The Hot 50 is all about buzz and in 2013 the buzz was about the reopening of the US market on a sure legal footing for the first time. That buzz is reflected in a record 13 US-based entrants in this year’s Hot 50 – that’s over a quarter of the entire 50. Clearly, that number is not reflective of the online gaming revenues coming from the US but that is what our judges and readers (and we) are most excited about.
The excitement about online gaming Stateside has lifted the fortunes of its largest supplier, IGT, which makes its debut appearance in the Hot 50. What’s more it joins an elite band of just eight companies with more than one entry.
The extraordinary renaissance of IGT Interactive, which 12 months ago was reeling from the disastrous acquisition of Entraction, is a story of focusing on the things you do best. In 2013, IGT looked at how best to exploit the assets it had rather than looking enviously at others’ assets and looking to match them.
IGT’s key assets when it comes to interactive gaming are its patented online slots portfolio and the mighty DoubleDown Casino. IGT’s online games have been making money in Europe for a lot longer than its rivals – Cleopatra recently finished top of GIQ’s first poll of online slots – and its patent portfolio ensured it was clean for operators that needed slots in the US market.
But key executive Marcus Yoder has taken IGT’s interactive business further than that. Its slots now dominate the online market north of the border in Canada and south of the border in Mexico. In addition, Yoder conceived the DoubleDown casino partner programme, a way of turning it into a B2B product. It is a slightly odd amalgamation of B2B and B2C but 53 casinos have lapped it up so far and they can’t all be wrong.
While staff turnover at the highest level continues at a worrying rate, IGT’s future success cannot be taken as a given. CFO and recently appointed interactive chief John Vandermore will be hoping for a steadier ship than has been the case in recent years.
Another company riding high on its early Stateside success is 888, the only company to have a presence in Delaware, Nevada and New Jersey. The success of 888’s three Hot 50 entrants is built on the foundations laid in Europe over the last few years. 888’s three stars for 2014 follow the two they had in 2013 and 2012.
A word or two on methodology here. The readers of GamingIntelligence.com nominate the people they think are most deserving of a place in the Hot 50 before the judges assess their worthiness and offer a few suggestions of their own . The Hot 50 is then, a reflection of our readers. Asia might be bringing in more money but it is largely alien to huge swathes of our readership. The US is the big regulated market that is opening and as such it commands attention.
Unibet is another company with three entrants (four if you include the appearance of Rick Brownlow, CEO of its social casino JV with Plumbee). While regulated markets still only account for 25 per cent of Unibet’s revenues, it is a percentage that is growing. COO Britt Boeskov, gaming chief Daniel Eskola and Maria boss Ebba Ljungerud have been instrumental in following a conservative-looking strategy that is beginning to look like genius.
Unless the Supreme Court throws an unexpected surprise, sportsbook-focussed Unibet is unlikely to be playing in the US anytime soon (unless it’s through bingo). The same might be said of the other companies with three Hot 50 winners – Playtech and Rational Group (the parent company of PokerStars and Full Tilt).
After an expensive foray in California, Playtech has declined the opportunity to join the hordes flocking to New Jersey and beyond. But along with PokerStars, it continues to dominate online gaming. Its Hot 50 stars include Shay Segev, the only person to appear in the list more than once. We have an unwritten rule that nobody appears in the Hot 50 more than once, but Segev’s ongoing influence and Playtech’s dominance make this a rule to be broken.
As for PokerStars, the likelihood is that its US entry has been delayed rather than abandoned. While Stars continues to dominate almost every market it works in, the decline of poker means it has had to expand its repertoire into casino games. Hot 50 winners Sam Hobcraft and Rafi Ashkenazi will have a big influence over the success or otherwise of this move. And with question marks hanging over the future involvement of the Scheinberg family, Ashkenazi could be very influential indeed.
Ashkenazi is one of 12 senior managers in the Hot 50 but there are more backstage heroes, techies, product heads, sales and marketing people than ever before. One of the aims of the Hot 50 is to get past the names of the usual suspects (hence ‘once only’ rule) and delivering a diverse list of many talents. While the US might have sprung to the top of the charts, there are 14 countries represented in the 2014 list – two more than last year. As companies explore Asia and South America, that figure will grow.
Pleasingly, there are seven women on the list this year, four more than last year. In an industry dominated by middle-aged white men this is an achievement. Unibet leads the way here with two women – partially a result of its acquisition of female-focused brand Maria, which at one stage comprised around 60 per cent female employees. Now that figure is about 50 per cent. Maria chief Ebba Ljungerud and Unibet COO Britt Boeskov both sit on Unibet’s six-strong executive team.
The dominance of sportsbooks and poker in Europe is partially responsible for the lack of diversity in the industry but perhaps the opening of the (presumably sportsbook-free) US will change that. I keep hearing that the average slots player is a middle-aged woman, so perhaps we can look forward to even more diversity in the future. That would be something worth celebrating.
But, for now, let’s celebrate what we have – 50 talented, inspirational and influential individuals. Hats off to them all. Thanks to all of you for your nominations and thanks to the judges for helping to assemble a selection that is a credit to the industry.
The Gaming Intelligence Hot 50 of 2014
The 2014 panel of judges comprised:
● Joe Brennan, Executive Director, Industrial Strength
● Andrew Bulloss, Head of Betting & Gaming Practice, Odgers Berndtson
● Itai Frieberger, Chief Operating Officer, 888 Holdings
● Gavin Kelleher, Analyst, Goodbody Stockbrokers
● Raf Keustermans, Chief Executive Officer, Plumbee
● Nigel Payne, Owner, Merlin Financial Advisors
● Roger Raatgever, Chief Executive Officer, Microgaming
● Christian Rajter, Chief Executive Officer, At the Front Line
● Nicky Senyard, Chief Executive Officer, Income Access
● Paul Telford, General Counsel, Rational Group