Longtime European bookmaker Unibet has gone alone with the closure of the company’s skin on the Microgaming Poker Network (MPN) and the migration of its remaining MPN customers to its new, standalone site a few weeks ago.
Unibet had announced the move to its own dedicated poker site back in December, just as it announced the pending shutdown of its MPN skin a couple of weeks ago. Skins being closed or moved from one network to another is hardly earth-shattering news, but was is different and noteworthy about the Unibet tale is the company’s willingness to reinvent its poker product at the same time its striking out on its own – a sure indication that, at least for Unibet, the old market equations no longer worked.
Unibet relaunched on a new poker platform called “Big Game Poker,” being marketed by an upstart Estonian firm, Relax Gaming. Not too much is known about Relax, other than that it appears to have 20 or so employers and offers online bingo and casino-games suites in addition to its poker software, and Unibet appears to be its largest client to date.
It’s the Relax Gaming poker software that’s a little bit different, in that it gets away from many of the standard online-poker bells and whistles as offered by older sites and networks, formerly including Unibet as well.
Bodog, Unibet Take Different ‘Recreational’ Tacks
In a bit of a public-relations sweep conducted in December, Unibet coined this transition as an embracing of the new “Recreation Model” for online poker, as first championed by Bodog. Bodog’s snarky mouthpiece site, Calvin Ayre.com, lost little time in announcing Unibet’s pending transition – and thereby congratulating themselves at Bodog in the process – though there’s quite a bit of difference in how Bodog and Unibet are addressing some of the common problems facing online poker.
Back in December, Unibet’s Head of Gaming, Daniel Eskola, told several media outlets that, "The environment in the online poker industry has changed over the years and we have come to the insight that being part of a poker network is not sustainable for Unibet in the long term."
That key “environment” change is really the advancement and education of experienced online poker players themselves, which often include considerable third-party software applications and add-ons designed to capture information about one’s opponents, building playing profiles and tilting the online tables toward the players who invest in such software. So-called HUDs (Heads-Up Displays) are one of many examples of this type of software enhancement.
Whether HUDs or other software assists are good or bad for players isn’t the point; it’s that their proliferation has widened the knowledge and skill gap between experienced and newer online poker players. This widening gap in skill translates directly into a faster busting of the so-called “fish,” making those newer players less likely to redeposit. If players are busted fast, and receive little or no entertainment value, they’re more likely to take their entertainment budgets elsewhere.
It’s a particular concern when one realizes how the overall online-poker market is maturing. This gradual drying up of new depositors is a daunting specter for all online operators to face and address, and that’s where all these new approaches are coming into play, such as the differing “recreational models” now being employed by Bodog, Unibet, and a couple of others. Foremost among the concepts behind these new approaches are an attempt to curtail the sort of massive information gathering via software assists that stands as a forbidden obstacle to new players who just want to play poker on reasonably level terms.
Bodog was the first to try it, on both its Bodog- and Bovada-branded skins. Bodog’s version is extreme in that its approach is arguably not the best solution, in that it eschews player screen names and simply identifies players generically, by their seats. With Unibet’s new software, players have screen names, but can change them at will.
Addressing the Third-Party Software Issue
There are some similarities in the Unibet and Bodog approaches. Both sites’ changes have been designed to curtail the use of HUDs and other player-tracking software and rebalance the playing equation between experienced and newer (a/k/a “recreational”) players.
Maybe the online-poker world needs to make this transition; maybe not. The market itself will determine that. Yet one can look at Bodog’s solutions, and then Unibet’s, and argue that the Unibet / Relax Gaming solution is arguably an improvement over Bodog, a much better approach for all involved.
Why is the new Unibet platform better than what Bodog offers? It’s because even if the software shields itself from HUDs and other third-party software add-ons, the simple retention of player screen names gives Unibet’s players a chance to report perceived misbehavior on the part of other players – chip dumping, collusion, and so on.
Remember, even if players on Unibet change their screen names, their account names, real addresses, and even internal computer IDs are being logged and tracked. If several different Unibet players make complaints about cheaters and colluders, it’s not that difficult for Unibet to track the real people who are alleged to be cheating, whether or not the visual screen names are changed or not.
Bodog, in its haste to toss obstacles in front of all advanced software assists, decided to get rid of screen names entirely. That sure stops the player tracking, but it also removed the only handy way that most players can report questionable behavior by other players. It’s as Bodog has thrown up a giant wall that, perhaps not coincidentally, just happens to reduce a lot of the player complaints that the site might have to look into.
That might be great for saving on labor and customer-service expenses, but it’s not so great in terms of real game protection.
Forward-Looking, With PR
Unibet is now positioned to do better than Bodog, though they’ll still need to prove themselves over time. At least early on, however, they’re making the right noises. In a December interview with PokerNews, Unibet’s Eskola claimed that possible player collusion shouldn’t be much of an issue. “[W]e have a really good system and team to detect players using bots, colluding or chip-dumping,” said Eskola, “and it is a priority for us.”
We’ll see how it works. Unibet is an old, established name in European online gaming, moving on from its late-‘90s Northern European roots to become one of the veterans of the online-gambling scene. Like many Euro sportsbetting sites, Unibet has moved offshore for tax-shelter reasons, and now calls Malta home. Unibet’s recent changes also mean that the industry’s various traffic-tracking sites such as PokerScout, can only estimate how many people are playing, though Unibet has already claimed that they had 500 players participating at once on the new site this week, even as its transition from MPN nears completion.
That’s a good start. Unlike Bodog, which now concentrates on Asia and North America, Unibet will have the chance to give its version of a “recreational” online poker model a solid vetting in an established European market. An unofficial company spokesman, participating on a prominent discussion forum, has indicated that the company’s online-poker fortunes had suffered from long-term malaise and neglect, and that the moves were part of an effort to revitalize an offering that is just a small part of the bottom line.
Though unofficial, the explanation seems believable. In another year, we’ll have a better understanding of whether the “recreational model” is better for online poker in general than some of the older models and practices. Unibet’s put itself in a position to profit if the answer turns out to be “yes”.