Serious poker players travel the tournament circuit looking for the biggest prize pools and the best value. For them, the recently concluded PokerStars Festival New Jersey was probably a bit disappointing.
On the other hand, for a poker enthusiast, a casual player and a fan of the game, the PokerStars Festival NJ was a great experience. For fans, it was a bucket list type of event. They were able to play in a world-class, PokerStars tournament series and interact with some of the game’s biggest names.
This type of fan experience was actually enhanced by the sparse turnout and more intimate atmosphere, as attendee Ryan Meese told me.
PokerStars Festival New Jersey through the eyes of a fan
Meese is a 25-year-old New Yorker who caught the poker bug two years ago.
He came to the PokerStars Festival New Jersey not to win money, but to play some poker and meet some of his favorite players. In the end, he wound up doing both.
“The only reason why I played at the Festival was to be there and meet all the people and stuff,” Meese told me. “I wasn’t planning on winning a tournament. I was there to just have some fun with it. The US doesn’t get these type of events outside of Vegas, so when I saw Jason Mercier and my favorite Twitch streamers, like Jamie Staples and Kevin Martin, tweeting about it I said, ‘There’s no way I’m missing this.’ ”
Meese not only got to play the part of a fan, but he also managed to win an event. Technically, he finished second. He cut two final table deals that saw him walk away with the lion’s share of the prize-pool ($5,197) in Event #28, a $230 No Limit Holdem event on the final weekend of the Festival.
“It was like maybe my favorite weekend of my life,” Meese said, before rattling off all the reasons it was so memorable.
“Meeting Daniel Negreanu and all the Twitch streamers that I like, using the EPT chips and the presentation of the tables, the way the room was set up, the cool buttons and all-in triangles that made this more legit and cool than the other places I’ve played, and having PokerNews tracking the event and my friends and family following along … This was not my usual poker experience for sure.”
The target audience
Meese is a semi-regular $1/$2 NLHE cash game player in Pennsylvania and Atlantic City casinos. He is exactly the type of customer to whom PokerStars is hoping its new festival and championship events will appeal. The company wants to send every player away from a festival or championship event raving about it, win or lose.
“We’re a little more fairgrounds than your typical event,” said PokerStars Department Head of live Poker Operations Neil Johnson. “But poker is fun; it’s supposed to be fun. This is what you can expect from PokerStars. That’s why we went all out on the chips, the tables, the design of the room, the skills zone.”
Another big part of the PokerStars experience is the team it assembled.
You’re only as good as your team
Before the sale to Amaya, PokerStars began transitioning its roster of sponsored players. Gone were some big names who have won major tournaments. In were approachable players committed to their roles as ambassadors.
The current incarnation of Team PokerStars Pro and Team PokerStars Online players are among the most active in the poker community. They engage via social media, stream on Twitch, and make podcast and event appearances. They are players that take their responsibility as a representative of PokerStars and the game seriously.
They’re players that Ryan Meese wants to meet and players that want to meet the Ryan Meeses of the world.
The PokerStars pros who attended the PokerStars Festival New Jersey were ready, willing, and able to do their part to engage with the recreational players and fans who came out to see them.
They entered tournaments big and small and chatted with the other players. They made time for pictures and autographs with fans.
Without this type of engagement, the shift from a poker-driven tournament series to an experiential-driven tournament series wouldn’t be possible. People wouldn’t be calling the PokerStars Festival New Jersey “the best weekend of my life,” or raving about how different the environment is.
The 800-pound gorilla in the room
All the good experiences could have been better … if attendance had been better.
The event itself was top-shelf all the way, a European Poker Tour atmosphere on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. It had all the touches that make PokerStars events so popular around the world: backlit tables, brand new tournament chips, and even a bar and lounge area.
There was even a setup to stream live on Twitch. Jamie Staples, Chris Moneymaker, and Jonathan Little were among the players who did just that.
“Some of the players that were here that are more low-tech have never seen someone Twitch before, they’ve never seen someone live stream,” Johnson said. “The more of those elements you bring into play, the better off you are from an event standpoint.”
But all the bells and whistles couldn’t hide the simple fact that attendance was underwhelming. A number of tournaments were cancelled due to lack of interest.
Attendance not a surprise
Johnson called the lack of attendance surprising, but not too surprising.
“It’s been five, five-and-a-half years since we’ve been in the market and the market has evolved drastically in the United States,” he said.
Johnson went on to say that first and foremost, it was important for PokerStars to get the important, structural elements right.
“We’re not cannon-balling into the pool; we’re stepping into the pool,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re meshing with the DGE (Division of Gaming Enforcement) and make sure we’re meshing with Resorts.”
Meese was also troubled by the attendance, but not for the reasons you might think.
“I was disappointed that the fields were so small, only in the sense that I was worried [the event] may not happen again,” he said.
Meese’s fears were quelled by PokerStars’ staff, which told him they were already planning another series, most likely in the spring.
Upshot for PokerStars live events in NJ
Many postmortems for the Festival focused on the overall attendance numbers. They ignored the foundation the PokerStars Festival New Jersey built in Atlantic City.
Yes, opening night didn’t go as planned when it comes to box office sales. But the product is top notch, and the people will start showing up once PokerStars gets its marketing efforts ironed out.
The numbers are important, and had this been the company’s second or third visit to Atlantic City, it would be extremely troubling. But it was the company’s first foray into the market. PokerStars will learn from its mistakes and be back in Atlantic City in the near future.
For Johnson and the entire PokerStars team, it will go back to the drawing board. They’ll look at what worked, what didn’t, where they fell short, and what their NJ competitors are doing. The next festival will be just as well-run. Knowing PokerStars, the attendance issues will be resolved.
A bigger Festival will be good for everyone.
“It would probably be more exciting if it was really big,” Meese said. “My friends had a good time, but they’re not as into the poker scene as I am, so it would have been more exciting for them if it was a bigger turnout.”