Making a connection
You have logged into twitch.tv and watched the poker, haven't you? If you haven't, or if you don't know what Twitch is, then welcome to one of the newer trends in social media.
Twitch started out as a platform where people playing video games (e.g. Hearthstone, Defense of the Ancients, League of Legends) could video-stream themselves for the whole Internet to watch. When I tell people about this, particularly if they're over the age of 30, they just look at me...
"They're playing a video game."
"And streaming themselves playing the game live."
"And people tune in just to watch this person playing the video game."
Then I go on to explain that Twitch is in the top five Internet bandwidth users in the U.S. (in the company of, oh, Netflix and Facebook). And that the most popular "casters" (as they're known within the community) are making six-figure incomes from the subscriptions ($5.00 per month, shared between the caster and Twitch).
But I have a sense that I've been leaving out the most important bit - let me straighten that out right now...
Virtually all of the casters put a small video window in one corner of their screen that has a webcam aimed at them. And they provide running commentary about what they're doing as they play. So the viewers are seeing not only the battles to the (temporary) death between monsters and dragons, but the face and surroundings of the guy or gal driving the mouse.
Just as importantly, Twitch provides a chat interface, which allows the caster and viewers to all share in the experience. Good casters routinely acknowledge their viewers on audio - giving shout-outs to new subscribers, answering questions, etc.
And suddenly you have a connection - an instant community.
Poker is a relative latecomer to the Twitch world, but I think many of us feel that Twitch, and services that will derive from and expand on it, are the future of online poker. Few people saw this sooner and more clearly than Jason Somerville, who goes by the name "JCarverPoker" on Twitch (and on PokerStars). Jason was already a successful online and live player with a couple of big tournament cashes, but he realized that poker entertainment was his ticket to the future.
He began streaming on Twitch over 18 months ago and slowly but surely began building a community of followers, known affectionately as the Run It Up legion (army, team, whatever mood he's in). With solid poker play, non-stop chatter, relentless engagement with his fans, and a honeybee-like work ethic, Jason created a brand for himself and simultaneously planted the poker flag on Terra Twitch.
Eventually, he got onto PokerStars' radar and in late February of this year, signed on as a PokerStars Team Pro. But Jason has a special mission - to help expand PokerStars' reach via the Twitch channel. And I think he, and the other PokerStars people who are on Twitch, are going to succeed.
See, this connection I talked about - there is simply no comparison to watching an anonymous avatar play his or her (who knows?) way through a tournament. I was there to see compelling proof of this a few weeks ago.
On April 8th, PokerStars and Jaime Staples (known as "PokerStaples") announced that Jaime had signed a "Friend of PokerStars" agreement with us. Jaime had been climbing the Twitch poker charts and both parties felt it was in their interest to create an official relationship. So on that day, Jaime fired up a handful of tournaments on PokerStars, as he does every day that he's streaming. I happened to be tuned in watching him - he was playing, chatting, busting from this tournament, reentering that one - the usual.
But then something exciting happened: he refused to bust from the largest tournament that he was playing. People kept dropping off, but he kept his stack constant, doubled up a couple of times, shook off some reversals, and plodded forward. They broke through the bubble and Jaime turned the felt on his table image red, as he always does once they're in the money.
One by one, tables disappeared, and still Jaime was in the hunt - often chip leader or close to it. I cancelled plans to go out for dinner; instead, I heated up leftovers and made coffee. I jumped into the chat to wish him luck, as did a handful of other PokerStars employees. His viewership kept climbing - 1000, 2000...
At some point in there, Jason Somerville pulled his kayak out of the stream for the day. Many of his fans jumped over to Jaime's channel and suddenly the viewership skyrocketed north of 3000.
Five tables, four, three... the money that Jaime and all remaining players were guaranteed crept up, though still short of the hockey stick pay jumps at the final table.
But you know what made it exciting? It was following, first-hand, Jaime experiencing the rush of the deep run. Of seeing him constantly stay in touch with his fans, even desperately searching back through the chat to find a new subscriber he'd missed during a crucial decision in the tournament.
I felt that I was part of something interesting and exciting, but mostly fun. It was great being part of the crowd rooting for Jaime, and great seeing him take such joy from that support.
And the viewership kept climbing, ultimately touching a hair over 6000 viewers.
Ultimately, he got to the final table, and the air was thick with expectation and excitement. Like a NASA countdown ("nine... eight... seven..."), we sweated as Jaime hung in there and suddenly it was heads-up.
"I can't believe this is happening the day I announced my relationship with PokerStars" he said. And watching him on the video feed, you knew he was telling the truth.
By the time they'd reached heads-up, Jaime had a commanding lead and, as he put it, "This is my tournament to lose." When the end came, it required him to crack aces with J8 - he'd flopped top pair and turned two pair. All the money went in on the turn and when the cards were turned up, all he said was, so quietly, "Hold". And I think a couple thousand viewers said (quietly or not) "Hold..."
You might have expected him to leap out of his chair, scream, run around the room. He'd just won the biggest tournament score of his life on the same day that he'd announced a professional relationship that virtually every poker player in the world could envy.
Instead, he slumped a little bit - clearly unable to believe it had really happened. "I think this is the best day of my life."
And there were his 6000 fans sharing on video the best day of Jaime Staples' life. Needless to say, the chat box on his Twitch page burned down - it was as if his railbirds had won the tournament themselves.
How much did he win? Well, that's the funny thing. It was about $19,000, which is certainly significant money by most people's measure. But of course people win substantially more money on PokerStars every week, multiple times in multiple tournaments.
But I promise you that not all those tournaments have 6000 people watching their final tables. It was all about the connection that people made with Jaime - the connection they could make through the webcam, Jaime's microphone, and the chat box.
The corollary to that point, of course, is that it wasn't about the money. Everybody was really happy for Jaime that he'd won $19,000, but the money was secondary. The point was that he'd won and his fans, a lot of them liked to think that their support had played a small part in that. And it had.
We're all the time making a big deal about the big money that folks win on PokerStars - and it is astonishing - in the last year we've made a dozen and a half millionaires. But ultimately, as Jason Somerville, Jaime Staples, and others have proved (not least with the help of Twitch), it's all about connection. The opportunity to share in the experience with somebody you can see and hear, and with whom you can interact.
That is, and always will be, light years more engaging than learning that CoffeeCup360 has just won $1.5 million.
Lee Jones is the Director of Poker Communications at PokerStars and has been part of the professional poker world for over 25 years. You can read his occasional Twitter-bites at @leehjones.