The term “eSports” might sound strange to readers of a certain vintage, but if you spent the 1970s passing a pixelated ball back and forth in “Pong,” or gobbling up goblins in “Pac-Man” – you already know all about the exciting world of competitive video games. And while the games of today are definitely a far cry from those simple, yet beloved, early arcade classics, eSports are just an extension of the past.

Back then, you might’ve played to see who had to pony up the next quarter to feed the machine. Or maybe it was only bragging rights on the line when you wiped the floor with a foe in “Street Fighter II” or “Mortal Kombat.” In any event though, if you ever played video games seriously – using strategy and skill to overwhelm your opponent – you’re already familiar with the world of eSports.

Personally, I’ve always preferred games which allow me a chance to line my own pockets – which is why I became a professional gambler. I love nothing more than a perfectly timed double down at the blackjack table, and chasing the elusive royal flush on a Jacks or Better machine never gets old. But my bread and butter as a pro gambler is poker, where I specialize in No Limit Hold’em cash games and tournaments.

As a poker player, my job entails many of the same skills possessed by elite eSports competitors. I’m constantly adapting to shifts in strategic thinking, I have to assess my opponent’s skill set to form counter strategies, and no matter how well I happen to play, a single mistake or swing in luck can be the difference between winning and losing.

Poker is clearly my game of choice, but over the last year or so, I’ve learned a lot about games like Fortnite, League of Legends, and especially Hearthstone. That’s a strategy game based on fantasy elements like casting spells and summoning creatures, and it just so happens to use a deck of cards.

Reminiscent of a heads-up Hold’em match, Hearthstone pits two players against one another in a turn-based war of attrition. Players build specialized decks using a variety of card “classes,” while a cost system ensures that only certain cards can be played at a given time. When two quality Hearthstone players take one another on, the action can be as intense and invigorating as a heads-up duel with a World Series of Poker (WSOP) gold bracelet up for grabs.

And how do I know all that? Well, my time at the poker tables provides and up close and personal glimpse into the Hearthstone arena. Today’s crop of poker young guns can be found staring intently at their iPad screens in between hands, their fingers whirling around and flicking the controls as they try to drain every last point from their opponent’s health meter. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to tap a fellow poker player on the shoulder to let them know it’s on them to act, and invariably, they have a Hearthstone game dialed up on screen providing the distraction.

Initially, this lack of focus on the actual poker game left me miffed to say the least. But I’m a curious cat, and eventually, I found myself craning my neck to get a look at what these kids were up to. What I found was a compelling and creative strategy game that rewards risk-takers and forward thinkers. Sounds a lot like poker, right?

I won’t pretend to be a Hearthstone expert by any means, but I have enjoyed my first forays into the game’s fantasy world. There’s just something about summoning a Shudderwock to close out the endgame that thrills me on a different level than filling up my full house. The sheer number of poker players I’ve personally playing eSports at the table had me thinking these games had a ton in common, but that believe was cemented when I visited the 2018 WSOP in Las Vegas. Throughout the entire six-week summer series, the WSOP was home to an eSports lounge that enabled poker players to blow off a little steam playing their favorite video games.

The whole thing was really well done, as you’ll learn in greater detail later on, and once I returned home from the WSOP my focus returned repeatedly to the fusion between poker and eSports. Soon enough, I began to notice several crossovers between the two industries, a few of which I’ll explore below:

Dedicated eSports Lounge Hosted at the 2018 WSOP



If you’ve ever been to the Rio All Suites Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas during WSOP season, you’re probably familiar with the Pavilion Room. That’s the airplane hangar sized convention hall where cash games, satellites, Daily DeepStacks, and Day 1s for most multi-table tournaments play out. When you walk through the Pavilion Room’s main entrance and make the long trek across, you’ll wind up hitting an elevated stage area.

This stage has previously been used as a daily fantasy sports (DFS) lounge sponsored by DraftKings, but this year WSOP organizers went in an entirely different direction. By partnering up with competitive gaming company UMG Media Corp., the WSOP created a dedicated eSports lounge complete with all the bells and whistles modern gamers expect.

Open day and night, the eSports lounge was home to dozens of high-resolution screens, comfortable gaming chairs, and of course, the latest and greatest consoles and PC gaming engines. In between busting out of bracelet events, poker players attending the WSOP festivities were free to hit the eSports lounge for a little FIFA ’19 soccer, Fortnite battle royale action, or heated one-on-one Hearthstone duels.

Dave Antony – who serves as chief executive officer for at UMG Media Corp. – issued a press release ahead of the WSOP to outline the company’s vision for esports / poker integration:

“Last year we watched our initiative to grow esports in Las Vegas grow by leaps and bounds.

Bringing the UMG Esports Stage into the World Series of Poker events is an amazing next step in continuing this initiative into 2018 and beyond.

UMG will utilize its groundbreaking event management app to help organize the event and to constantly update participants of upcoming play and special events at the UMG stage.”(Quote)

From what I could gather during my WSOP excursion, the poker community appreciated having the eSports lounge close at hand for a little rest and relaxation. Tournament poker is a true grind, mentally and physically wearing down even the most proficient pros. For that reason alone, having the opportunity to take your mind off a recent bad beat by blasting your way through a Fortnite battle pays immediate dividends.

With that said, eSports aren’t for everybody, which means you had your fair share of detractors on hand too. That’s par for the course when it comes to any niche activity – just ask your colleagues at work what they think about poker pros and you’ll get the idea – so the gaming crowd didn’t seem fazed in the slightest.

I was on hand for the 2017 WSOP as well, and while there wasn’t an eSports lounge at that time, I could still rely on at least one opponent at every table playing video games on the side. The poker set was already immersed in the world of eSports – especially if you include online poker itself in that discussion – so building a bridge between both games at poker’s premier festival simply makes sense.

World Poker Tour Holds WPT Championship Final Table at eSports Arena in Las Vegas



The poker world is dominated by two main circuits, with the World Poker Tour (WPT) providing a year-round supplement to the WSOP’s summer session. And whenever one of these circuits takes the innovative route, you can expect the other to follow suit. In this case, the WPT took the WSOP’s lead by making a major logistical move. In late May, just days before the 2018 WSOP kicked off, WPT organizers announced that all final tables during the upcoming Season 17 would play out at the eSports Arena in Las Vegas.

Constructed at a cost of $25 million by the Luxor casino, the eSports Arena is a one of a kind venue devoted to turning competitive gaming into a full-fledged sport. The 30,000-square foot facility includes an elevated stage where gamers ply their trade in style, seating for 1,500 fans, and a 50-foot high-definition LED video screen to display every move and match.

WPT chief executive officer spoke with PokerNews to discuss the transformational shift, as WPT final tables would now shift from their local casino venues to Sin City going forward:

“The crossover between the poker and esports communities is undeniable, and the addition of a live esports event to one of the WPT’s live poker festivals is a perfect fit to provide an even greater experience for our players.

The World Poker Tour is proud to partner with ELC Gaming for this first international poker and esports venture.”

The marriage between the WPT and eSports was already a year in the making before the tour relocated final tables to The Strip. In 2017, two years after Chinese eSports giant Ourgame acquired the tour, the WPT hosted a collaborative video game competition during the WPT DeepStacks stop in Holland.

At the time, Ourgame International chief executive officer Frank Ng issued a statement celebrating the union between his company’s two cash cows:

“This is an inspiring time in both poker and esports, the two mindsports that have only begun to realize their enormous collaboration potential.

With prominent businesses in poker and esports, Ourgame is uniquely positioned to raise the bar with a new breed of events across the globe to give all of our players more of what they want.”

Attendees at the WPT DeepStacks Holland stop were invited to explore “Big Betty,” a mobile eSports arena housed within an 18-wheeler. Among the accoutrements found inside Big Betty were Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets, live streams of the League of Legends series final, and opportunities to turn video game prowess into poker tournament entries.

The successful debut of eSports offerings on WPT turf convinced the tour to go all-in in 2018 with the move to Las Vegas. By making the eSports Arena at the Luxor tournament poker’s de facto home for high-profile events like the Bellagio $25,000 High-Roller, the WPT has made a bold statement.

Going forward, competitive gaming fans who visit the eSports Arena to take in a tournament might just catch a Texas Hold’em doubleheader, and vice-versa. Synergy like that can only help to grow both games, exposing new fans to the beauty of bluffing to win a huge pot in poker or blasting your way to a team win in Overwatch.

PokerStars Launched “Power Up” Poker/eSports Combo



In May, the globally leading online poker platform PokerStars took a gamble of its own. Responding to the ongoing demand for card-based strategy games like Hearthstone, the creative gurus at PokerStars were tasked with creating a blend between Texas Hold’em and popular fantasy card games. After tinkering in the lab, game designers unveiled Power Up, a truly innovative poker concept that takes the game in an entirely new direction.

Played as a three-handed sit and go tournament, Power Up uses the foundations of Texas Hold’em – so players still begin with two hole cards before seeing a five-card community board consisting of the flop, turn, and river. From there, however, the game diverges wildly by incorporating a series of special cards straight out of the realm of Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering.

Each player gets the same set of nine Power Up cards, which give them a whole host of abilities to use during the hand. You might try the Scanner card to take a peek at the next two cards in the deck, before discarding them if they don’t meet your needs. Or maybe you’d like to get rid of that 6 on the turn that you just know made the other guy’s straight, in which case you’d take advantage of the Disintegrate card.

Powers like this let the player fundamentally alter the course of any given hand, while adding several new dimensions of strategic thinking to the whole affair. It’s one thing to read your opponent accurately and put them on a flush draw, but it’s a whole different ballgame when they use their Engineer card to literally put that flush on the board.

In an interview with Poker Listings, Severin Rasset – who serves as director of poker innovation and operations for PokerStars – explained the inspiration behind Power Up:

“We want to stress the unique aspects of poker – the gambling aspect and the competitive aspect – something that no other game has to offer.

Then we’re taking that and improving the environment, giving the game a universe and in the long run, we’re hoping that this will attract new players to the game.”

Rasset was also quick to point out that online poker was essentially the original eSport, making PokerStars the perfect vehicle to explore new ways bring gaming and gambling together:

“eSports are very interesting. I see it more as an opportunity than a threat. There are many parallels but the gambling part is unique in poker.
Also, the beauty of this market is that it is big enough for all of us. The video game industry has a turnover now of about 100 billion dollars.
That means we can continue to grow and take advantage of the development.”

Power Up isn’t going to replace the PokerStars Sunday Million any time soon, but the game has carved out quite the niche for itself within the site’s overall economy. Players who have a background in strategy games like Hearthstone enjoy a decided advantage over the “noobs,” harkening back to the Wild West era of online poker when a cursory knowledge of advanced theory could turn college kids into millionaires.

The game even caught the attention of Daniel Negreanu, as “Kid Poker” has grown increasingly fond of Hearthstone over the last year or so. Negreanu squared off against fellow Team PokerStars pro Jason Somerville in a Power Up session live streamed on Twitch, providing yet another pivot point in the ongoing collision between poker and eSports.

Conclusion

The concept of mind sports has become more mainstream in recent years, and I thank both the poker boom of the past and the ongoing eSports trend for that evolution.

Online poker players capable of scanning a dozen screens at one time – instantly assessing the available information and making optimal decisions on the fly – provided proof of concept as to what internet-based competition could become. The structure of global tournament circuits offering prize pools to the most superior player provided a template for eSports as we know it today.

The last year saw poker and eSports join forces like never before, and as a pro in one game and a fan of the other, I can’t wait to see what 2019 has in store.

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