9 Jul 2020 shivani

PokerGuru Discusses Poker Leagues with Industry Powerhouses

In the third episode of The PokerGuru Show, the host of the show, Astha Sethi, discussed various aspects of top poker leagues in India with their representatives Raj Kundra, founder of Match Indian Poker League (MatchIPL), Pranav Bagai, co-founder and CEO of Poker Sports League (PSL), and Max Rabinovitch, head of Global Poker League (GPL) India.

Here's the episode's link.

Co-existence and growth of various poker leagues in India

Sethi asked the industry stalwarts if there is enough room for the three poker leagues to co-exist and grow in the market. Rabinovitch said that “three leagues... in a market or a nation as large as India is not a lot.” He noted that different leagues are interested in catering to different interests of the market with different product USPs. Kundra agreed with Rabinovitch, saying that each league has its unique format, twists and style of conducting tournaments. Bagai added, “regarding the poker marketing in India, we haven’t even started scratching the tip of the iceberg.” He said that different poker companies working towards adding different or similar leagues and products will only help grow the ecosystem.

Taking poker leagues online

Sethi pointed out that while live events are halted due to the pandemic, online poker has seen a boom. She asked Kundra if the online format used by the upcoming Nations Cup will be used for the next MatchIPL. Kundra said that it’s too early to comment if the same format will be used for MatchIPL going forward or not. He said that if the market isn’t open enough to conduct a large scale live event in a studio, then the Nations Cup format will be considered for MatchIPL’s next season, where the games will be conducted from home with video calls and digital cards. Kundra said that if it comes to conducting a virtual MatchIPL, then they will add some digital entertainment segments including celebrity involvement in chats, games, etc. to attract the Indian audience

When asked about the fate of Season 3 of PSL, which got disrupted in the middle of its qualifiers due to the lockdown, Bagai said that they are in talks with stakeholders and team owners to work out a model to move it online. However, Bagai says that it’s not feasible to give the same prize pools in the online formats or to put a lot of money into bringing the season online.

Bagai said that their company is focusing on building a new app called Hashtag Poker. Hashtag Poker app brings together the community of poker with online poker lessons, match streaming, free games, and the PSL. Its tagline is Seekho, Dekho, Khelo, which translates to Learn, Watch, Play. It aims to offer a safe and responsible environment for people to learn, watch and play poker for free and with friends.

Commenting on the plan for Season 2 GPL, Rabinovitch said that their company recently moved away from poker to move into mainstream sports due to the momentum they got and the teams they partnered with in that sector. Their sports app is more focused on sports verticals including cricket and not just esports including poker. This is mostly due to the lack of poker being a mainstream game in India.

Rabinovitch said that in the next GPL season they will try to get some popular cricket teams on board and link them with GPL India teams to promote the game. He noted that in GPL Season 1 they didn't make it big enough to catch the attention of the masses in India. He said that to succeed it’s essential to create a narrative that people can relate to or dream of attaining. Their company wants to be able to create that dream narrative with GPL India Season 2, which they plan to do by making the league larger, connecting it to their sports products, and making sure that people can connect on PokerStarts as well as their sports app. Their sports app will enable users to control the narrative of GPL India teams by purchasing fan tokens in their favourite teams. The tokens will let users influence the teams with decision making, depending on how many tokens they have in a team, even though they are not playing.

Poker on TV

Sethi noted that all the three leagues are trying to reach a wider audience and have been covered on TV with MPL broadcasted on MTV, GPL on Colors Infinity, and PSL on D Sports. Even though there has been traction on social media, the TV format hasn’t been very successful for any of the leagues. Sethis asked what’s needed to make the leagues more entertaining and engaging to make them a better TV product. Kundra said that poker isn’t made for TV, as the games are too long and need delayed telecasts with edits to make them interesting with highlights including best hands and player decisions, to make great TV. He said that leagues need to be packaged with talks and performances by cricket stars, bollywood stars and other such such popular segments. He noted that MatchIPL Season 4 got a 200% jump in viewership than its Season 3. However, currently the poker companies have to spend money on production and getting it on TV.

Poker on OTT platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime

Bagai said that Netflix and Amazon Prime, per se, don’t do a lot of branded content, considering most of the poker leagues have title sponsors, team sponsors, etc.. However, various other OTT platforms are open to distributing the content produced by poker leagues. Bagai agreed to Kundra’s point that it’s necessary to create a story, instead of livestreaming the entire game that involves hundreds of hands. He said that to reach out to the masses, one has to be clear about their audience including non-poker players, beginners and advance-level players and create a story for them.

Rabinovitch highlighted the importance of showing how professionals reach a place where they are able to take the game up as a profession. He said that such a narrative is important to sell the game to the viewers and that productions need to show that anyone can learn and start to play poker with small or free qualifiers to get a chance to play on TV.

Monetization and scalability of poker leagues

Sethi noted that PSL and MatchIPL follow the team-entry fee model and the teams have to pitch in the buy-in money for every season. A part of the buy-in pool is retained by the league to produce and organize the events. She also highlighted that GPL India Season 1 was sponsored completely by the company, while retaining all the rights of the six teams.

Rabinovitch said that Season 1 of GPL India was made successful with the help of PokerStarts India who sponsored the entire league. Going forward, even GPL India will consider a team-by-team sponsorship model, where team managers and owners will make the majority of decisions for branding, merchandise, etc., while following branding guidelines of the league. He said, “PokerStars can be the official qualification platform for the league versus be the entire sponsor for the league.” Even though GPL India Season 2 will happen in direct collaboration with PokerStars India, it may or may not be the full sponsor of the event. The league will look into getting more sponsors and packaging their sports platform in the league to monetize that as well.

Bagai said that PSL takes yearly fees from its teams and has 8-year contracts with them. As the price pools are large, their aim is to monetize the league through distribution of content on OTT platforms, sponsorships, and equity holdings for teams owners in teams. He said that with restrictions on conducting the live format of the league due to the pandemic, monetization methods will be reevaluated.

On the topic, Kundra said that most of the MatchIPL team owners have been with the league since its beginning, and that none of them do it for the money. He said that it’s about pride and being able to represent the nation at the Nations Cup. He said that they have reduced the license fee for the league’s teams and have contained expenses with efficient production and content distribution methods. MatchIPL lets each team get four-five sponsors each for their jerseys to cover their costs and a part of the license fee. Kundra noted that about six out of eight teams last year were able to break even. He also said that they don’t want to short sell their title and ‘Powered by’ sponsorships, so, for now, the league owners are funding the whole league.

Bagai ended the discussion by commending the poker community for uniting together in many ways. He urged the community to continue working together to create more good content and grow the game for both players and industry.

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