Innovating poker for Twitch and e-sports

A Twitch craze is sweeping across the poker industry. A fairly recent change in the game streaming provider’s policy has switched poker’s status from regulatory pariah to being viewed as a logical next step for the game streaming movement.

And it is. But poker and Twitch is not a perfect match.

Hopefully the change will motivate game companies and investors to fund the poker innovations required to fully capitalize on the opportunity.
And hopefully our poker game, Hands of Victory – which is being designed exclusively with game streaming and e-sports in mind – will be one of them.

To spread awareness of our little venture and to help the industry explore this new  field of gold, I’ve attempted to put on paper some of my thoughts regarding the challenges people keen on growing poker through Twitch and e-sports are bound to face.

As per usual the aim is to spark debate. Now win a Pulitzer prize.

Twitch stream archetypes

To help structure my thoughts around Twitch, I like to break all the various streams into to three archetype streams:  social, educational and competitive.

In social streams the streamer is the star. It doesn’t really matter much what game he or she is playing. Gaming is just the setting for the interaction between the streamer and the audience. The quality of the stream hinges entirely on the streamer’s ability to engage and entertain his or her following through the playing of games.

In educational streams game content is the star.  People tune into because they want to learn more about a specific game and the various strategies. The quality of the stream relies on the strategic depth of the game and the streamer’s knowledge and ability to convey useful insights into the game.

In competitive streams the narrative is the star. People tune in to be part of something. The quality of the stream depends on the setting (world championship, big crowds, etc) the inherent dramaturgy of the game being played, how viewer friendly the action is, the star quality of the players and the ability of casters to weave all of it into one coherent and intriguing storyline.

Each of type of stream represents a different set of challenges for poker. Here are some of them. In no particular order.

Not another three-betting lesson

While not a solved game, the rules and strategies of standard NL Hold’em for example has been the topic of countless of hours of tutoring clips, articles and books. It’s been done. Unlike many MOBAs and card battlers, the dynamics of the game are not regularly altered through DLC releases, official expansions and game content rotation. The conditions of play remain pretty much fixed. The evolution that has occurred has been the result of increasingly more sophisticated data mining which has enabled new data to be incorporated into old strategies.

While niche in nature, Open Face Chinese Poker, is great example of how pure rule and gameplay innovation can reinvigorate a game.

It is our belief that providing educational streamers with fresh angles to explore and new strategies to discuss – without  tampering with the basic mechanics of poker – is essential in order to capture the established crowd.
The same lessons told through a new, albeit more interactive, medium has short-lived appeal.

A minute to learn, a year to prove yourself

E-sports is, like traditional sports, heavily star-driven. Massive live events featuring crowds of tens of thousands pit the best teams and best players against each other on grand stages.

Poker certainly has its share of just (and unjust) stars too. But the industry has to pay a hefty prize in order to support its star culture. Swapping, sharing, mega buy-ins and willingness to overlook certain questionable behavior and practices are all required ingredients in order to maintain what is to a degree an illusion of stardom.
Long gone are the days when the World Poker Tour or the World Series of Poker organisation could rely on a star-studded final table.
It is an absolute priority for us when we develop Hands of Victory to find ways for online poker to be genuinely competitive even in the short-term. Without it, it will be hard to draw the masses required for the e-sports community to pay attention and, consequently, for the streaming economy to kick in to high gear.
Making the game free-to-play is helpful because it solves the inherent conflict between portraying poker as a game of skill and relying on bad players to make money. As soon as ”losing money” is no longer part of the equation, players’ willingness to pay” is not drastically reduced by the fear that other players may outclass them.
But switching monetization is only part of the solution. Finding ways to better reward skill without losing touch with poker’s soul is the bigger issue.
No variance poker has no future. Current variance is to big. A middle ground must be found.

I think I might know what you did there

Any poker session played between skilled players is essentially a mental showdown between individuals capable of making lightning fast decisions based on actual data, justified assumptions, pattern recognition, applied math and a wealth of knowledge and experience.

The problem, from a spectator point of view, is that the application of all of these skill-sets great poker players posses is entirely internalized. To figure out what is going on one has to rely on rather wild speculations by commentators and bystanders. We see the result, but we don’t get to share the thought process that lead to it.

In many competitive video games, the actions of the players speaks for themselves. A player’s plan and approach is evident from what he does. Not from what others think he might be planning.
Figuring out how to better externalize this battle of minds would definitely increase the appeal of poker streams.

Lets talk about that exciting UTG fold

I am in awe of the folks who make their living commenting e-sports. They do a fantastic job of pulling novices in while also diving deep into the every little detail. But they can only be as good as the game they cover allows them to be. A game like poker that throttles along gently before suddenly exploding with drama is tough to cover. The pacing is awful. All the intermissions between the actions that in the end actually matter must be filled by something. Something that has an impact on the outcome.

In Hands of Victory we are adding several new features that forces players to stay active throughout a hand and constantly make decisions that may make or break them down the road.

The one second pre-game show

Live streaming is a hectic and unpredictable affair. To ensure overall viewership value it is vital to package it in content you can prepare. Sadly, poker offers very little for streamers to chew on. The competitive formats we use (often long MTTs) are hard to extract interesting story lines from. And there is no pre-game strategy discussion to be had, really. No choices. No options to weigh, no strategic decisions to make.

The best we got is who coached which November 9 player and the odd hero hand that brought someone to the final.
Sort of.
The upcoming Global Poker Masters in Malta is one example of someone trying to create a, in this case, live poker format that is much easier to work with from a storytelling perspective.

Spoiled opportunity

Twitch’s poker channel is teeming with life. None of the above concerns are crucial in order for Twitch to play a important part in the poker’s future. But I still hope that the industry, this time around, displays the confidence, devotion, curiosity, boldness and eagerness required to not just pick the low hanging fruit.
We, as an industry, do not need more great opportunities go rotten on us.

If this blog made you curious about the Hands of Victory poker game, please contact me.