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From Cult Classic to Blockbuster

The process and challenge of expanding the ETG player base

From Cult Classic to Blockbuster

In some ways, the history of gaming as we understand it today is similar to the histories of modern science, medicine and technology, in that most of the big advancements are decades, if not centuries old. The majority of the progress that has been made since the landmark epiphanies of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries has been incremental and evolutionary.

Today’s land-based casinos are architectural and technological marvels, but for the most part, their reliance on slot machines, table games and sports wagering is the same as it has been since before anyone currently living was born.

Conventional slots date back to the late 1800s; the most popular table games were first enjoyed by our ancestors and forefathers; and humans wagering on sport is a tale as old as time. As such, all three sectors have built established player bases over that span that are incredibly loyal and predictable.

That then brings us to electronic table games (ETGs), which are comparatively the newest offering that casino gaming has seen in quite some time. As a combination between slots and traditional tables, ETGs can perhaps best be described as the only offering on a casino floor that your grandparents may not be immediately familiar with (recent pop culture-themed slots notwithstanding).

The quandary of finding new ways to grow the ETG player base, then, is paramount for the suppliers who make them as well as the operators whose floors the games occupy. And anytime you have a competitive industry with several key figures all vying for market share, thestrategies and techniques deployed to help solve this problem vary substantially.

But First, Definitions

Before one can determine the best way to go about finding new ETG players in the future, it is useful to take a moment to try and define what the “average” ETG player actually is, right now.

For Shawn Cassatt, director of product management at Incredible Technologies (IT), this definition is rather straightforward and quantitative, as he contends that frequent ETG players “are more likely to be a table games player, a higher percentage are male, and (most) are of a wider range and lower average age compared to the majority of slot players.”

This framework is helpful in painting a rough picture of a 21-to-50-year-old man with some level of gaming familiarity as a prime suspect for ETG play or conversion. However, this also highlights the challenge that suppliers face, because that demographic is also the one being frantically hunted by sports betting and iGaming operators alike.

The breadth and convenience of today’s offerings make it easier than ever to dabble and experiment, but most patrons will inevitably flock to their preferences—Cassatt notes that because ETGs “offer a different experience from live table games or slots, most existing players of either will not cross over” to become primary ETG fans.

Given the relative infancy of ETGs as compared to their counterparts, it’s not surprising that the core player base is still somewhat transitory and difficult to nail down from a data perspective. As a result, this level of ambiguity allows suppliers of all kinds to be creative and try new things.

Interblock CEO John Connelly explains that “we weren’t quite sure who was playing” ETGs when he first came on board back in 2015, and in the time since, the concept has evolved several times and is continuing to do so even now. Over time, however, the company has come to the realization that the evolution of ETGs has been similar to that of slots, in that the expansion of content has in turn diversified and segmented the various types of ETG players.

“In the slot world, we have dozens of different demographics that play slots,” Connelly says. “When you walk on a casino floor, there’s dozens of variations of game play, volatility bonuses, play mechanics, content designed to attract various forms of players… So we began saying, well, why would an electronic table game be any different?

“What we found is that there isn’t a lot of difference from a philosophical perspective as to what players are looking for. They are looking for variety, and there are dozens of different types of behaviors and play styles out there that people are demanding. And so all we’ve tried to do at Interblock is to build out a portfolio to provide content and distribution methods to those various demographics, and that’s where we stand today.”

Yet another way to dissect and understand this demographic, as Light and Wonder’s (L&W) Senior Vice President of Global Table Games Mike McKiski says, is to base assumptions on the conditions of a given market.

Overall, studying carded play for ETGs and cross-referencing those players’ activity hasn’t exactly revealed many actionable trends because they play just about everything— “they play slots, they play tables, they play video poker. So I don’t know that there’s a true demographic that you go, ‘That’s the player.’”

Instead, L&W formulates different hypotheses, and “those theories depend on where you are,” McKiski says. On the Las Vegas Strip, for example, ETG enthusiasts may be experienced table gamers who have been priced out of most minimum tables and now prefer the speed and low limits of electronic versions, but this may not hold true for other locales. “We just watch as it goes,” McKiski notes, “and we make adjustments as we learn more.”

More Product, More Patrons

When looking at the ETG market and its following from a macro perspective, perhaps the simplest conclusion to be drawn is that expanding the number of games will inevitably appeal to more players and thereby expand the market overall. As it turns out, this logic has already begun to take root.

Earlier this year, IT made inroads by introducing the first-ever Class II ETG, True Pick Roulette, which instantly unlocks an entirely new tribal demographic, one that accounted for a record $40.9 billion in revenue last year, according to figures from the National Indian Gaming Commission. True Pick was recently awarded the silver medal for Best Table Game Product or Innovation in GGB’s annual Gaming & Technology Awards.

Cassatt says that IT first entered the Class II space in mid-2020, and soon after he and his team “recognized a unique opportunity to provide a Class II ETG product that didn’t exist at that time.” Roulette, he says, was the natural choice, given that it is the most widely accepted game format with good revenue production. The subsequent success of True Pick has changed IT’s overall ETG focus, and is indicative of its growth plans moving forward.

“Our current ETG focus is in the Class II market, due to the great demand we are experiencing,” Cassatt says. “Although we tested Class III ETGs in different markets and still have them deployed and performing well, the unique opportunity with True Pick Roulette requires us to maintain our focus on Class II for our current product and for possible future Class II products.”

Not to be outdone, L&W is also preparing to make a push into the Class II ETG space. McKiski says that by next spring’s Indian Gaming Tradeshow & Convention, the company will be prepared to roll out a “Class II product that will show all table games built for Class II.”

Instead of going for one game, he explains that L&W has opted to put in a bit more time and consideration, in efforts to unveil a “more robust” library. As more and more tribes migrate back to Class II amid compact miseries, McKiski hopes that this optionality will prove beneficial to both tribal operations and their players.

“Historically, the decision has been you couldn’t do as much in Class II with the product as you could in Class III… We’re trying to make it so they don’t have to worry about that,” he says. “And they could say the product is very similar, and they can choose what’s best for them.”

Of course, the other way to expand one’s portfolio is to simply acquire others—Interblock did so this summer when it acquired the ETG assets of Aruze Gaming, which, according to data from Eilers & Krejcik Gaming and Fantini Research, now gives the company a 70 percent share of the North American ETG distribution in the EKG-Fantini database.

“(Aruze) provided an incredible opportunity synergistically to fill some voids we believed we had relative to specific player demographics and demand,” Connelly says. “The synergies between Aruze and Interblock from a product portfolio were more than we were expecting. When you look at Interblock’s product roadmap over the next 12 months, there were a series of initiatives we had in place and that we felt were strategically important that Aruze was able to fill immediately through the acquisition.”

New Faces and New Places

Aside from expanding the number of available games, the next easiest solution to growing the sector’s player base would be to take the games to new markets and geographical regions that may be currently underserved.

For globetrotters with resources and infrastructure like L&W, this type of growth plan is relatively simple; it’s just a matter of finding the right spots for the right product. As McKiski explains, “each global jurisdiction has tended to adopt ETGs fairly well,” but that adoption looks different depending on the circumstances.

In Europe, the birthplace of ETGs, the market is more catered to pubs and small venues, whereas in Asia, mass stadium play proliferates throughout. By contrast, North America lies somewhere in between, but its nuances make it tricky to navigate. In the end, it’s a matter of making the most of the available space.

“The casino operator’s going to say, ‘Well, I have some of these, but do I really want to take away more slots to put in more ETGs?’ That’s the balance they run,” McKiski says. “There’s probably a little upside there, but I think for the most part we’re settling in and saying, ‘How do we really maximize this offering?’”

By comparison, smaller outfits such as IT must weigh the investment costs of regional expansion even more, but Cassatt acknowledges that “there seems to be increased player adoption in newer markets.” Despite their advantages, ETGs present a kind of regulatory flip-flop in the sense that various jurisdictions classify and test them differently. As the industry progresses and becomes more standardized, Cassatt says a small tweak may go a long way in facilitating growth.

“To increase the efficiency of product approvals and make it easier for markets with slower approval processes to compete with surrounding markets, I think the universal acceptance of independent gaming lab testing would benefit many operators,” he says.

For all ETG suppliers, the fear of iGaming cannibalization also looms large, but the growth opportunities it presents are just as important. As such, the melding of the two worlds must be done in such a way that enables more players to cross over and back in a safe and sustainable manner. This requires collaboration from both sides, not to mention a whole lot of patience and understanding.

“We have to start thinking about electronic forms of gaming, not only in the traditional gaming sense, but in the online gaming sense and how to bridge those two worlds in a controlled, effective manner to protect the integrity of our industry,” Connelly contends. “The regulators are now faced with an integration of the tradition and online gaming spaces across multiple aspects, whether it be product, operations, players, how to regulate that, how to control that, how to provide integrity to that… We’ll need the help of the regulators to make sure we navigate that correctly.”

So, as ETGs continue to carve out their own place among gaming’s stalwarts, their players will undoubtedly shift and evolve at the same pace. After all, other sectors across the industry have had a millennium or more to identify their most faithful followers, and it will take time to analyze demographics and predict growth while things are still in heavy flux. Who are the ETG players? As it turns out, all of us.

Jess Marquez is the managing editor of Global Gaming Business. A lifelong Nevadan, Marquez has communications experience across multiple sectors, including local government. Prior to joining GGB, he was the communications and advertising director for a prominent personal injury law firm based in Las Vegas and Seattle. He also founded and hosted The Pair O’Dice Podcast, a weekly show that focused on sports betting news and predictions. He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2019 with a B.A. in journalism. Outside of work, Marquez is passionate about professional sports, classic literature and leatherworking.

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