During my time covering the 2018 EPT Barcelona, I was invited to attend a pre-launch press event for a new product called PokerStars VR. As you’ll all surely notice by the extensive media coverage PokerStars is getting today for its new product, the world’s largest online poker site likes to make a big splash. Along with other media members and invited guests in attendance, a sizable percentage of the company’s team pros – including lead ambassador Daniel Negreanu – were on hand to witness the unveiling.
The proceedings began with a short 15-minute presentation about the new product by Innovation Poker Manager James O’Reilly and Director of Poker Innovation and Operations Severin Rasset, with whom I later had the chance to consult with for a Q&A. Admittedly, while sitting and taking notes throughout the presentation, I couldn’t help but be just a tad cynical. I’ve been in marketing for a long time and recognized all the familiar buzz words, like “immersive social gaming experience.” Also, strictly speaking, it would be just a little irresponsible to not be skeptical. I promised myself that I wouldn’t allow corporate speak, slick presentations, and the glitzy pre-launch event to influence my impressions of the product; PokerStars VR would have to convince me on its own if it was good or not.
Then, I had the opportunity to actually don a virtual reality headset and play the game. My skepticism melted away faster than ice cubes on a hot summer day.
My First VR Experience
I had never tried any sort of virtual reality product before, so my experience in Barcelona was a first. The event was attended by approximately 50 people and what struck me as soon as I put on the VR headset was that a lady was speaking to me with a thick New York accent. I hadn’t remembered hearing anyone present at the event with a New York accent, and then it instantly hit me that someone at the virtual table was speaking to me. So, quite literally, I was totally immersed in PokerStars VR right from the get-go. Despite dozens of people physically being around me in the room in Barcelona, I was able to tune out their noise and only pay attention to the chatter at my VR table.
As mentioned, I had no prior virtual reality experience, so it took me a few minutes to get used to the controls, especially lifting up the cards and then gathering chips for calls, raises, etc. I got the hang of it soon enough though, and eventually taking action at the table became second nature. The characters and virtual poker setting came loaded with a number of “extra features” such as beer drinking and cigar smoking. While I don’t engage in either of those pastimes in real life, it was genuinely fun and cool to “take part” in that sort of thing at the VR table. After all, I was sitting with complete strangers and clinking beer glasses immediately helped break the ice, socially speaking.
Will PokerStars VR Be Successful?
I don’t believe that traditional marketing is what will make PokerStars VR successful, but rather I see it growing via word of mouth. In my opinion, that’s the best type of growth possible, as it’s organic. Moreover, this doesn’t appear to be a product that PokerStars will be pushing as a replacement for live poker or home games, but rather as a supplement to them. To point, I think there’s a certain utility and practicality to PokerStars VR, specifically for home game players.
I’ve been playing in home games for the last 15 years and, from a multitude of very frustrating experiences, I can tell you that there are plenty of times when it’s impossible to get enough people together for logistical reasons. Sometimes you can’t find babysitters, while other times it’s otherwise just tough to get out of the house and travel. Still other times, some of the group regulars might be on work trips far afield or otherwise unavailable. The existence and availability of PokerStars VR circumvents all those issues, and allows us all to “get together” even though none of us will physically be present in the same location.
Speaking of location, it being virtual reality and all, you can select from a variety of locations where you’ll be playing poker, including an Old West saloon, ritzy Macau, and even a luxurious yacht, among other backdrops.
Furthermore, and likely of great interest to poker aficionados in Australia, 46 states in the U.S., and other “no go” zones for online poker, PokerStars VR is a play-money game, so it’s available for everyone to play all over the world. That means friends won’t be limited by legalities from getting to play some fun poker together just because they happen to be located in certain jurisdictions that prohibit real money gaming.
A TRULY Immersive Social Gaming Experience
I scoffed at those marketing buzzwords at the outset of this op-ed piece, but I had to swallow them rather quickly. PokerStars VR is a legitimately impressive product. I had my headset on for approximately 15 minutes, but the time absolutely flew by. What really “sells” this product and makes it stand out in my opinion is the genuine social interaction. Rather than being limited to standard online poker chat of “gg” and “nh,” the software allows you to fist-bump other players at the table. If there’s a bad beat or someone makes a nice play, you’ll actually hear and see everyone else at the table react. Capturing those emotions is precisely what brings out the excitement in poker, and PokerStars VR successfully manages to do just that. There’s no definitive commercial release date for this product, but I assure you it will be worth the wait.