GGB is committed to providing updated news and analysis on our weekly news site,

Playing to Win

How slot tournaments have evolved with technology

Playing to Win

Anyone who has worked in the gaming industry for a decade or more has an ingrained vision of the slot tournament as it was, unchanged for years.

A couple of dozen roped-off slot machines, usually old. (The primal three-reel video slot comes to mind.) Direct-mail invitations. Long lines for registration (sometimes the wait was eased by cocktail servers with free drinks). A theme—Christmas, Halloween, whatever. A few free casino days in which to spend one or more 10-minute sessions pounding on the “spin” button of a slot machine (or earlier, wearing out elbow joints pulling a handle).

From the start, casino marketers have seen tournaments as perfect for generating play in slow periods, and perfect as rewards for their best players. They generally were seen as low-cost, high-yield events. Most of the cost was related to labor and equipment needed to devote a portion of the slot floor—the heart of the property’s income during the 1990s—to a promotional event.

Mostly, there was the matter of the machines to be used for tournaments. Some casinos kept tournament machines in storage; others bought high-paying tournament chips and would convert existing banks of games for the tournament, returning the original game chips to the machines after the event.

Eventually, technology brought down the cost and increased the value of tournaments. These days, through on-floor controllers, cloud-based systems and modules to casino management systems, slot officials are able to run tournaments on anything from a single machine to a bank of games to every device in the entire enterprise. The designated games are interchangeable between tournament and revenue mode, or normal slot machines serve as tournament hosts on some systems.

High-tech tournaments are giving slot directors unprecedented flexibility in offering promotional tournaments of all stripes. Totally new styles of tournaments have joined the still-popular classic slot player’s club tournament events.

Veteran slot executive Frank Neborsky still uses both tournament methods. In fact, Neborsky, vice president of slots for the new del Lago Resort & Casino in upstate New York, has done just about every type of slot tournament imaginable since he opened Atlantic City’s Trump Plaza in 1989 as chief slot technician. He would become director of slot operations there until 1994, when he spent a year as casino manager of New Orleans’ Grand Palais Riverboat before spending 18 years as vice president of slot operations for Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun.

Neborsky says he still ropes off banks of machines for the old-school style of slot tournament. “In April, we roped off a section of the floor because we wanted to create a special and exclusive feel for the people who were playing,” he says. “When it’s small like that, you’re doing a focused event with focused participants, so roping off an area is great. But then, having the ability to do floor-wide stuff—turn the bonus on and off—is equally powerful, because now you can get everyone involved and drive play, and drive seat time, based on how you manage and create the campaign or tournament.”

Neborsky was in charge of slots at Mohegan Sun when its Bally system enabled the casino to score Guinness World Records for “Most Slot Machines Running the Same Game Simultaneously” and “World’s Largest Slot Tournament” for an event in 2013—the latter record of 3,001 participants to be broken three years later at Washington’s Muckleshoot Casinos, when 3,173 participants competed in a contest on the TournEvent tournament system from Everi.

Today, Neborsky uses both of those products. The del Lago has the Bally Systems Elite Bonusing Suite (EBS) with modules enabling instant tournaments of all types on all slot machines using the iVIEW Display Manager system (and enterprise-wide Virtual Races); and Neborsky has a dedicated area with Everi’s TournEvent system.

Those systems are two among several that have recharged the concept of a slot tournament. Among other leaders are IGT’s Spin Ferno tournament system, which enables instant contests on designated banks of S3000 reel-spinning slots; and True-Time Tournaments from Konami Gaming, part of that company’s popular Synkros casino management system.

For the past several years, the vendors have been improving these tournament systems, adding features and creating new ways to run promotional contests.

Arguably, the latest high-tech arms race in the business of tournament systems started in 2011, with a system by the Austin-based slot-maker known then as Multimedia Games—TournEvent.

Turn of Events

That year, Multimedia first used its TournEvent dedicated instant tournament system—launched a year earlier—for a multi-property contest styled along the lines of the World Series of Poker.

TournEvent was developed as an instant tournament for dedicated banks of slots, in a system with cameras in each machine that provides an overhead video display of a tournament in progress. Faces of the changing leaders in the contest are displayed on the screen as a master of ceremonies—it can be a human host or a video one—calls the slot tournament.

A central feature has been a pop-up icon, originally a balloon, which boosts the score when touched. Another special feature, “Jump to First,” is a random occurrence that boosts a losing player into first place.

In 2011, Multimedia held multi-property TournEvent contests among players at California casinos equipped with the system. Satellite events across the state led to the selection of one finalist from each participating property, and Multimedia took 13 finalists on 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. The winner got $20,000.

After a second statewide event in Washington in 2013, Multimedia went national in 2014 with the TournEvent of Champions, an event that has grown every year as new properties have installed the system and improvements have been made to the platform—refinements that continued through the merger of Multimedia and Global Cash Access, which formed the current Everi Holdings.

Last year, winners of preliminary contests at casinos around the country got all-expense-paid trips for two to Las Vegas to a final tournament held at Wynn Las Vegas’ XS lounge, with a top prize of $1 million. No finalist wins less than $500.

According to John Carpenter, product manager for Everi, the contests have created a surge for TournEvent, which has gone from 200 machines at 10 sites in 2010 to more than 5,000 at around 350 sites today—not only in the U.S., but in Peru and Canada.

“TournEvent is continuously growing,” Carpenter says. “We keep on putting more and more games out, and it hasn’t seemed to slow down.”

The company has consistently added new features to the system. Among the most recent additions is an automated wild-card drawing offering losing participants a second shot at the prize. After the first round of a tournament, each subsequent round automatically picks a losing player from the previous round to advance to subsequent rounds.

And last year, Everi added skill to the TournEvent phenomenon, with the debut at the annual TournEvent for Charity event (celebrities and media participants choose a charity for which to play) of Fruit Ninja as the tournament game.

Fruit Ninja is one of the most popular skill-based internet and mobile video games—players swipe the screen to slice up pieces of fruit bombarding the screen. Each slice scores points.

Everi has put out a standard video slot, with a partial skill bonus, using the game. But on TournEvent, it’s all skill. “Fruit Ninja is one of the most downloaded apps in the world,” comments Michael Conway, Everi’s creative director. “You’ve got built-in players. The players are pre-trained, they are out there, and the age ranges from from entry 21-year-olds to… Well, my mother plays Fruit Ninja. It is a huge, vast range of trained players to whom you can run promotions.”

He adds that the tournament format is the one place game designers do not worry about a fair balance between chance and skill—the best players win. “There is a lot of advertising you can do to find new players to bring in to your casino, and you can start really rewarding players for being good at something,” Conway says. “You can really reward players for skill.”

Neborsky, who installed the latest TournEvent 4.0 version for the opening of del Lago in February, says one of the things he likes about the system is that it keeps players on their toes—instead of pushing a button repeatedly, they have to react quickly to pop the balloons that appear to boost their scores.

TournEvent 5.0, just certified in April by Gaming Laboratories International, doubles down on that feature with a new base game called Electric Diamond. “We have made our standard game into one of the most challenging yet—almost a skill-based version,” says Carpenter. “Electric Diamond has really quick response. While it’s still a balloon-popping game, we’re pushing the envelope so you have to be more on your toes—almost like a whack-a-mole game.”

“The balloons come in really fast and furious,” says Conway. “It is one of the most exciting games we’ve ever made.”

Carpenter says Electric Diamond also employs a new technology the company calls “reflexive math,” which increases the competitiveness by adjusting the pay table for players who may be doing poorly—it will, he says, “juice their payout if they’re in last place, and on the other side of the coin, if you’re in first place, it will lower the payout opportunity.” He says this encourages more intense competition, and more changes on the leaderboard.

At press time, Everi already had close to 100 casinos participating in the 2017 TournEvent of Champions, with 160 finalists decided so far. As always, Everi sends teams of marketers and company hosts out to satellite tournaments on huge TournEvent buses—each with its own hosting “Money Man” mascot—to rev up the crowd.

“We have two buses in the United States, and then one bus dedicated to Canada,” says Linda Trinh, Everi vice president of marketing and promotions. Trinh, who originally developed the TournEvent of Champions, travels to scores of locations with the bus every year. At press time, she was touring Canadian casinos, on the dedicated bus bearing the maple-leaf flag. “I just got back from Montreal two weeks ago, and will be heading to Alberta in the next couple of weeks,” she says.

“TournEvent has changed the way promotions have been done across the country,” comments Conway.

Flexibility, Timeliness

So have iView, iVIEW Display Manager (DM) and Elite Bonusing Suite (EBS).

Scientific Games’ iVIEW DM and EBS have given slot marketers a wealth of options for individual bonusing rewards and enterprise-wide contests such as Virtual Racing—a “tournament” of sorts that involves choosing horses or NASCAR stars for a video race.

But for the classic promotional slot tournament, nothing is more flexible that the Bally Systems DM Tournaments application. Using the iVIEW displays that are active on machines of any manufacturer using the iVIEW DM system—on video, a portion of the screen or the entire monitor transforms for bonuses and contests; on reel-spinners, a separate screen on the console is used—operators can instantly transform any or all slot machines on the floor into tournament machines.

“Our initial goal for DM Tournaments was to help operators automate and reduce the labor related to those traditional roped-off tournaments,” explains Ted Keenan, senior director of product management at Scientific Games. “Tournaments continue to be a great promotional event, even when they’re used in that older roped-off format.”

With EBS, though, tournaments have expanded from the roped-off classic to contests of all types and sizes, which operators can tap in an instant. “The No. 1 advantage of DM Tournaments is automation,” says Keenan. “Automated session management and automated scoring make it really efficient for the casino operator, but what really differentiates our product is that any slot machine equipped with iVIEW DM can be switched into tournament mode.

“All the manufacturers’ slot machines can be tournament-enabled with DM Tournaments, because we’re integrated with the player tracking system. That means we can also automate the enrollment, and the prize award. We know who that player is—from the moment they insert the player card, we know if that player is eligible for the tournament, and if he or she wins the tournament, we know exactly which account into which to place the prize.”

Keenan adds that EBS, which pioneered the capability of doing an enterprise-wide contest, allows customization in scoring and prizes. “We’ve had customers that set up tournaments with what we call topsy-turvy scoring—for example, positions one, 11, 21 and 31 get prizes. We’ve seen customers set up ladder tournaments, where you win the level-one tournament, then you progress to level two, and so forth. We’ve seen, multiple-entry tournaments, where customers participate on Saturday and again on Sunday, the two scores added together.”

These variations—which are some of the newest additions to DM Tournaments—are meant to enhance the customization available to operators through the system. Earning entries, tournament scheduling and other aspects are decided by the operator. The casino can choose set times on a given bank, plan an elaborate rope-off event, or even employ “player start” tournaments, in which customers can play their sessions at any point within a set period of time by inserting the player card and pressing a button.

Scientific Games is constantly improving both software and hardware elements of DM Tournaments and the EBS platform in general. The iVIEW 4 display system, recently launched, uses a better processor with more memory. “It can run graphics more smoothly, so it allows us to create games that have a much higher production value,” Keenan says. “It was a challenge for us to create games that had the kind of production quality that a full slot machine has, and the iVIEW 4 brings that capacity.”

Scientific Games also is bringing skill-based games into the tournament and EBS equation. “When you talk about tournaments and other bonusing games, we have a lot more leeway with skill,” says Keenan. “It’s certainly quicker to deploy those games because there are less jurisdictional restrictions.”

Among the first Bally Systems bonusing offerings to use skill are Dice Frenzy and Bubble Burst. “We’ve got other skill-based games coming that will be tournament-enabled, or otherwise available on the bonusing platform,” Keenan says.

The next big move for DM Tournaments will be multi-channel events, he says—contests running on multiple devices simultaneously. “That’s where we see most of the innovation happening,” says Keenan. “How do we include other channels, whether they be other gaming devices at the casino, mobile devices at home or Facebook games?”

Utilizing the Best

The transformation of the tournament with innovative new technologies has not, of course, been lost on executives of IGT, which happens to spend more on research and development than any other supplier.

For years, IGT offered an instant tournament attached to its IGT Advantage casino management system called TournXTreme. However, two years ago, the company’s officials launched a concerted effort to develop a new tournament solution that would rival or surpass the innovations coming from Everi, Scientific Games and other competitors.

The result, launched at Global Gaming Expo 2015, was Spin Ferno. This system is designed not for specialized tournament games, but for the games that have been IGT’s bread and butter for decades—stepper games.

Spin Ferno uses the Tournament Manager 5.0 system to enable instant tournaments on dedicated steppers in the S3000 series that are also top-earning stand-alone games. The timing was perfect—Spin Ferno was released just as casinos around the industry were replacing their former workhorse S2000 steppers with the new S3000 platform and related IGT system products like “SyncSation,” which enables a synchronized sound and light show applied to a bank of games. In tournament mode, those games pulse in unison with light and sound.

“Regardless of how many machines you enroll into the tournament, the lighting across all of the S3000 cabinets is synchronized,” explains Sina Miri, IGT’s vice president of casino systems. “A familiar cabinet becomes a complete experience, where all the players and the rest of the people in the casino see the sheer volume of the light and sound show that is going across all of these machines that are part of the tournament.”

He adds that recent add-ons can play different types of music with the light show to reflect Halloween, Christmas or other seasonal environments, as well as video animation via IGT’s Service Window. But the real value of Spin Ferno, Miri says, starts with the S3000 games themselves.

“Like any recipe, you want to start with good ingredients,” he says. “We started with a high-performing game. We looked for the math model that was really performing. Then, we combined it with the platform. This really is the secret sauce here. We have a game that performs in cash mode, by itself. Then we said, ‘What do we do to make it a tournament experience that is delightful for the player, but also a good experience for the operator?’”

Miri says starting with a top game makes it easier to put a tournament together, to advertise it to players and to track the results. Marrying it to the Tournament Manager 5.0 module, he adds, enables functions such as enrolling players with a mobile device, or using player’s club cards to stage on-demand tournaments.

“On every slot machine, you can advertise a tournament to the player, and invite them to enroll into the tournament right now,” he says.

Miri says the performance of Spin Ferno so far has been “phenomenal,” with interest in many markets. He says customers are marrying the Spin Ferno function to S3000 banks of a variety of different sizes, all games that perform very well in revenue mode. With the Tournament Manager system, the machines can be converted instantly between tournament and revenue mode, which gives the operator the flexibility of staging any type of tournament, at any time of day. “As soon as the tournament’s over, the machines go back into cash mode, and they continue to perform,” Miri says, “and it’s likely that people who played the tournament will continue to play that game, because it is on a really entertaining game.”

At last year’s Global Gaming Expo, IGT demonstrated functions of Spin Ferno and Tournament Manager that allow operators to customize all aspects of the contests—from play required to earn entries to session times to prizes. Additionally, use of mobile technology was demonstrated, with scenarios such as inviting players to a tournament on their mobile device after they have achieved a certain player status.

“What we are really trying to do with the Tournament Manager platform is to make sure we eliminate all these unnecessary activities that don’t make money for the operator,” Miri says. “The more we eliminate friction and make it that you can just go play and be entertained, the more we are likely to improve the bottom line of the operator.”

In addition to Spin Ferno, IGT this year introduced its first multi-site tournament capabilities, and a tournament mode for IGT’s virtual-reality game, Siege VR. “Using the tournament platform in combination with a virtual reality game offers a new way for casinos to monetize VR technology,” says Miri.

Finally, Miri notes that Tournament Manager and Spin Ferno are platform-agnostic. The solution can be used by casinos regardless of the casino management system deployed. “Actually, half of the installations are on non-IGT casino management systems,” he says.

Tournament Manager and Spin Ferno join enterprise-wide contests possible through the IGT Service Window. “Again, it’s that same slot machine that is performing well in a cash mode,” Miri says. “It becomes a vehicle for an enterprise-wide tournament through that window, which can take over the full screen. And then, of course, go right back to high-earning revenue mode.”

IGT’s latest tournament product, for the TournXTreme product family, is called “Spin-Splosion!” It is a video tournament system packed with engaging features like “blast symbols” that award pachinko balls for a “Blast Launch” feature to boost scores; a charismatic cartoon host that calls the tournament, game-show style; and custom leaderboard graphics in the top-box video monitor.

True-Time Tools

Another of the top slot manufacturers that has maintained its competitive tool kit in the tournament area is Konami Gaming. In fact, Konami’s tournament is part of an arsenal for operators known as the True-Time Bonusing Tool Kit.

As part of Konami’s popular Synkros casino management system, this tool kit includes on-demand bonusing events such as Super Series Community Bonusing, a collection of racing, lottery-style and video adventure games that can be customized to occur at any time, on any number of Synkros-connected devices, and with any triggering play or point threshold the casino desires.

Draw Poker Bonusing, Advanced Incentive Bonusing, Contest Draw Manager and the Random Giveaway module also are part of the Synkros suite.

Then there is the True-Time Tournaments module. Using Synkros and the True-Time Windowing machine display feature, True-Time Tournaments can be configured for any number of machines, up to the entire enterprise, and a format called SYNKstart allows the operator to run synchronized tournaments at a single or multiple slot banks without taking the machines out of service.

“True-Time Tournaments was originally developed based on feedback from our customers,” says Steve Walther, Konami’s senior director of marketing and product management. “There is a definite competitive advantage for casino properties when they can deploy tournaments on any windowing-enabled slot machine, in either player on-demand or synchronized start formats.

“From an on-site marketing perspective, True-Time Tournaments supports customized leaderboard displays, so operators have the flexibility to feature their own unique branding and further optimize their promotional tournament messaging. Leaderboards help reinforce participation by highlighting top participants, while encouraging other players to join.”

Konami offers customers a broad library of games to go with True-Time Tournaments, and operators can switch them out, change times, manage and monitor the contests through the Tournament Director interface. “Our customers are able to define start times, end times, game lengths, invitation cut-off periods, player qualifying criteria, and more,” Walther says. “From the Tournament Director interface, they can view current scores, rankings, active players, and the number of missing entries. They have the flexibility to put machines into standby mode, start rounds, and advance rounds or heats.”

True-Time Tournaments allow players to earn tournament entries from any machine and play tournaments on any equipped machine.

Depending on the property’s particular needs for a promotion, they have the flexibility to deliver synchronized tournament games and on-demand tournament games to reward carded players.

According to Walther, True-Time Tournaments is the only system-delivered tournament product on the market with player multi-game capabilities. “When redeeming an on-demand tournament entry at any enabled video slot machine, carded players can have the option to choose from an array of game themes, to help keep tournament promotions fresh and unique,” he says. “Players are given a menu of game theme options when claiming their tournament entries, empowering them with an additional element of control and excitement when they achieve targeted sales and marketing rewards at the property.” (He says operators have the option to enable or disable this function.)

Slot tournaments may have come a long way since the days when tournament machines were routinely hauled to roped-off areas for labor-intensive events. However, as Neborsky notes, their value to the operator has not diminished.

“The value continues to be present,” he says. “As with any type of promotion, it’s how you execute it, and being able to target it to the right players. Having the flexibility of doing either roped-off tournaments that create a specialized area or doing more of a global, across-the-floor event gives us the flexibility of entertaining guests in a different way, and being able to provide a different level of entertainment.”

Neborsky says that once the del Lago property adds a hotel, he will look at doing some of the types of events he used decades ago to pamper his Atlantic City guests. “We used to do weekend-long tournaments in Atlantic City,” he recalls. “Players would come in on a Friday, they play Friday, all day Saturday and Sunday morning. We would have a great awards banquet ball. I haven’t seen any of those for years.”

Those elaborate events were great for brining in top players and keeping them playing in the casino for days.

In fact, those events are still great. And with today’s technology, the logistics are a breeze.

Tournament time is no doubt here to stay.

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.