It’s that time of year when we bid farewell to the World Series of Poker until next summer. The Tournament of Champions will conclude tonight, but the final direct buy-in bracelet event (a $1000 super turbo) was already in the history books early Tuesday morning.
Due to COVID-19, it’s the first time since 2019 that the series has taken place live, in person, and in its usual summer timeslot. However, its online component – which predates the pandemic – is still alive and well.
The first-ever WSOP online bracelet event dates back to 2015. Each year since then, the online component has grown a little, at least in attendance and generally in the number of events. By 2019, there were nine such events on the schedule. In 2020, before the pandemic hit, there were supposed to be 14.
Because of the pandemic, the 2020 series had to take place entirely online. Last year, there was both an online series in the summer and a live series in the fall with its own online component.
This year, we were back to something closer to normal. There were 13 online events accompanying the main series, close to the 14 initially intended for 2020. Eight also had companion events in the still-segregated markets of Pennsylvania and Michigan.
As a whole, the series did quite well, with most events beating 2019. Contrary to many people’s expectations (including ours), the Main Event didn’t quite set a record, but it did come close. The final field of 8,663 players was a mere 1.25% short of the still-unbeaten 2006 WSOP Main Event.
But how about those online events? Here are our takeaways.
#1 – Appetite for Online is Holding Steady
The nine online events of 2019 produced combined prize pools just shy of $10 million. Even considering only the New Jersey/Nevada network, this year’s 13 events awarded $13 million in prizes.
True, that means the average prize pool has gone down slightly. However, adding events to a schedule typically produces such diminishing returns, as the average player has only so much time and money to spend. If you add more events and attendance for the old ones doesn’t drop much, that means demand has increased.
Direct comparisons of 2022 to 2019 are difficult because most events have different formats and buy-ins. However, attendance for the $1000 Online Championship dropped from 1,750 to 1,476, or a 16% decline. Meanwhile, a lot of the new prize money this year came through adding multiple high rollers in the $3,200 to $7,777 buy-in range.
For the average amateur WSOP-goer, it looks like interest in online events is neither growing explosively nor evaporating. For many of those players, however, playing online may be less appealing because, for much of the past two years, it has been the only option. WSOP online events may start to grow faster again in coming years as the worst days of the pandemic fade in the rearview mirror.
#2 – Simultaneous but Separate is the New Normal
Those oddball pandemic years caused WSOP to reevaluate its online strategy somewhat. For one thing, there’s now an Online Circuit Series running parallel to the standard WSOP Circuit. However, there’s a more subtle change in how online bracelet events are presented.
In “the before times,” online bracelet events were part of the main WSOP schedule and assigned event numbers according to the same scheme as the live events.
In 2020, of course, the online schedule was the main schedule since there were no live events. 2021 was weirder in that there was a full schedule of online summer events like in 2020, but also a live series in the fall. That, in turn, was accompanied by additional online bracelet events.
Rather than mixing those into the live schedule, however, WSOP kept them separate, even though they ran concurrently with the live tournaments. Numbering online events separately, and keeping them on their own schedule, seems to have worked out well. Even though everything else is back to normal, WSOP retained that simultaneous-but-separate schedule format this year. Probably that will continue to be what we see going forward.
#3 – Shared Liquidity Can’t Come Fast Enough
As mentioned, the WSOP Network’s 13 bracelet events produced $13 million in prize pools. Of those, the eight with companion events in Pennsylvania and Michigan were responsible for $7.1 million. That includes the Championship but excludes all the High Rollers.
By contrast, Michigan’s eight events produced just $870,900 in prizes, and Pennsylvania’s an even smaller $750,910.
New Jersey and Nevada account for only 34% of the four states’ combined population. However, they contributed 81% of the combined prize pools of those events. Michigan’s performance can be considered a success relative to Pennsylvania – helped, presumably, by the novelty factor since WSOP only launched in the state this spring. However, neither is close to competing with the main network.
There are probably a couple of reasons for that. Even the smaller events have hefty pricetags by online standards, and the most serious players travel to Las Vegas for the summer. That’s presumably why WSOP didn’t bother with the High Rollers in those ring-fenced states. There’s also a correlation between buy-in and the extent to which the networked states dominated. NJ/NV made up just 75% of the buy-ins for the Big $500 but 85% of the money for the $1000 Championship.
Furthermore, for those who care about the prestige of a bracelet, these PA and MI bracelets may hold less appeal. The annual Casino Employees’ event awards a bracelet that’s physically identical to those of other events. However, many players see it as having an asterisk attached because it isn’t an open field. The same may be true for these online events whose fields are limited to players not attending the main series.
With Michigan now in the Multi-State Internet Gaming Agreement and Pennsylvania probably working on it, shared liquidity for three or all four states could be a reality by next year. It’s a safe bet that most Michigan and Pennsylvania poker players will hope this was their last year of separate events.