite, Dota 2, and a few other core games (though FIFA 20 did earn honorable mention from the sports category). There is no mention of any kind of poker gaming, just as there hasn’t been in years past.
This should not be surprising to anybody, because throughout the rise of esports over the years poker has remained in a sort of unofficially separate realm online. We know that countless competitors engage in online poker, and that a great deal of money changes hands. But for whatever reason — even though one could almost consider poker to be the original esport — it’s not really thought of in the same way.
This may change in the near future however, for a few reasons….
Expanding Legal Access
Whether or not the U.S. will ever fully legalize and regulate online poker again is an open question. What is clear however is that the states that allow real-money online gaming are beginning to serve as appealing examples for the rest. New Jersey is at the top of the list as a state that has more or less completely opened up online betting and gaming options, and seen significant revenue for it. Even during the pandemic, NJ.com recently noted that while in-person gaming and betting revenue at Jersey casinos fell off dramatically, online alternatives saw a 92% boost in revenues. Much of that boost comes from online poker.
This matches up generally with progress seen in other states that have embraced online gaming of late. Simply put, online poker brings in a great deal of revenue. As some states demonstrate this truth, and more states explore legislation that would ease restrictions, we appear to be on our way toward more widespread legal poker in the U.S. — which may well open up esports-related options.
Ongoing Major Poker Events
Some are inclined to assume that one reason poker hasn’t made its way into mainstream esports is that the era of competitive, spectator poker is in the past. We don’t see the likes of Chris Moneymaker and Phil Ivey (major poker pros) competing on ESPN on a regular basis anymore, and without many online options there is a little bit less interest in the game at the amateur level.
These are understandable perceptions, but they’re not entirely accurate. For one thing, everything from app sales to reports of Americans playing at offshore and overseas sites indicates that amateur interest is still very much alive. Even more importantly though, we also know that there are still major poker events on a regular basis in the U.S. — and they still draw a crowd. Poker.org outlines how there are major tournaments spread out across the states, with various buy-in amounts and prestige levels, altogether comprising a very active professional scene. Turning even a portion of this into something more akin to esports — or using the tournaments as inspiration for digital competition — seems borderline inevitable.
Blending of Poker & Esports Businesses
Another encouraging factor for those who would like to see poker included among major esports is that some of the companies behind both types of gaming are beginning to show interest in collaboration. This is something we spoke to a few years ago with regard to ESP Gaming and its work with Poker Central to bring fans a “state-of-the-art” live studio at the ARIA in Las Vegas.
This partnership alone did not bring any sort of meaningful spike in interest in online or digitally streamed poker events from the esports community. However, it did represent a sort of mutually beneficial arrangement between esports and poker gaming entities, and it stands to reason that the more we see of this sort of thing, the more the lines between the two will blur.
None of these developments or possibilities mean that we’re quite on the cusp of considering online poker, or streamed poker events, as ordinary esports. They do, however, all point in that general direction. Expanding legalization, the ongoing attention paid to major tournaments, and collaboration between esports and poker companies likely mean that in due time poker will be embraced as part of the broader esports landscape.
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