Paying to watch live poker – interview with Sam Simmons of PokerGO

Paying to watch live poker – interview with Sam Simmons of PokerGO

18814895_1951394665096074_2230729106650346336_o[2]This year was possibly a landmark moment in live tournament broadcasting, because for the first time the WSOP live stream became a premium service, as PokerGO launched what is being referred to as ‘the Netflix of poker’. I caught up with PokerGo VP of Content Sam Simmons to learn more about how the first WSOP using this new model worked out.

Barry Carter: You launched with such a big opening event – the Super High Roller Bowl – was the expectation that 90% of the customers would be there from the start in this respect, so you would know very early if PokerGO was a viable business or not?

Sam Simmons: We certainly looked to make an immediate splash with Super High Roller Bowl, but the PokerGO model is designed to year-round, premium poker content rather than just a few major events. The great thing about an SVOD service with live events, replays, and original programming is that the product compounds and grows on itself over time. As we stream more events and roll out additional programming, the value proposition of the service becomes more robust for the same price which we expect to yield steady, incremental audience growth over time.

BC: Were the numbers in line with what you expected?

SS: The early numbers during Super High Roller Bowl and World Series of Poker surpassed our expectations and we have seen a steady growth of subscribers since the launch.

BC: Every business has busy periods, realistically is your main aim to NOT lose customers until the next WSOP, where you would expect to see most of your growth again?

SS: While WSOP is one of the highlight pieces of the offering, PokerGO is built to provide value as a year-round service with more than 100 days of live poker and hours of original programming. We will be continuing to cover other great events like the Super High Roller Bowl, create new ones like the Poker Masters, and revive fan favorites like Poker After Dark. We’re also active in the process of expanding into additional partnerships with the most prestigious third-party tournament series the game has to offer and continuing production on several original series. Our goal is to provide a wide variety of poker programming both in live events as well as original programming throughout the year to cater to all types of poker fans.

BC: Is the core audience hardcore fans of poker or casuals? Previously poker streams were used as marketing tools to attract new players, is paying for poker content only realistically the domain of people already very serious about the game?

SS: The core of the audience and our early adopters are certainly the hardcore fans, but like similar services, the ultimate goal is to bring in a more casual audience over time. We expect to do that by offering a wide array of content that is friendlier and more relatable to a casual audience. Examples of this include scripted comedy Poker Nights and documentary mini-series Dead Money which are both available on the PokerGO service and can each be enjoyed without a deep understanding of the nuts and bolts of poker play. Additionally, we’ve launched complementary television partnerships with the likes of NBC Sports Network (Super High Roller Bowl, Super High Roller Cash Game, Poker Masters) and ESPN (WSOP) that will bring poker to a traditional and typically more casual audience as a means to grow not only the PokerGO audience but also the game at large over time.

BC: Has piracy been a big issue so far?

SS: Piracy is an issue for any content company and is especially problematic for a premium service with a business built upon scarcity and exclusivity of content. HBO and a series like Game of Thrones are the most extreme example of this as their season 7 premiere episode was pirated a whopping 90 million times. Such is a great problem to have, however, as it means the demand for the content is there.

“We underestimated the interest in mixed games”

Kevin HartBC: Probably the biggest criticism I’ve seen so far is how rigidly you stuck to broadcast schedule and were not able to ad hoc show final tables that had huge names at them. What was the reason for that?

SS: A live production at the standard of our 2017 World Series of Poker broadcasts comes with a lot of moving parts that make it very difficult and often expensive to switch gears at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, there are instances where it’s impossible or simply not practical from a business perspective for a last-minute change to be made. However, we’ve taken the feedback both positive and negative to heart for next year as we expect to provide coverage to more events with an additional emphasis on mixed games, and be as flexible with scheduling as possible depending on the players present at each final table.

BC: I also saw people complain about only Hold’em being shown, is that because of the more casual level of the audience?

SS: This was part of the reason for so much Hold’em on the schedule, but frankly, we had underestimated the interest in mixed games throughout the community. The expanded interested in non-NLH events is great for the growth of the game and we’ve heard the feedback loud and clear. We look forward to highlighting additional mixed game events when we put together next year’s schedule.

BC: Would it be fair to say that the high stakes poker ‘celebrities’ are the driving force behind PokerGo? We live in a time when an unknown player can have a thousand people watch him or her on Twitch, is the star power what separates PokerGO from the other online video content in poker?

SS: The key differentiating factors of PokerGO original events to date include the high stakes and big personalities. Generally, the two go hand in hand as it’s rare to see an unknown play in the high rollers unless they’re a wealthy businessman who wants to come out and take a stab. Thus, for events like Super High Roller Bowl and Poker Masters, these “high stakes celebrities” typically become a key selling point for viewership. However, one of our long-term goals is to create and highlight events that cover the stratum of the poker ecosystem wherein we not only show the highest stakes tournaments and cash games on Earth but also feature some of the mid-stakes events and the players who may not have the bankroll necessary for the larger platform.

BC: You’ve already come out with your next piece of original content in the Poker Masters, how will that be different from what we have seen in the past for live streamed events?

SS: While it’s common to see high rollers sprinkled across a larger tournament series, it’s a rarity to see the volume and pace of high roller events that will be included in the Poker Masters. With four $50K buy-in and one $100K buy-in scheduled, there will be $300K in total buy-ins up for grabs in the span of less than a week making for an intense back-to-back schedule even for the most seasoned pros. Additionally, with all the POY chatter throughout the summer, the Poker Masters brings that concept to the high roller scene in the week-long quest for the Purple Jacket. Our criteria for the champion is simple and boils down to what matters most: who walks away with the most money. The highest earner across all five Poker Masters events will be crowned champion and will receive the first-ever Poker Masters Purple Jacket.

BC: Can you give us any hints at what else might be coming in the future?

SS: The next show we’re hyped on is Poker After Dark, which rolls out on August 14th to become a regular staple of PokerGO live programming. I’m not at liberty to share details, but as we map out lineups for the next few weeks I can say that fans will be very excited about some of the names that will be making appearances. We’ll also be announcing additional live event partnerships and original series later this month, so stay tuned on our social channels for updates.

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