Today, esports are a very distinct activity. Expert players participate in intense MOBAs, first-person shooters, and real-time strategy matches, in front of audiences either watching a stream or participating in a live event. They have massive sponsorship deals and fans who follow their tips in order to become better players themselves. There are also mysterious figures, rivalries, and even popular celebrities who like to get in on the action.
It’s a whole competitive culture unto itself, at this point. And yet many, if not all of the features just mentioned are actually shared with another popular game: poker. Indeed, one could almost make the argument that poker was a sort of esport before esports. But how close exactly is the popular card game to becoming an esport in the modern sense? Let’s go over some of the similarities….
Massive Online Competitions
The number of people who play online games connected to esports varies drastically, with League of Legends boasting 120 million players on average each month, Valorant registering 15 million, and FIFA seeing only five. With regard to poker, it’s been estimated that around 60 million in the U.S. play poker online. But the most popular poker app, Pokerstars, has approximately 450,000 people playing every month. However, these numbers are expected to increase. The bottom line is that there are at least ways of looking at the comparison in which poker’s player bases compare to those of some popular esports games.
Professional Tour Events
Each main esports event in 2021 was watched by somewhere between 1.5 and 5.4 million viewers online. By contrast, the events of the world’s primary professional poker circuit, known as the World Poker Tour, are watched on TV by almost 150 million people around the world. And while poker tournaments are not generally designed to take place in front of massive numbers of fans, the World Poker Tour has already been held in spaces designed to host thousands of people. Naturally, in order for poker to become an esports, these events would have to revolve around a digital version of the game. But it’s clear that the interest is there, and from a fan perspective there’s really not much to differentiate online or in-person poker viewing.
We mentioned above that some celebrities have made their way into esports (with some examples being Kourtney Kardashian and soccer star Antoine Griezmann). While these figures are of course not dominating the esports landscape, they do help to shine an even brighter light on the emerging sport. Poker has enjoyed the same benefit from its connection to celebrities. From American Pie actress Shannon Elizabeth (who is essentially a pro poker player), to a who’s-who of musicians and athletes, plenty of famous faces have appeared at public poker tables and major tournaments over the years. It generally helps to keep more casual fans –– or even those who wouldn’t otherwise be interested at all –– engaged.
The VR Factor
The VR gaming scene has improved considerably in recent years. From relatively limited early experiences, we now have games like Half-Life: Alyx and Star Trek: Bridge Crew which offer uniquely immersive narrative experiences. But the rise of VR has also affected esports, with games like Onward and Echo Arena being pushed as the next big esport titles. Meanwhile, VR’s rising popularity has also led to innovation in the poker world –– most notably in the form of Pokerstars launching its own VR app. The idea was to make players feel like they were at a real table, but it has the added benefit of allowing players to read the body language of their competitors, just as they would do on a real poker table. It might also prove to be the bridge that takes poker from in-person to digital competition, making it more indistinguishable from esports.
There are many similarities between esports and poker, but also important differences. Poker players and audiences tend to be older, and use TV as their main method of watching competition. The events also tend to involve live players and real cards. With that said, the similarities are significant enough that one can see a road to poker essentially becoming an esports event. Whether or not in-person poker tournaments die out (and right now there’s no reason to believe they would), online and VR tournaments are poised to essentially become the video game versions of the popular activity.