Dealing Into the Poker Craze22 Feb, 2005 By: David Ward
It seems like you can't turn on a TV, go into a store or read a newspaper or magazine without coming across some poker-related product or service these days. Virtually every major retailer, including Wal-Mart, sold poker chips, tables and other accessories over the holidays, and entries in poker tournaments across the country are now hitting record highs.
But while poker may be a full-fledged fad on college campuses, casinos, offices and even playgrounds, it's only just beginning to find its legs as a DVD and console game category.
“The market has gone from zero a year ago to at least a category that we can focus a bit on,” said Jim Weatherson, EVP and general manager for Ventura Distribution, which has seven poker instructional DVDs featuring nine-time World Series of Poker champion Phil Hellmuth. “I'm not trying to oversell it — they're doing well for what they are.”
Ventura's poker SKUs are all priced in the $20 range.
“The mass merchants have taken the product in and seem to be doing OK with it,” Weatherson said. “But actually, we're quite pleased with the breadth of the retailers that are carrying it, including rental. We had almost all of the major rental chains participate, from Hollywood to Blockbuster to Netflix and Movie Gallery.”
Though five different cable channels now air various poker tournaments ranging from the World Series of Poker to Celebrity Poker Showdown, Weatherson feels consumers want to learn how to play better poker rather than watch other players practice their craft.
Early evidence seems to back that up. Montgomery, Ohio-based DVD Marketing brought out the DVD featuring the ESPN coverage of the 2003 World Series of Poker and executive producer Bill Ammerman described retail reaction as “soft.”
“We have seen some real interest in the Las Vegas area and among the online poker community,” he said. “But the poker stuff glutted the market around December, and you saw poker chips, cards and poker tables. And from what I heard, a lot of that merchandise ended up in excess inventory.”
One challenge the World Series of Poker DVD faced was a $35 price point.
“We have excess inventory, so we dropped the price to $24.99,” Ammerman said. “$19.95 is where we like to be but there are some rights issues with ESPN.”
Despite the reaction to the 2003 SKU, DVD Marketing is currently preparing to release a DVD of the 2004 World Series of Poker, probably in the late spring early summer.
“We're working on some new things for the 2004 release,” Ammerman said. “Some of the feedback that came back to us was that it is great to have all eight hours on the DVD two-disc set, but it would be even better if you could click on an audio button and turn off the commentary and turn on a running commentary from the players on what they were thinking at that moment.”
He added that the company is still encouraged by the category's potential, noting, “Poker is still something of a fad, but it's one of the top-rated shows coming out of ESPN. We feel strongly that with the right consumer, it's the right product.”
Meanwhile Shout! Factory March 29 deals a big eight-DVD set World Poker Tour: Season Two, featuring 14 episodes from the Travel Channel's top-rated show. The set (priced at $59.98) includes one disc full of bonus features including a documentary following top players, a featurette regarding many of the celebrities that play on the global circuit, and commentaries from the pros as they discuss highlights of each tournament.
After proving incredibly popular as a PC and online game, poker is also finding its audience in the console game arena as well. Crave Entertainment's World Championship Poker for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox sold more than 400,000 combined over the holiday at an aggressive $19.99 price point.
Crave Studio director Robert Bryant noted that both versions allow for online play, while the PS2 version incorporates the EyeToy peripheral so you can actually see the other players provided they have an EyeToy as well. Crave also has a GameBoy Advance poker game and is currently working on titles for the dual-screen GameBoy DS and Sony PSP handheld.
Bryant said the game has also shown some strong post-holiday legs, noting the success of World Championship Poker is likely to spur other game publishers to enter the category.
“There is probably going to be TV-licensed competition within the next year,” he said.
To combat that, Crave is planning a sequel for the third quarter of this year that will not only add a full career mode and additional variations of poker, but also feature the exclusive use of well-known pro Howard “The Professor” Lederer and other players for their game.
“We did a retail exclusive last year that included a bonus mini DVD containing one of two chapters of Howard's own poker tutorial that did very well,” Bryant said.
Though poker is gambling, Bryant said the console games don't really encourage cash to exchange hands.
“The real challenge has been to simulate risk — that's all the players care about in the game,” he said. “We're selling poker as a social experience and as a sport and not as a for-profit enterprise.”