For a long time - and for a wide swath of poker players - a European Poker Tour title was the most coveted in poker.
Winning an EPT main event was big. Life-changing, even. And led to multi-year sponsorship contracts – think Noah Boeken, Liv Boeree, Jason Mercier, Vicky Coren and Bertrand Grospellier to name just a few.
And for years EPT events just grew bigger and bigger. What begun as a 1-day, €1,000 tournament evolved into a two-week behemoth with 100s+ events and thousands of players.
But in a surprising turn announced this summer PokerStars is scrapping the iconic EPT and re-shaping its entire live tour platform.
Where exactly is all this leading? And where is live poker, at least in Europe, heading in 2017 and beyond? Let's do some speculating.
Dwindling Returns, More Competitive Market
When the Season 3 Grand Final rolled into Monte Carlo the top prize ultimately topped €1m for the first time. Gavin Griffin won €1.8m million for his win, which was twice as much as his predecessor received.
For the next 5 or 6 years the EPT grew exponentially. But after years of virtually unchecked growth the market finally began to grow saturated.
When there’s an EPT winner literally every month, it’s not quite as special as it once was it seems. Different locations across Europe were tried but eventually numbers began to dwindle.
Within two years the only events that still grew were Prague and Barcelona. So PokerStars made a good decision - it cut half the stops to focus on making the remaining ones more interesting.
In the meantime competitors also began picking their spots well, too. More and more low-to-medium buy-in events have exploded on the scene, directed at a much larger target group – the recreational players.
So now with the 888Live, Unibet Open, WPT National and WSOPC tours coming on strong the EPT, UKIPT, LAPT and APPT are no longer -- replaced by the PokerStars Global Championships and PokerStars Festivals. What will happen next? It seems it can go one of three ways.
1) PokerStars Brings Back Value to International Titles
By taking a more global approach PokerStars events should, in theory, get more attention. And with less stops overall, players from all over the world will almost have to go to more remote places than before.
Will prestige rise?
Player fields should become more diverse and more high quality than ever before.
Gone will be the times when Macau has only Chinese and Sydney mostly Australian names in the results. Europeans and Americans will be there, too, and bring the previously more local events to another level.
The more global approach should give a PokerStars Championship title more prestige, which is always appealing to a poker player.
More players mean more money, which in turn attracts more players. PokerStars actively ignites a new live poker boom and we see further record numbers in the future.
2) PokerStars Changes Strengthen Competitors
With PokerStars giving up the EPT the term “European title” has become vacant. It has left a vacuum and someone will step in.
Door open for newcomers?
888poker, for example, has established itself as a solid competitor with booming Live Local events and new low buy-in festivals all over Europe.
They now cover the whole range of buy-ins up to about €1,000.
Unibet is also moving fast, hosting a lot of fun live tournaments in interesting locales (see: Bucharest) and completely overhauling its software to focus on recreational players.
The WSOP Circuit is expanding in Europe with events in Italy, Germany, Georgia, France and the Czech Republic and it’s hard, if not impossible, to top the WSOP brand in poker pedigree.
With so many competitors battling on the European market, players will profit most as the quality of events has to be high to win players over.
3) PokerStars Loses Brand Power
Although PokerStars is positioning the new Poker Championships and Festivals as the next step in live poker evolution, it could be the start of a downswing for PokerStars as a major live event host.
With the new split PokerStars is not only giving up the most powerful brand in poker outside the WSOP, it's also giving up on the two-week, 100+ event extravaganzas that resulted from linking up the EPT events with the smaller Eureka and Estrellas tours, and so on.
Will pros travel for it?
That combination gave the smaller tours record fields time after time as many pros would add a couple of days to their EPT schedule to play the smaller events, too.
Now the buy-in levels are separated again it will split the player fields in half. Why would the pros travel to expensive London for a £1,000 event when there are similar events in places like Rozvadov, Spain or Malta?
And will anyone care about someone - even a big-name pro - winning a tournament in Panama or Macau?
The recent changes at PokerStars – rake adjustments, ending Supernova Elite under poor terms, Baazov under investigation – have certainly left a bad taste in a lot of mouths. And left the impression the company has changed and players (or pro players at least) aren't the main focus anymore.
Even if the PokerStars product might still be one of the best, players will turn away quickly if they feel they get bigger benefits somewhere else.
Barcelona 4 ever.
One safe bet? The stop that won’t lose its fascination is Barcelona.
Hot summer nights, one of the greatest cities in Europe, a top notch casino -- that’s a combination that will (or should) never fail.
Which Way Next?
No matter which of these scenarios you predict, for tournament poker players of all bankrolls the live poker future is still bright.
There will be a very lively poker scene all over Europe with a destination and tournament line-up someplace, somewhere that can cater to almost everyone.
PokerStars, on the other hand, has arrived at a crossroads. Which path will it end up taking?