In the magnificently researched book by gaming historian David Schwartz, Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling, we read that the first casino in the world was in Venice—Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, also known as Casino di Venezia. The casino opened in 1638 and continued until 1774, when gambling was banned. Schwartz tells us that the games consisted of card and dice games, the identity of which are lost to time.
But clearly there were no slot machines—it was another 100 years or more after it closed before the first slot game was introduced by Charles Fey in San Francisco. But even then slot machines played only a minor role in the gaming halls of their time.
Table games have been the center of any casino for most of the history of casinos. Yes, the games changed. Faro was the most popular game in Fey’s time. And poker, of course, was the alluring game that fooled many an amateur gambler until he ran into a card shark.
Even when Nevada opened up gambling in 1931, slot machines were just an amenity to keep the wives of the high rollers occupied while the husbands wagered the serious money at the tables.
Today, of course, slot machines dominate the casino world—except perhaps in Asia, where the dedication to baccarat by most players keeps table game revenue front and center.
So when it came to online gambling, slot machines were the no-brainer decision. They are easily replicated and contain most of the graphics and sounds of the real-life game. For the online operator, the more the merrier, and there are often hundreds of slot games available to their customers at any given time.
But then table games became the ugly stepsister of iGaming. Yes, you need to have them because there are some smart players who know that slots are a loser for most gamblers and prefer to use their brains when gambling. But unlike slots, table games are not so easily replicated online. Yes, you can easily remake baccarat and roulette. In those games the player makes the decision where to bet and a simple RNG and basic graphics are all that’s needed. You can conceivably have thousands of people betting on one spin or hand.
Blackjack is different because each player needs to make a decision in turn, extending the time it takes to play a full hand. But again, basic graphics and an RNG that copies the theoretical payback percentage, and you’re in business.
But man against machine isn’t what live gaming is all about, so the search was on for the holy grail of live gaming online.
Todd Haushalter is the chief product officer for Evolution Gaming, the company that invented live dealer and now the dominant player in the B2B market. Haushalter was senior vice president of table games for MGM Resorts prior to joining Evolution.
“It started with taking one of those simple Logitech cameras, and putting it in front of a roulette wheel and having the woman spin,” he explains. “She’d manually enter the winning number and live casino was born. Yeah. Roulette was the first product.
“And remember in those days you didn’t have decent bandwidth; it was really pushing the technological boundaries. The founders of Evolution made a huge bet and they built five tables and they decided to run them 24/7—it’s labor intensive and nobody’s waking up in the morning looking for live dealer.
“And it’s not like we were getting premium placement on the websites at that time either. Sometimes a whole shift would go by and there would be no players. Money was tight, but then players started to slowly trickle in.”
But getting to the next level wasn’t about the money for live dealer; it was much more simple.
“Then you saw live casino get its own tab,” he says. “So you’d have sports, sports betting and then casino and then live casino. So that was a huge win.”
Evolution was able at the time to refocus on its goals when it gained that acceptance.
“The original mission was to bring the casino to online,” Haushalter says. “It took online gaming into a new genre where it lives today. Sure, it’s a hard business, because you’ve got half casino operations, and then half technical operations and video streaming. It’s a B2B business, so you’ve got to keep all your clients happy.”
Edo Haitin is managing director of live dealer for Playtech, a giant in the online gaming supplier field. He says Playtech got into live dealer about 15 years ago, and it was slow going at the start.
“In the beginning, it was really like a stepbrother or sister for the main casino,” he says. “The technology was different back then; we had to figure out what is live, what can be done with live, why even are we doing live? That was the industry. And it was like that for quite a while. When I joined live around six years ago, I think that was the era that it started to be more popular.
“But then the technology really changed. There was a boom in the streaming capabilities, and then it took off.”
So why wasn’t the player satisfied with the static electronic version of their favorite table game? After all, the odds are the same and the decisions come much quicker. The player decides when the cards are dealt, not the live dealer.
According to Oliver Bartlett, the director of gaming for BetMGM, it caters to what the players want.
“I think gambling at a table is quite familiar, almost as second nature, to a lot of Americans,” he says. “They prefer that kind of community feel, which obviously live casino gives far more than those RNG games. If I’m at the table with you, I can chat with you. I can chat with the dealer, and we can all have a good time, send out some virtual high fives and, and kind of win and lose together, which is an added element of fun.”
The “chat” is not actually a verbal chat; it’s chat boxes embedded into the game where a player can chat with all or individual players via text messages.
Adam Glass, the director of B2B services for Rush Street Interactive, the operator of BetRivers and PlaySugarhouse, believes live dealer is a big upgrade from the RNG games.
“The live-stream video is very unique in the sense it gives the player the ability to interact not only with the dealer, but with the other players at the table, just as if you’re at a land-based casino. So many players actually want that. They want that feeling that they get from the brick-and-mortar experience online to actually see the cards being shuffled out in front of them and communicate with the folks sitting next to them. It adds a level of camaradarie and community, but most importantly, a level of trust of the betting experience, seeing those cards fly in front of them. It’s as close to authentic as possible without being at the brick-and-mortar property.”
It comes down to two elements, Haushalter says.
“The first is overwhelmingly trust,” he says. “People are risking their hard-earned money on an uncertain event, and you know how it goes. When you’re sitting at the blackjack table, you don’t blame yourself, you blame the guy sitting next to you. You’re always looking for somebody to blame. I think the gambler really wants to ensure they got a good gamble. If it’s a pure RNG game, for a lot of people, that’s just not gonna cut it when the dealer pulls a digital card out of a digital shoe and draws a five-card 21 to beat your 20. That doesn’t sit well with a lot of people.
“And a very close No. 2—it’s almost a tie—is the social element. Even if people don’t want to chat I think they just enjoy being around other people. It’s a little bit like people will go to a bar to have a drink, but not to talk to anybody. They could have a drink at home, but they still like to go to the bar and have a drink. So I think it satisfies the social appetite as well. And then of course, some people form full relationships with the dealers and other players. You’re recognized by name, which is always a good thing.”
Haitin says it’s even more deep than the simple connection.
“Live dealer is a way to add to the player entertainment experience,” he says, “because eventually we’re providing an experience, not just a place to bet. If the player starts to lose, and suddenly is not enjoying himself, at least he’s being entertained. They’re looking at it from that perspective.”
While it’s possible players could snipe at each other for making what one might think was a bad decision, like taking the dealer’s bust card when he’s showing a six, Bartlett says that has been few and far between in his experience.
“Well at least it’s nasty messages instead of nasty elbows in a real casino table,” he laughs. “But that’s why we offer plenty of choices of blackjack games, different rules, different limits. If a player wanted to play alone, they could search for a table which no one’s occupying at the moment. Or if a player prefers to play a lower limit with other players, maybe just a short message and say hitting on 16 against a six probably would not be worth it.”
Evolution supplies many of the online casinos in the U.S. and around the world. But that doesn’t mean its clients can’t put their brand on an Evolution-run game.
Glass says there is extensive branding for both of the RSI online sites.
“We have BetRivers and PlaySugarHouse, so we’ve got the two brands’ themes, logos, and color scheme. We have tables branded to both of our brands. And the ability to do that adds a layer of personalization, the customization of the market, to the player. We can also tie that branding to custom bonuses as well. So when a player has the dedicated table, the brand, the look, and feel that they’re familiar with, it’s a good feeling when you’re able to offer that product in any given market. So we’ve done everything we can to push the communal feel. But looking into your phone and watching a craps table, it’s just not as fun as the real thing.”
Dealer or Entertainer?
Evolution Gaming employs thousands of live dealers around the world, with studios in many different places. In the U.S. most regulators are requiring any live studio to be located within the borders of that state. Haushalter says that’s not a problem, because in addition to several European countries, Evolution has studios in Canada, New Jersey, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
For Playtech, a studio was recently opened in Madrid, because Spanish regulators required it to be located in the country. Haitin says the stipulation has its advantages and disadvantages.
“We have already completed two studios in New Jersey and Michigan, the third one is in the making in Pennsylvania,” he says. “It’s already a barrier to entry, so if somebody new wants to come it’s going to be a long project, so it has its challenges.”
Recruiting dealers is also a challenge. In most of their jurisdictions, you can’t just advertise for dealers because it’s not like Las Vegas with experienced dealers on the dole, says Haushalter.
“We’ll target the universities,” he explains. “We hire a lot of young people because we need to hire on all three shifts, and not everybody wants to work nights. So if you’re a student, it works really well with your schedule in some cases. Maybe you can only work three or four days a week, and we can support that. If you want to work weekends, we can support that as well.”
After the potential dealers are recruited, they’re sent to a training academy.
“In some cases,” says Haushalter, “they don’t even know what a casino is. They don’t know how to pull a card out of a shoe. They don’t know how to spin a roulette ball. Nothing. But over the course of three weeks, a pretty intensive three weeks, we turn them into highly productive game presenters. Remember, they don’t have chips to deal with so that really narrows down the speed with which we can train. But they all have different challenges. They’re being filmed at all times and so you have to be friendly and the mistakes are quite hazardous because there could be a thousand people on your table! So the longer they’re with you, the fewer mistakes they make. And it’s really great when you can hold onto them as well, so we try to make a friendly environment that’s really enjoyable to work in.”
Haitian says the culture that the live dealer is addressing is also an issue.
“We are working to extend our studio portfolio all the time,” he says. “That’s our strategy because then you get different talents, different accents, different cultures. And that’s a big factor.”
Glass says the entertainment aspect of the job is the most important.
“We believe that a good dealer makes the experience so much more engaging,” he says. “Think about your experience at the brick-and-mortar property. The dealers that make the most tips are going to be the most engaging. They have great personalities, they’re fun to interact with. They tell great stories and they chat with you. It’s certainly just as much entertainment with a good dealer as it is playing the game itself too. So I think Evolution does a great job in training their dealers.”
The Name of the Game
All online casinos offer the standard games of baccarat, roulette and blackjack. The first two games have the advantage that you can host hundreds, even thousands of players at each table since there’s no decision to be made by the players after placing their bets. Blackjack, however, is different, and the normal seven spots at a real-life table are replicated online.
“Blackjack is the only capacity-constrained game,” says Bartlett. “We manage that capacity with Evolution and obviously looking at our own space. In Michigan, we launched with six private blackjack tables versus one roulette table and one baccarat table. We’ll always look at the capacity of those blackjack tables. If I need to go to 10 or 15 tables, we’ll work with Evolution to get them built.
“We also have another option in the live casino space called Infinite Blackjack. That’s a standard blackjack game with potentially 10,000 people betting on one hand, where decisions to hit and stand are left to the original player, so it kind of bridges the gap quite nicely between RNG electronic table games and the real version of blackjack.”
The wild card of traditional casino games is craps, but solutions are even being worked up for that game. Haushalter admits it’s a challenge.
“You feed off the energy of the other people at the craps table,” he says. “That’s just the reality. We’ve done our best to create a vibe, so we’ve built a set that looks like a 1920s underground speakeasy and you feel like it’s this underground table.”
As for the game play, says Haushalter, in many ways it’s better than land-based.
“It’s faster. We have a re-bet button so if all your numbers get taken down, you can immediately re-bet by pressing a button. It’s super easy. In one click you can see the user interface to explain to you what’s going on at all times. So in many ways it’s superior to the land-based experience.”
The Future of Live
Evolution Gaming has already given us a glimpse into the future with live “game shows.” They’ve converted the Deal or No Deal TV program into something you can bet on.
“We look for a central format of a game show,” says Haushalter. “For example, we’ve taken the Big Six wheel, peppered it with all kinds of different things that can happen, but some of those things take you off into this bonus game. It gives the player a lot to look at, with incredible variety.”
As a former land-based casino executive, Haushalter envisions ways that the game show concept could work in other areas.
“I also think it would be cool to see game shows go into actual casinos,” he says. “Yes, it’s not technically live casino, but it would be nice to see some product go the other direction.”
Bartlett says he’s looking forward to a game show-style game that is popular now in Europe, Crazy Time.
“It’s a good name because it’s genuinely a crazy game,” he says. “Right now there’s probably 10,000 people playing that game in Europe. It’s by far the most popular sort of game show in the world in the online gaming space. I would love Evolution and us to bring that over to the U.S. I think it would really work because you need to build essentially a whole new casino in each state you enter for Evolution.”
Glass agrees that the game-show concept is just in its infancy, but there is other growth potential.
“We’ll see a lot of variation in the game show-style games,” he says. “I think we’ll see more variations in the table games and side bets. Localization is going be a huge key piece for that, especially as we expand internationally as well. And with our high value, there will be further personalization for that cohort of players.”
Haitin believes that technology will lead the way.
“Technology is always part of it,” he says, “different kinds of technology, to be sure—obviously video, but also products using analytic technology applied to live gaming. This will allow us to make a leap of quality of experience for the users.”
BetMGM just partnered with Evolution on a live studio in Michigan, which has been a huge success and brought the company an impressive market share, a fact that others have noticed.
“I think we’ll see more suppliers coming into the market,” he says. “It’s inevitable in the free market that other suppliers from Europe will come over. We’ve already seen Playtech recently launch in Michigan and New Jersey. There’s been some recent acquisitions of live gaming companies by the largest providers of gaming content in the U.S. So it’s inevitable we’ll see more, and that will breed more innovation from Evolution and these other providers. So I’m very excited to see that evolve.”