Crossover between esports and professional poker is clearer than ever

By Jared Wynne


Mar 24, 2020

Reading time: 3 min

Synergies between the burgeoning worlds of esports and professional poker are now more obvious than ever before. Since the decision by the 2018 World Series of Poker to give esports a sizable presence at the poker industry’s flagship event, more people have realized that the connection between the two sectors makes sense.

The Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas has been the spiritual home of the WSOP since 2005. In 2018, it decided to host a new centerpiece around its summer schedule of poker tournaments. The UMG Esports Stage was unveiled, giving poker players a chance to step up and compete, playing some of the most popular esports titles including Fortnite, Hearthstone, and FIFA.

The WSOP is something of an institution, so to unveil such innovation as a dedicated esports gaming arena and attempt to grab a slice of the esports pie underlines how poker’s elite considers esports a worthwhile investment.

Poker’s spiritual home of Las Vegas embraces esports

Elsewhere in Vegas, which remains one of the world’s biggest poker hubs for professionals and amateurs alike, esports is being embraced in a big way on the Strip. The Luxor at the south end of the Strip has opened its own 30,000 square foot esports arena, capable of staging some of the world’s biggest competitive esports tournaments. Poker Central is also due to make its broadcast studio available to stream live broadcasts of esports events.

The mental attributes required to be a poker and esports professional are very similar. In fact, some of the world’s most successful poker pros played video games for a living before migrating over to cards. French professional poker pro Bertrand ‘ElkY’ Grospellier lived in South Korea for a time where he forged a career as a professional StarCraft player.

StarCraft captured the imagination of much of Asia at its peak, but more recent spin-offs of the game have been quietly scrapped in favor of more popular future releases like Overwatch 2.

Before reaching the summit of France’s all-time poker earnings list, ElkY had become one of the best StarCraft players on the planet. He was paid to play in front of sold out crowds of thousands in packed arenas, and was regularly mobbed by fans on the streets of Korea, signing autographs and taking photos. It was a true celebrity lifestyle.

Even during his professional poker career, ElkY has taken time out to get involved in other esports games, signing a deal to represent Team Liquid in Hearthstone tournaments. Hearthstone is a turn-based card game, similar to poker in some ways, as players never truly know what hands their opponents have. Hearthstone is an esports game that’s enchanted another poker great, Daniel Negreanu. The Canadian even went head-to-head with ElkY in a Hearthstone game staged at BlizzCon 2015 in California.

The transition from gaming to poker action

Many other esports pros have successfully made the transition from esports to poker. Their ability to quickly analyze and process on-screen data and then make quick decisions acts as a proof of concept for a fledgling poker career.

When it comes to unlocking secrets and developing successful strategies, there are few minds out there in today’s poker scene quite like James “OP-Poker” Mackenzie. James and his fellow OP Poker crew were recently confirmed online as part of Team PokerStars; with his background in Runescape and Hearthstone giving him the mental wherewithal to strategize over the newest forms of online poker, delivering high-end content for the masses.

Even the online poker industry has sought to design and launch cross-sector poker games that reach out to the esports demographic. Power Up Poker is one such variant that demonstrated the clear similarities between poker and esports strategy. The game began like a conventional poker game, but after the five-card community board was dealt, players were then given nine Power Up cards that gave them additional powers to improve their hand and weaken their opponents’ hands.

The exciting thing is that esports and poker are not seen as competitors. Both industries are seen as vital in inspiring more people to take the plunge and hone their skills in sports of the mind.