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Bar Hopping

As new technology advances, the genre of the bartop gaming machine continues to grow.

Bar Hopping

Competition helps the gaming supply sector thrive. Particularly on the slot floor, competition between the top manufacturers has led to innovation and variety for the player.

One area of casino supply, though, has seen little competition over the years. The market for bartop gaming machines has remained the overwhelming realm of one manufacturer for decades. At any one given time, nine out of 10 bartop machines in the industry are IGT machines.

The reason is that bartops have been the realm of a style of game invented by, and still overwhelmingly dominated by that same company, IGT: video poker.

But the fact that IGT dominates the bartop market doesn’t mean there can be no variety in this genre of product. In fact, as the first competition in bartops has appeared from another market-topping manufacturer, Aristocrat Gaming, variety is definitely coming to the casino bar. The main selling point of the Aristocrat bartop is the inclusion of multi-line slot games that currently dominate much of the slot market, led by the Buffalo series.

IGT has added its own popular slot games to its newest bartop, the PeakBarTop. But the powerful processor inherent in this unit has allowed a lot more game variety, including a parade of new keno games and new specialty video poker including Ultimate X and other multi-hand collaborations between IGT and Action Gaming.

The PeakBarTop was originally launched in January 2020, just in time for the global pandemic and its accompanying industry shutdowns. It was the first follow-up to the ubiquitous G20 and 80960 bartop units that had dominated the product sector for 14 years. As the industry has recovered from the Covid-19 crisis over the past two years, the PeakBarTop has steadily grown its footprint in U.S. casino bars and route locations.

“It has to do with performance, and variety as well,” says Brad Fredella, senior product manager, video poker and keno content for IGT. “We make a conscientious effort to make sure that we continue to keep the best content, and the best variety out there, and the best hardware that we can put out. And I think we’ve hit all three of those points really well on the PeakBarTop.”

Meanwhile, Aristocrat Gaming’s Winner’s World bartop units have evolved to an advanced 2.0 version—but the company has had its own pandemic-related issues, having first introduced the Winner’s World units shortly before Covid-19 appeared.

“We launched our bartop product in 2019, but progress stalled with the pandemic shutdown,” explains Jon Hanlin, Aristocrat’s senior vice president of commercial strategy & business analytics. “Bars and convenience stores were the first to open as restrictions started to ease, and we began to see an increased awareness of our bartop Buffalo slots.

“We intentionally invested in ongoing customer feedback to better understand what our core audience wanted from us in this segment, resulting in the development of two new products. In the gap between 1.0 and 2.0 versions, we came out with a 1.5 version that included a few slot games and one new keno game. This bridge release was met with positive customer reactions, and players found the new content enjoyable. We most recently released the full version, which offers a much greater variety of product and includes progressive capabilities for video poker and keno games.”

Doubling Down

The Aristocrat Winner’s World, and IGT’s reaction to the challenge of new competition in the bartop area, has ushered in a new era of variety in games available at the bar.

IGT, for one, is doubling down on the variety available in the PeakBarTop. “Customers are realizing, when they put them on the floors, that there is a very good mix of those tried-and-true games and game themes that those players are used to playing, and that they’re seeking out, and they can play their favorite video poker game as well,” Fredella says.

“They can play their favorite keno game, and then they’re also finding that those same players and even other players are being drawn to the bartop because there is so much new content on there. We have seven different new keno games that are on these PeakBarTops between the SuperStar and Game King (product groups). We’ve got an entire new suite of high-line-count video slot content on there.”

“The product has really taken off,” says Ryan Reddy, IGT’s senior vice president, product marketing, vlt, systems, payments & poker. “It’s doing extremely well, and we’ve just steadily increased placements over time. We have the vast majority of the bartop space today already with our existing legacy IGT product. Now, we’re steadily replacing those with the PeakBarTop, and the key thing for us is that we’re seeing a lot of repeat business. Customers that have a large presence of the older bartops today test the market by buying a few PeakBarTops to see if the business case is there.

“The economics make sense for them to upgrade. And they’re coming back and buying more PeakBarTops—which we think is a really great sign for the overall success of the product and the value that is there for our customers.”

One prominent showcase for the PeakBarTop can be found in Downtown Las Vegas, at the Circa and D casinos. The Circa features the sprawling Mega Bar, with a remarkable 53 PeakBarTop units—spanning 165 feet, making it the longest bar in Nevada. The bar features expert bartenders “with dazzling behind-the-bar flairs,” as noted on its website.

The D, meanwhile, features the 100-foot Longbar, featuring 37 PeakBarTop units fronting TV monitors for sporting events.

While the PeakBarTop units have all that variety, video poker is still king, says Allen Randal, director of slot operations for the Circa, D and Golden Gate casinos.

“Typically speaking, video poker for any casino tends to run about 10 percent of your slot floor in Las Vegas,” Randal says. “Here at Circa, we’re closer to 13 percent or 14 percent. And the main reason is that there are so many of these long bar-type areas. Mega Bar, of course, is by far the biggest. But you also have the underhang and overhang areas, with more than 40 machines. And then at the D, there is the Longbar.”

Randal says the PeakBarTop fits right into all the unique setups. “Personally, I like the screen on the PeakBarTop,” he says. “The rounded nature of the screen makes it a lot easier to see. But what I like most about the more modern machines is how much more memory they have.

“All of a sudden, instead of just doing Black Rhino for slots, which was standard for almost 20 years, you have twelve slot games, and there’s just so much more available for it—you’ve got multi-card keno, you’ve got Caveman Keno… All of a sudden you just have so many more themes that help me to get more of a hold out of the machine—because poker by very nature is a low-hold offering.”

Parlaying Sports

IGT’s bartop units meet the upcoming competition this year with one more unique offering: sports betting. The company is in the process of rolling out PeakBarTop with Sports Betting in all legal sports betting jurisdictions.

These units incorporate the sports betting platform released over the past two years in the on-floor Crystal Betting Terminal. But instead of the dedicated sportsbook terminal offered by the Crystal product, this new version of the PeakBarTop allows a full menu of sports wagers, that can be made while a customer plays favorite slot, video poker or keno games.

“We showed a new interface last year’s G2E which was really well received,” says Reddy. “What we’re enabling the players to do is to have the option of playing Game King X games in full screen, and then also easily toggling into a sports betting mode to place a wager. So far, the feedback from operators at trade shows and demonstrations has been really, really positive.”

Reddy adds that players have the ability to redeem winning bets at the PeakBarTop terminals.

IGT still offers the Crystal Betting Terminal, but has added the PeakBarTop as the newest option. “We’re still offering the Crystal Betting Terminal because we feel like that provides a different play experience,” Reddy says. “But the intent is to provide both the Crystal and the PeakBarTop with Sports, and really try to hit both types of players—those that play at the bar, and then those that will be on the floor, and maybe sit in the sports betting section of a casino where they can watch games on the monitors and play in real time.”

Operators can configure the new PeakBarTop to offer the option of showing a live stream of a game, with the ability to make even in-game bets without leaving the slot, video poker or keno game. “We are able to match whatever is approved from a regulatory perspective within a given jurisdiction,” Reddy says. “From our perspective, it features the same betting categories available at the retail book, kiosk or mobile device.”

In addition to the casino market, Fredella says the PeakBarTop is expanding its presence in the distributed gaming market, particularly as new tavern venues open. “We’ve seen success with a number of new openings on some of the routes in the tavern market,” he says, “and a number of taverns have opened recently with all PeakBarTops.

“It makes quite an impact. When you walk into a tavern location that has nothing but the PeakBarTops, it basically looks great. We are really proud of that hardware—and the software, and the content that’s on it. For a newer, more upscale bar to have a newer, more upscale, sleek, modern-looking cabinet on their bar is something they appreciate.

“It’s going to be something that I think is going catch on and grow and grow in that market as time goes on, because I think the players are going to gravitate towards the PeakBarTop product.”

Breaking In

Meanwhile, Aristocrat continues its entry into the bartop market, its Winner’s World continuing to spread its footprint in several jurisdictions, including Downtown Las Vegas, where Randal says he will soon trial the product at the Circa.

“We have placed several Winner’s World games on bartops, as well as slant-top and upright boxes,” says Hanlin. “We have focused on providing Aristocrat’s best-in-class slot content as well as innovative keno content, which is on the cutting edge of the bartop market. Overall, both operators and players are enjoying the variety of games that we offer.”

He adds that the footprint is growing steadily. “We have done very well in the Western U.S., specifically in Nevada and California, and we are starting to see greater adoption nationwide,” Hanlin says. “Our product appeals to a wide variety of players, and because we have a diverse product offering in the Winner’s World suite of games, we attract both locals and visiting players. This gives us the ability to place this product wherever our customers want it to be.”

As its adoption spreads, Hanlin says Aristocrat will concentrate on maintaining, growing and improving the content package for Winner’s World. “While we are early in the multi-game video poker, keno, blackjack, slot-type market, we continue to generate interest, as our slot and keno offerings are seen as innovative and fresh. We’re focused on bringing our core differentiators to this type of product.”

That means player-favorite proprietary slot brands like Buffalo, Miss Kitty and Lepre’coins, both in the slot titles and in new keno games carrying those well-known brands—Buffalo Keno, Buffalo Heard Keno, Miss Kitty Keno, and Lucky Lepre’Keno.

“Aristocrat has never been an ‘us too’ type of company, and as we created a bartop product, we deliberately set out to differentiate ourselves from other suppliers in this space,” says Hanlin. “By investing in innovation, we created a cabinet that clearly stands out from other bartop products, from appearance to content diversity, and created a product mix that capitalizes on player-favorite Aristocrat proprietary titles.”

Winner’s World entered the market with a core mix of 18 games. The newest version of the product, now available across North America and Europe, features 73 games.

Both IGT and Aristocrat are constantly improving the bartop product, and both Reddy and Hanlin say to expect new advancements to the genre this year.

“Without getting into too many details, we do have some exciting products coming out later on this year that we’re looking forward to showing at G2E and some of the other trade shows,” says IGT’s Fredella. “New Action Gaming titles are going to be a big part of that, and titles specifically for the bartop as well are going to be a big part of what you’ll see later on in 2023.”

Says Hanlin, “Our newly released Pack 2 has great new features we are excited about. Mark your calendars for G2E 2023, where we will reveal some additional innovations that will knock your socks off.

“Our focus has been and will continue to be on the player. Our ultimate goal is to provide the best gaming experience possible. We designed our product to speak to a wide audience of players, but especially those who already love Aristocrat content, and to offer them a new type of gaming experience on bartops.”

Growing Genre

While Aristocrat’s niche in the genre is growing, Circa’s Randal predicts IGT will continue to dominate the segment, because of the continued dominance of video poker as the biggest draw at the bar.

“IGT is video poker, for better or worse, and as long as poker is the main game being played on bars, they will stay on top,” he says. “If we could ever convert people over to playing slots and keno, you might see a change. But no one else is going to dominate that market anytime soon.”

“Our approach is to build on the success that we’ve had historically in this space,” says IGT’s Reddy. “We focus on the feedback we get from operators and players. You see what we’re doing already with integrating sports betting into the PeakBarTop. And, our intent over time is just to build on a rock-solid product and a fantastic position in the space and the market. And we’re confident that if we stick to the plan and continue to listen to operators and players, we will be able to have a great path of opportunity in the future.”

“We are planning out our software and the content that goes on the PeakBarTop based on what we hear from our customers, and from their players,” adds Fredella. “We lead the space because we listen to the people who are playing games and to the people that are putting them on. What the competition does isn’t our primary focus, so we keep the best variety of games out there that people are asking for on our top product. That is what we’re going to continue to build on and offer for our customers.”

The new competition from Aristocrat can only improve the overall variety available in a growing genre.

“Bartops are an exciting and competitive market segment,” says Hanlin. “While it can sometimes be seen as more difficult to convert players, we are committed to growing this market, and we have product updates planned for years ahead to continue to keep content fresh and interesting for players.”

Frank Legato is editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. He has been writing on gaming topics since 1984, when he launched and served as editor of Casino Gaming magazine. Legato, a nationally recognized expert on slot machines, has served as editor and reporter for a variety of gaming publications, including Public Gaming, IGWB, Casino Journal, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Atlantic City Insider. He has an B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in communications from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the books, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying, and Atlantic City: In Living Color.  

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