Time to don the asbestos jumpsuit and prepare for a torrent of hate mail.
I don't understand the hype behind the Epic Poker League's first event that was held last week at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas.
I'm glad the players had mostly positive things to say about the event. In fact that part of the "hype" doesn't surprise me at all. In my time around the poker circuit I can't say that I ever saw players treated all that badly or wrongly, but who wouldn't want to be comped in ways that are bigger and better than they've ever been comped before?
And I partially understand where Jeffrey Pollack and Annie Duke are coming from. Caesars built a brand and product -- the WSOP -- on the backs of the players. All the while the players paid Caesars for that privilege without receiving much in return other than the opportunity to play in poker tournaments.
Jeffrey and Annie are seeking to build a brand and a product -- the Epic Poker League -- on the backs of the players. And so they feel the players should get something in return: limousine transfers, free hotel rooms, $100 food comps and paying only 2% juice (staff tokes) instead of 5% (house rake plus staff tokes). Kudos to Jeffrey, Annie and EPL for trying to make the game of poker better for the players of poker. [Edited to add: of course don't forget the $400k overlay at each event and the $1 million freeroll at the end of the season.]
Yet outside of the natural player reaction to such generous comps, there seems to be an unusual level of hype around the league. That's what I don't understand. To be blunt, what has EPL accomplished to this point in the game? I can sum it up in one sentence.
They ran a poker tournament.
Admittedly they did a great job running that poker tournament and deserve commendations for doing so. But running a solid poker tournament isn't that difficult if you're good at logistics and understand the first thing about tournament structures. That's what makes or breaks most poker tournaments. Nail the logistics and design a good structure and your event will run smoothly. Having hired some talented people, it's not surprising that EPL ran a great poker tournament.
All the same, some people are treating the first EPL Main Event as if it's a game-changer for poker. But I believe that the success of this organization isn't going to be measured by how good a poker tournament it runs. It will be measured in dollars and cents. Right now the organization is spending lots of money without (yet) taking much back in.
I understand that you have to spend money to make money. And I acknowledge that the EPL money inflow/outflow situation could change in the future. Sponsors? Advertisers? Social media gaming? Licensing? Merchandising? All of those things could re-balance the equation. But unless I'm overlooking something major, right now they're *not* re-balancing the equation.
It's true that it's early. I am by no means judging the EPL a failure after one event. But neither am I judging it a success.
This money inflow/outflow issue is not a new problem for poker. Consider three poker businesses from the last three years: The Real Deal, Dream Team Poker and the Asian Poker Tour.
I was perplexed by The Real Deal when it was first announced several years ago. Poker is a niche game/entertainment/sport. Did it really have the broad popular appeal needed for a successful Vegas stage show?
The answer turned out to be a resounding no. The Real Deal flopped so badly that you couldn't give away tickets to it by the time the producers pulled the plug. The Real Deal was a case of people being too far "inside the bubble" to realize just how insignificant the game and culture of poker are to the rest of the world.
Almost every poker business I've seen in the last four years has over-estimated the game's mainstream reach and appeal. EPL certainly wouldn't be the first poker business to commit that sin.
Businesses have been trying to attract mainstream advertisers and sponsors to poker for years, without a ton of success. It's commendable that EPL is trying again, but they *may* be suffering from some of the same "inside the bubble" mindset that plagued The Real Deal. The hard truth is that the world at large just doesn't care very much about our unique little sub-culture.
With Dream Team and Asian Poker Tour, it was a simple question: How will this make money?
Everyone loved Dream Team. They thought it was great fun, innovative, good for the players, all those things that you want a poker product to be. But I remember being at the Dream Team party in the Caesars Poker Room, chatting with Matt Showell and Liz Lieu and wondering how the business would make money. I guess the people behind Dream Team never figured that out either.
In 2008-2009, the Asian Poker Tour decided to make itself a force on the Asian poker scene with a series of $5,000 NLHE tournaments around Asia. The organization, drunk with cash after its parent company held a successful public float, went all out: top talent like Matt Savage and his crew; crack live reporting from PokerNews and others; huge guarantees; numerous satellites with big overlays; tons of swag; lavish parties (actually, the sickest poker party I've ever been to in my life). You name it, the APT spent money on it. The whole time, that nagging little question. "What's the endgame here for these guys?"
I see a lot of parallels between the APT and the EPL. That's not good for the EPL. Two years later, the APT scaled back its ambitious plans. It now runs a series of three or four very tame, very modest $1,000 NLHE tournaments each year, almost exclusively in the Philippines where APT is based. The organization appears to be surviving only because the costs of doing business in the Philippines are stupidly low and because the nation already had a huge built-in poker and gambling culture.
Does any of this mean that Jeffrey and Annie haven't figured out how to make money with EPL? Of course not. They've been asked about this point repeatedly, each time mentioning sponsorship, advertising, licensing, merchandising and social media gaming. Hell, let's throw real-money gaming in there for good measure. Jeffrey and Annie haven't mentioned that but it almost certainly has to at least be "on the table".
Despite those responses from EPL, I have my questions and my doubts. I've read the pressers. I've spoken to both Jeffrey and Annie. I've looked at the facts as they've occurred and added my own estimation that EPL will have spent $10 million by the end of Year 1. I've filtered all of those things through my own experiences in the industry and it's left me unsure of the organization's prospects for success.
Look, I want EPL to succeed. I've said as much to Jeffrey and to Annie. I think it would be good for poker if EPL succeeded. I'm just not convinced yet that it will. Call me a cynic or a "hater" if you want, but I've seen lots of poker businesses fail spectacularly in the last four years. Considering the facts available at present, I'm going to continue to observe the EPL proceedings with some "healthy skepticism".
All of which brings us back to the $20,000,000 question: was EPL's first event a success?
In my opinion -- and really, this is just my opinion, take it or leave it -- we're not going to be able to determine that for a while. If the event helps to attract the advertisers and sponsors that seem to be a critical component of the money-making strategy EPL has outlined to the press, then it will have been a success.
If not... I'd be happy to run the Boracay office of the league.