When slot manufacturer Multimedia Games first created what was to be a server-based slot control system, there was no way to see that it would evolve into a slot tournament system with an unmatched propensity to inject a game-show-style entertainment into the tournament experience—or into what is perhaps the perfect storm of casino promotions.
The evolution of TournEvent—Multimedia’s tournament controller that links banks of its games for instant slot contests complete with overhead leaderboards, video of contestants and other features never before seen in a slot tournament—was completed on board a cruise ship somewhere in the Pacific on May 30, when Julie Ellars, a regular player at California’s Rolling Hills Casino, was crowned the state’s No. 1 Slot Tournament Player.
It was the finale of “TournEvent of Champions,” the first-ever statewide, multi-casino slot tournament—a contest that had begun months earlier with satellite events at 11 casinos around California. In what may be unprecedented cooperation between competing casinos, Multimedia convinced nearly all casinos in the state that were already equipped with the TournEvent system to form what was to be a tournament for the ages.
Competitions at the 11 casinos produced 13 finalists, who were each awarded a five-night vacation aboard Celebrity Cruises’ Millennium Wine Tour Cruise from San Diego to Vancouver, including associated accommodations, round-trip airfare and a $200 on-ship casino credit for themselves and one guest. After the shipboard slot tournament was done, Ellars walked away with bragging rights and a $20,000 prize. Second place nabbed $3,000; third place, $2,000.
But much more happened on that cruise than cash prizes, particularly for Multimedia Games, which has itself been evolving over the past several years from a company that was successful mainly in Class II markets into one of the premium slot-makers in the business.
For Multimedia, it was the start of an event that is likely to repeat itself in every market served by the manufacturer—starting with the state of Washington, where the second TournEvent of Champions already is under way. It is also an unbeatable way to market TournEvent, while at the same time providing the slot-maker’s customers with promotions that, as California has proven, provide immediate incremental revenue by creating excitement on the casino floor.
The California event “was more successful than I could have imagined,” says Linda Trinh, the manager of promotions for Multimedia and the person in charge of spreading the TournEvent of Champions to new markets. “I went to all the events, and all the players were very excited—they had never seen anything like this, especially on the slot side.”
The casino operators who signed up were excited as well. “The promotion drew a lot of traffic in the casinos on the days we were there, which is the goal of this promotion,” Trinh says. “Everyone saw a big uptick in their revenue, and that was our goal.”
The Casino Commander
It was a goal that only first surfaced years after the TournEvent product was created. The product started life as a server-based slot system called Casino Commander.
“It was meant to be a server-based gaming system that would do all the server-based functions such as download and configuration of games,” recalls Mick Roemer, Multimedia’s senior vice president of sales, “and it also had a tournament feature.” That tournament feature, though, was the unique aspect of it, and in fact, Roemer, a longtime slot executive who had held key positions with Bally, IGT and other major manufacturers, says it was one of the things that led him from a consulting role with Multimedia to joining the company.
“I thought it could be made into a very compelling tournament system,” Roemer says, “so I started to talk with Ginny Shanks, then our chief marketing officer, about how we could turn it into something bigger. We started on the branding that gave us the name TournEvent.”
Shanks was no stranger to inter-property tournaments, having held a key marketing position at the former Harrah’s Entertainment at a time when the operator was doing national events that involved satellite tournaments at scores of Harrah’s properties that would end up with a big finale event in Las Vegas.
Multimedia President and CEO Pat Ramsey, who also worked for Harrah’s during that era, says that while the TournEvent promotional model may be structured similarly, the path from TournEvent to TournEvent of Champions really began with the product itself. “There were a lot of us thinking about ways to make TournEvent bigger, and ways to push this product and make it more exciting,” Ramsey says, noting that the idea of a wider promotion “was always in the backs of our minds.”
But first, the TournEvent product would need to have a larger footprint, in more jurisdictions. The way the company would ultimately achieve that was by improving the system. And improving it again, and again.
The newest TournEvent release is version 4.0, and each of the three improvements on the original system has made the product more different than any other tournament system on the market.
The original TournEvent had the immediate advantage of being an instant tournament system—the controller switches Multimedia slots in a bank instantly between revenue mode and tournament mode. When a contest is over, the games are back in revenue mode. No roped-off tournament machines, no moving machines back and forth.
“The idea was that tournaments are very exciting, and players really like them, but they’ve always been a real hassle to put on,” says Roemer. “Marketing departments of the casinos usually had old three-reel Bally or IGT machines that they would bring out of the warehouse, set up, and send back to the warehouse after the tournament. It was not easy for the casino to do, but players still really liked it.
“The idea of making a slick, automated system and bringing it into the 21st century was very appealing.”
Among the other immediate advantages of TournEvent was the fact that it links only video slots, which the manufacturer used to add features like a video countdown to the start of a tournament, an animated “host” to take players through the contest when no casino hosts are available, and extra video features for the tournaments themselves.
Refreshes to the system have included several groundbreaking additions. An integral camera was added to each TournEvent machine. Images from those cameras work in concert with an overhead leaderboard and sound system, and with advancements in the system itself, to allow each contestant in a tournament to sign in with his or her name and, during the contest, be something of a “star of the show.”
That means the leaderboard, on a huge overhead LCD video monitor, shows player names as the tournament progresses. Even more appealing to players is the fact that it flashes video of them as they play—switching between contestants, showing the current leader with his or her name as the host announces the changing leaders. It transforms the basic slot tournament into something that is a cross betweeen a live sporting event and a game show.
But the cameras, video and audio were just the beginning of the improvements. The next improvement was a game within the tournament game. As the contest progresses, balloons will randomly float up the screen. If the player touches the balloon, it provides a bonus to boost the score. For the first time, players in a slot tournament had something to do other than robotically hammering a “spin” button for 10 minutes.
Expanding on that concept, the system now has an “Adjust to First” feature. Regardless of where a player is in the scoring—and the system tracks it for the entire contest—if a special animated man pops on the screen and the player touches the character, it boosts him to first-place. This can happen at any time, even with seconds to go in the tournament. It’s like a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth.
“Every step we take to improve TournEvent makes it even more exciting,” says Roemer. “The addition of the cameras was outstanding—it brought the players into the game and turned the tournament into more of a game show. The pop-up balloons in the latest version mean you’re no longer just hitting a button; the Adjust-to-First feature keeps you engaged in the contest.”
The latest improvement, in TournEvent 4.0, allows team play. Husband and wife, or groups or players, can combine to create a single score, opening up new possibilities for group promotions. “I call it slot theater,” says Roemer. “Slot theater means everything going on makes tournaments more exciting.”
TournEvent of Champions
It is precisely the atmosphere of “slot theater” that made TournEvent a natural for the kind of multi-site promotion that Multimedia is now starting to spread to all its jurisdictions—a process that the inaugural California event has made that much easier.
According to Ramsey, the California operators—and now, the Washington operators—grasped the potential of TournEvent of Champions immediately.
“We said, let’s start in California and see what we learn, from the push-back we get from customers in how we’re structuring it, the prize pool—what can we learn from them to make it better?” Ramsey says. “But to be honest, there was not a lot of push-back. It was, ‘Yeah, sign us up!’ One or two opted out for different reasons, but for the most part, everyone was on board. They got it.”
“It was a very easy sell,” agrees Trinh. “Casino marketing directors looked at me and said, ‘I wish I would have thought of that!’ The reason is that we (as a supplier) can go to casinos and propose a multi-site promotion, where it would be more difficult for a single casino to go to a competitor and ask, ‘Would you like to do this with me?’ With this, casinos didn’t feel threatened by another casino participating.”
She adds that operators liked Multimedia’s choice of a cruise ship for the finals. “One thing that had been a hurdle for us was where to hold the championship,” she says. “There were so many great casinos we could have chosen.” The choice of Celebrity Cruises not only eliminated the possibility of operators feeling slighted by the choice of a competitor—it meant that the players reaching the finals were awarded, even if they didn’t win the contest.
“Celebrity Cruises has the TournEvent product, and it was a very neutral location,” Trinh says. “All the casino operators liked that idea, and not only did the players get the chance to compete for a prize and be named the best slot player in California; they got to go on this cruise. They got a great prize just by making it to the championship.”
The reaction of individual players to the event was “really the greatest story,” says Roemer. “These players were so excited to be part of this event. The comments I heard range from ‘This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me’ to ‘I’ve never been on a cruise ship’ to ‘I would have done this even if there wasn’t money involved.’ For some, it was a life-changing experience.”
The excitement surrounding the finals, though, was the culmination of the type of excitement that surrounded all of the individual satellite events. In all, 9,000 players throughout California participated in the event, and Roemer says the numbers reported by the operators bore out the appeal of the product, and the event.
“For the regional finals, casinos were reporting they were some of the best days they ever had,” Roemer says. “It really generated a lot of excitement.”
Adds Ramsey, “I heard numerous stories that the (qualifying events) were some of the biggest days operators had since New Year’s. People really wanted to be part of it. It created a lot of excitement on the floor, and that has a really good spillover effect. It’s continued proof that TournEvent creates incremental revenue for a casino.
“We’re not just putting a game on the floor that has a high win per unit that steals from other games on the floor. It’s a marketing and slot product that drives people to the casino because of the excitement.”
That is supported by the fact that the Southern California Gaming Guide picked TournEvent as the “Best Slot Theme” for 2012. Even though the product is not a “slot theme” per se—it links any number of individual Multimedia slot games—the publication’s survey gave it the slot-theme prize over IGT’s “Sex and the City” and Aristocrat’s “More Chilli.”
“We’re not in position to have a theme like Sex and the City or Michael Jackson that cost a lot of money, so for us to create something like this and have it resonate that quickly with customers is just awesome,” says Ramsey.
Washington and Beyond
With the California TournEvent of Champions event an unqualified success, Multimedia has already begun a process that its executives hope will see the product march across the country in current and new jurisdictions where it is approved.
The first step in that march is the state of Washington, where 13 casinos had already signed up to send 18 finalists as of press time. Satellite events began in late July, and the championship round will be held on the Las Vegas Strip (casino to be determined) on October 3, while the Global Gaming Expo is taking place.
After that, the idea is to use the success of the early events to spread TournEvent of Champions to other jurisdictions. TournEvent will appear in Nevada casinos beginning early next year, and Ramsey says the product itself will ensure big progress for TournEvent of Champions in 2013.
“We just met with a large Las Vegas operator, and the initial feedback is great,” Ramsey says. “Customers are used to an older reel product for tournaments, so when they (see TournEvent), they see it’s exciting, it has good graphics, good style, and features like the leaderboard. You can easily put aside the way tournaments have been done in the past and realize that whether it’s an 80-year-old slot customer or a 25-year-old customer, they’re going to have fun with this type of tournament.”
Trinh, who as manager of promotions will lead the charge across the country, says her job will be made easier as more and more enhancements are made to the TournEvent product. “We’re looking at enhancing a product that we know is a winner, and making sure we provide as much support as we can to generate more excitement, and let operators get all the bang for the buck our product can give.”
“To me, TournEvent is the ultimate community game,” says Roemer. “People talk about community pulling people together; this is the ultimate community experience. It creates the same kind of excitement on the floor as a hot craps table. It’s the ultimate ‘wow’ for players.”
There are currently 100 installations of TournEvent industry-wide, but Ramsey predicts the TournEvent of Champions events will help to boost that number quickly, even as current operators benefit from the added revenue the promotions generate.
“California was a big success, and part of what that does is to create excitement and show how good the product is,” Ramsey says, “to show operators who don’t have TournEvent that they need it.” The real benefit for Multimedia Games, he adds, will come from the effort “to expand TournEvent to every possible casino we can.
“Our toe’s in the water, and it feels good so far.”