Believe me when I say that I was one of the most excited people in the months and weeks leading up to the kickoff of the inaugural season of the Global Poker League (GPL).
I loved the concept and the hype that was building around it. I loved that we had a Canadian team and loved Montreal Nationals’ team name. I loved that poker would be able to be seen as something other than gambling since there’s no buy-in, which opens up possibilities for mainstream sponsorship. And I loved that there could be a kind of fan culture for the game in a way that it’s never seen before.
I had high hopes for the GPL.
Before the teams were drafted, there was criticism and doubt from quite a few members of the poker community who felt the project was doomed and that players were foolish to invest their time into it. I defended GPL up and down, asking everyone to have faith and be willing to try something new.
Our first real look at the GPL was the live draft night and I watched the stream on my TV, tweeting like mad for the whole draft, fascinated by the show. It was exciting to watch and it felt like poker was being given the sport-network treatment like a hockey or football game.
But the first disappointment came from the team managers who left the hopeful and eager Justin Oliver sitting on the sidelines like the kid nobody wants to pick for their dodgeball team. Nobody put more effort into making themselves marketable than Justin. He created a comical campaign video and was active on social media trying to get recruited.
The league desperately needed characters who were willing to make the game watchable far more than it needed talented poker players. The fact that 12 teams each picked four players and Justin was left outside of the 48 with noone to play for signaled that the team managers didn’t understand what was needed to make the GPL a success.
As someone who wanted the league to succeed and had chosen the obvious homer pick of the Nationals as my favourite team, I was eager to get my hands on some swag. But weeks and weeks of the first season went by and no shirts, hats, or jerseys were to be found. How do you have a fan culture without merchandise? It wasn’t until sometime late in the summer that the “Fan Shop” finally opened and each team had a hat, hoodie, and jersey available for sale. My excitement had long waned by that time.
For Week 1 of the inaugural season, I logged in to Twitch to watch every moment of the Nationals’ matches as they streamed live. The talking heads of Sam Grafton and Griffin Benger behind a slick broadcast desk helped with the show, but, essentially, I was just watching some mute and motionless avatars play online poker.
Maybe it is my high expectations that are to blame. I thought poker was getting an entertainment product that would be unique as well as captivating and appealing to non-poker-playing audiences. I didn’t realize GPL was just another Twitch poker stream.
In time, GPL added webcams and audio for a couple of players in each match. But the broadcasts never stood out among the many other poker streams available on Twitch. Hours upon hours of video were added week after week with respectable viewership, but the buzz about the GPL had faded. I stopped watching entirely.
An uptick in excitement returned to the GPL when they finally revealed their signature live poker arena, the cube, as well as the debut appearance of the league’s biggest celebrity, Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul, in their Summer Series. For those few weeks in Las Vegas inside the dramatically lit cube, the GPL was interesting again.
But action returned to the online tables where the regular season points were made and the league standings were determined. I watched very little of it, only checking the standings occasionally and waiting it out for the playoffs.
The result of both the regular season and the post-season couldn’t have been better, from my perspective. Montreal led the points nearly all season and finished as the top seed, and then won the playoffs for the grand prize of $100,000.
With action back in a real-life setting and in the cube, the playoffs can be added to the live draft and the summer series as the only broadcasts that came near my expectations.
But what happened to the early-season promise that the GPL Finals would be hosted at The SSE Arena, Wembley in London? In fact, what happened to the entire concept of bringing a unique poker arena to live audiences? There were no real opportunities all season for the GPL to be a spectator league except remotely from the other end of a live stream.
I’m being harsh. I don’t think the GPL was a failure. I think it had some measured success. I have a lot of respect for Alex Dreyfus and his elaborate and expensive poker projects which seek to bring poker to new audiences. And I count Eric Danis as a good friend and I appreciate everything he put into the GPL. He’s truly one of the biggest assets of the league.
By no means do I think the GPL was a waste of time or that they should mothball the project. The league created hundreds of hours of poker content and I don’t doubt many new players were introduced to the game by coming across the league.
But I think the GPL was a little trigger-happy to launch so soon after first concept. If given another year to plan and develop for a 2017 launch, the league wouldn’t have come out as the unprepared product I think it was. It launched with no merchandise, online matches with no audio or visuals of players, and many technical issues that damaged the brand.
The second season is most certainly going to be better than the first, but you only get one chance to make a first impression. There were improvements made all season long that I’m sure will be retained and added to.
Some improvements I hope to see are big changes to the regular season. Get webcams and microphones on every player and put them in front of green screens so they can be cleanly dropped onto the online table.
Also, by the law of supply and demand, have less content! Fan culture arises from shared experience, but nobody’s talking about the matches when the fanbase only watches them sporadically because there are so many. If the Nationals only played one two-to-three-hour match a week, I’d probably tune in every time.
Finally, I hope the goal to put poker in front of live audiences gets reborn for the second season. But the focus needs to be more on entertainment than elite competition — more WWE than PGA. With that in mind, do they need to have rosters of all pros? A mix of talent and characters would make for much better viewing.
Whatever comes next, I truly wish the GPL the best of luck. It didn’t meet the preseason hype and it didn’t come near what it could have been, but I’ll give it another chance. I just hope others will too.