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Are we on the cusp of another online poker boom?

Online poker experienced a resurgence during the early stages of the COVID-19 lockdown. So how can operators take advantage of the boom and make it last?

Much like many other industries, elements of the online gambling industry took a significant financial hit during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Chief among these was the online sports betting industry; with the vast majority of professional sports halting due to lockdown and most significant summer headline events such as Euro 2020 and the Olympics being postponed, punters had virtually nothing to wager on, and operators consequently saw revenues plummet.

However, other gaming verticals were not impacted in the same way. In fact, increased time spent at home, and a lack of entertainment alternatives including access to physical gambling premises, meant that some gambling verticals were able to thrive during the most extreme period of social distancing. One of these was online poker.

A growth in player activity

For online operators that offer both sports betting and online poker, pivoting to marketing online poker when there was very limited sports betting available was a popular and effective strategy. There is no doubt that online poker has been reinvigorated during the pandemic, with both lapsed and new players showing an interest and making deposits into poker accounts.

We noticed a sharp rise in online poker activity as the lockdown sanctions were scaled up. Our seven-day average of number of consumers making deposits with operators to play online poker rose by 50% between the beginning of March and the beginning of April, and stayed at this level through the majority of April and May. And while this has fallen back since the beginning of June (which may be attributed to less activity during summer months generally), there hasn’t been a return to pre-lockdown levels.

But as sports begin to return some semblance of normality this Autumn, and casinos in Europe and North America continue to re-open and in doing so offer players the physical poker experience, will we see the resurgence in online poker last?

The long-term outlook

To an extent, the future of online poker may be tied to the fight against the pandemic and consumers’ attitudes as to when it is appropriate to return to pastimes they turned away from during lockdown. If appetite to return to pre-COVID-19 levels of socialising do not return, this will have a permanent positive impact on all digital entertainment including online poker.

For example, while casinos have re-opened with a significant number of social distancing protocols in place, poker players will still have to determine their level of comfort sitting at a table surrounded by strangers passing cards and chips from hand to hand. We know from our latest Lost in Transaction research that consumers are more reluctant to use cash in the COVID-19 era, and 38 % say that they will use cash to make payments less frequently even if COVID-19 is no longer an issue. When asked why, 40% of those that said they were going to reduce their cash usage in the future would be doing so because of health concerns. And while casinos can easily offer players alternatives to cash or conceivably even go completely cashless, removing poker chips and cards and turning the physical experience digital would be a more difficult task.

But while consumer preferences shifting from physical to digital services is partially a consequence of COVID-19, this has only accelerated a pre-existing trend being driven by evolving technology that also benefits online poker in the long term. The continued roll out of 5G, Virtual Reality (VR), and Augmented Reality (AR) are just some of the developments that will enable online operators to offer a significantly upgraded online poker experience; in addition to COVID-19 concerns this too will drive more players to digital operators that get their experience offering right.

Whether we see regional or global spikes in the pandemic, or a return to full COVD-19 lockdown protocols, online poker operators should be focused on capitalising on the resurgence we’ve seen since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have already seen online poker capture the attention of new players, sustaining that momentum and building upon it is now the priority.

The role of alternative payment methods in attracting new players

One way operators can enhance their user experience to attract potential players that are new or returning to online poker is offering more deposit and withdrawal methods. At the beginning of 2020 we asked people with an interest in iGaming about their preferred methods for making deposits to online sports betting accounts; less than half (46%) said that card payments was their preferred method for depositing and this was an even lower percentage (40%) for consumers that already made wagers more than once per week.

Security of funds (44%) and ease of use (41%) were the most popular criteria when players were asked how they selected their preferred payment method. Guaranteed privacy of betting activity (21%) was also a popular reason that players selected a particular payment method.

These figures transpose to the online poker industry, where similar concerns apply. For operators to capture new and returning poker players, offering the widest selection of alternative payment methods such as digital wallets (e.g. Skrill or NETELLER) or eCash solutions (e.g. paysafecard) is essential.

This is particularly true in the US, where even fewer (34%) sports bettors prefer to deposit player funds using a credit or debit card. Currently only four states have legalised online poker markets (New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Nevada) and two further states (Michigan, West Virginia) have passed some online poker legislation. But with the roll out of online sports betting legislation, this may increase in the future. If this happens, the role of alternative payments in growing the market will be vital.