Is poker an eSport? At first glance, it’s a fairly simple ‘no’. While eSports players agonize over milliseconds of lag in connection and are prepared to spend north of $50 for mouse mats, all you need for poker is a deck of cards.
However online poker has become one of the success stories of the internet age, and there’s a fair bit of shared history. The Quake “Red Annihilation” tournament at E3 in 1997 is now remembered as likely the first ‘true’ eSports event, and gave the burgeoning format its first star in winner Dennis ‘Thresh’ Fong. The first hand of online poker was dealt in January 1998, and in the early 2000s televised tourneys made celebrities of professionals like Phil Hellmuth and Dave ‘Devilfish’ Ulliott. Where once poker was the preserve of the casinos and eSports the back room, now eSports arenas are being built inside casinos (the HyperX at the Luxor in Las Vegas) and poker takes up computing power that could be used for gaming. That’s not the only way the two can be compared.
Both eSports and poker are games of skill, however 20 or so years ago, you’d need a big bankroll – either to get to the high roller’s table, or to buy gaming PC equipment capable of allowing you to perform at that level. Now, both online poker and eSports tournaments are open to everyone. League of Legends has around 115m players active on a monthly basis, and online poker has around 100m. For the Dennis Fong of poker, read Chris Moneymaker, who qualified for the World Series of Poker through a $40 online tournament to scoop the $2.5m jackpot in Vegas at the 2003 Main Event.
While everyone can play, a select few from both arenas have become household names. Poker pro Daniel Negreanu has one of the most popular channels on YouTube, while Phil Hellmuth Jr has written books, become a motivational speaker and never saw an endorsement he didn’t like. By the same token, Richard Blevins is now much better known as Ninja – Twitch streamer and Fortnite champ – way outside of his own sphere. League of Legends player Jian “Uzi” Zi-Hao found himself starring in LeBron James’ ‘Shut Up And Dribble’ campaign in 2018.
Players’ net worth
Life at the top in both disciplines can bring rich rewards. Johan ‘NOtail’ Sundstein is estimated to be the world’s richest eSports player solely from gaming, making near $7m from Dota 2 prowess. Tom Dwan is one of the new breed of poker players and made much of his estimated $10m fortune online before appearing in person on the tables of Macau. That celebrity status adds magnitudes though – Ninja’s $25m career earnings have come from a combination of gaming and Twitch streaming, while a poker player’s net worth can be made up from endorsements. Daniel Negreanu is rumored to pull in $2-4m a year from poker company sponsorships. “Kid Poker” can also be seen playing online almost as often as at live tourneys.
Over the top
It’s been argued that in both spheres, competing in a major ‘conventional’ sporting tournament is the next step. eSports will feature in the imminent Asian Games 2022, with medals available for no less than eight titles, including PUBG Mobile and Dota 2. A variant of poker has been devised to comply with Olympic rules and its federation (the IFMP) is hoping for the game to be given trial status at Paris 2024. Their ultimate aim is for Match Poker to be an Olympic event at Los Angeles 2028. Will we see Team USA on the tables and keyboards alongside the track and the courts? Watch this (cyber)space!