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The House Always Wins

The fall and rise of gaming throughout the Covid-19 pandemic

Every once in a great while, perhaps just once per generation, a flashbulb moment occurs, one that captures our collective attention and blows the dust off of the age-old phrase, “Where were you when… ?”

In the past, most of these examples were in fact singular moments in time—deaths of high-profile figures, natural disasters and the beginnings and ends of various wars have always been the most common.

But the spring of 2020 was different.

The onset and evolution of the Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t a singular moment; it was a gradual buildup, followed by a tidal wave of such moments. January’s uncertainties mingled with February’s fears, which eventually led to March’s reckoning. It only took a matter of days before every facet of day-to-day life became deeply affected.

The gaming industry, of course, was no different. The alarms that first sounded from Macau were quickly heard round the globe, and businesses across all sectors braced for an inevitable impact by sending employees home with laptops and hastily devised two-week plans. And yet the magnitude of the situation didn’t fully resonate until the unthinkable finally happened: casinos everywhere closed their doors, like the capstone atop a pyramidal trap.

A lot has changed in the three years since that fateful spring, and while some of the temporary measures have faded away, gaming companies everywhere still bear some of the permanent effects, both good and bad, that resulted from the worst public health disaster since before World War II.

Shock and Awe

On October 30, 2019, Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Sacramento President Mark Birtha stood before a podium at the property’s grand opening ceremony, in a moment that represented the culmination of years of hard work and planning. He had no way of knowing what was to come mere months later.

“I remember speaking, doing our grand opening speech and saying, ‘we will never close these doors,’” he says. “‘We’ll be open 24/7. We’re here to welcome everybody.’ And five months later we were closed.”

Of course, all businesses felt the reverberations of the Covid shockwaves almost immediately, but the closure of brick-and-mortar casinos in mid-March put real pressure on the industry as a whole. With no casinos, there were no games to be played or sold, no software or hardware to be installed and no consulting to be done. The only thing to do at that time was to sit and wait, and hope for the best.

“The reality is, this was probably one of the most significant crises as an industry we’d ever gone through,” says Birtha. “Literally closing all the casinos around the world is just such an unbelievable thing when you look back now. I mean, look, there were some good memories and there were some memories I definitely want to forget. I think the most relevant ones though, in the beginning, obviously, there was just this fear of the unknown.”

The challenge of staying calm and keeping things together was hard enough for established venues, but for Hard Rock Sacramento, which was less than six months old at the time, it seemed that the dream was falling apart before it could be fully realized.

Despite this, Birtha and company worked diligently to become the first Hard Rock property to reopen under the company’s Safe and Sound sanitation plan, which, as he notes, was “a robust, hundred-page strategy initiative to ensure we were meeting all the different health codes around the world.” Given that the Hard Rock brand extends to over 60 countries, this was no small plan, and no easy task.

When it came time to finally reopen after 10 agonizing weeks, however, there were still fears that players would be reluctant to come back, but those were quickly assuaged.

“What I remember most, which was very endearing and heartwarming, is that guests were just happy to have a place to go where they could find enjoyment,” Birtha says. “Every day it was pandemic, pandemic, people dying, situation’s getting worse, better, whatever… But they were just grateful to have a place to go again where they could be with their family per se, outside of sheltering in place. We all proactively worked together to overcome the challenges.”

Meanwhile, as operators and state officials everywhere worked diligently to get doors back open, suppliers and manufacturers continued to wait, paralyzed by canceled orders and poor workflows.

For Mike Trask, vice president of product marketing and global communication for Ainsworth Game Technology, the beginning of the pandemic was a whirlwind from both a personal and professional perspective, as he had welcomed a child into the world March 4, just days before the Ainsworth office shut down for the first time.

“I think we started with saying two weeks, and then God, I don’t remember when we were fully back,” says Trask. “To be honest, I don’t know that we’ve ever fully returned, you know? Certainly the work flow has returned and we’re doing more than ever. But certainly Covid changed for us probably a little bit of the way we do business like everybody else. I think it’s certainly changed some people’s desire or need to be in the office. We were very quick to adapt to Teams and Zoom and a number of different things like that, which allowed the day-to-day work to continue, and it’s slowly come back.”

For Ainsworth and other manufacturers, the reopening of casinos was certainly a much-needed boon, but as Trask notes, there were still a lot of problems left unanswered. For starters, the question of “How are we going to show (customers) our stuff?” was paramount. In a disjointed world, it seemed impossible to connect in a meaningful way, especially in a business environment with limited resources.

That led to the next biggest question: no one knew for sure whether or not operators would have the capital to move forward like before, and it wasn’t until the following year and beyond that business started to return to a sense of normalcy.

Diamonds and Busted Pipes

Towards the end of 2020 it started to become clear that the scope of the pandemic was much wider than originally anticipated—the dialogue shifted from “stop the spread” to “the new normal,” and companies adjusted accordingly. At certain points during the years that have followed, the pressure caused breakdowns, but it also fostered a sense of innovation that stands out even to this day.

Interestingly, one of the best examples of this ingenuity didn’t even originate solely from gaming, per se. Jon Olsen, founder of Vaask, saw the increased need for hand hygiene in a casino environment almost immediately, and set out on a mission “to address the shortcomings of ubiquitous, unreliable and unattractive” hand sanitizer dispensers, which quickly became indispensable.

“When we started out, we focused on industries we believed would most benefit from a permanent approach to hand sanitizing,” Olsen explains. “The hospitality space has always been one of our priorities because this is an industry that needs to protect both employees and a varied customer base. Casinos are a perfect example of the kind of high-traffic, high-touch environment where a superior approach to hand hygiene is most needed.”

Even as the public began to transition away from full-frontal prevention measures, Vaask’s dispensers remained a staple for properties everywhere, thanks to their large-capacity cartridges, use of AC power to reduce battery waste and sleek, futuristic design cues that blend well with modern design themes.

On the supplier side, some of the best and most creative games were born from this period of constraint, but it didn’t come easy, as long-lasting supply chain woes continued to beleaguer the industry long after the immediate impacts of Covid began to wane.

“The impact of the supply chain for us was bigger than the impact of Covid itself,” notes Dan Schrementi, president of gaming for Incredible Technologies. “For a while we couldn’t even get that supply. I mean, that was issue No. 1… We pride ourselves on being the easiest to work with and the most transparent company in gaming, and as part of that, we look at it and say supply chain management was a definite struggle for a smaller manufacturer.”

The topsy-turvy nature of the supply-and-demand dynamic plagued much of the sector, resulting in a lot of “hurry up and wait” scenarios. As a result, Schrementi says, “that puts pressure on making really smart decisions on how you design your products and how you build your products.” It also slashes research and development opportunities, making the margin for error that much smaller.

Still, Incredible Technologies has managed to produce some of its most creative work in spite of the mounting obstacles. According to Schrementi, the company plans to unveil the first-ever electronic table game with a Class II engine and a new cabinet in the coming weeks, both of which represent diamonds that formed as a result of the pandemic pressures.

“All of that stress and pressure that went into the market, our team took that stress, harnessed it, and focused on building the best product at the price point that our customers want with a good catalog of themes and all of that kind of stuff in it to drive performance,” he says. “But what makes me proud of doing it is we did that all with less. Less people, less resources, less time, but because of the people working on it, we’re so focused and so passionate.”

A similar story can also be told for Gaming Arts—according to Chief Operating Officer Jean Venneman, the company faced times in which “every single customer was closed,” on top of the inability to source materials in a timely manner.

“On the product side, supply chain issues started to really become a problem in our production process,” says Venneman. “There were parts and peripherals that we just couldn’t get in a reasonable time frame, so we had to get creative to keep the production line moving.”

As a result, Venneman says she and the rest of her team “took that time and opportunity to focus on the games and really tried to drill down on each one to make them the best they could be.” Constant communication both internally and externally also helped navigate the ship through a morass of dialogue and ever-evolving guidelines.

“I think we did a pretty good job at working with (customers) to roll with the changes that the floor needed during social distancing times,” she says.

The Proverbial Line in the Sand

Perhaps the most difficult part of analyzing the effects of the pandemic even now, three years later, is that unlike wars and hurricanes, there has yet to be and perhaps never will be an official “end.”

As such, it then changes to a matter of simple perspective: is there such a thing as “post-Covid?” For land-based operators, suppliers and everyone in between, the tone of the conversation has shifted from hesitant and cautionary to matter-of-fact and preparatory.

“I don’t really think there is necessarily a ‘post-Covid’ per se, because I think we’re still dealing with Covid even today,” Birtha posits. “And if there’s not Covid today, there more than likely might be something else tomorrow. I think we’re in more of a ‘newer normal,’ if you want to put a tagline phrase around it, because I think there’s clearly a higher level of sensitivity to health and safety and wellness in general.”

“I’m no economist, but I don’t know that we look at it as ‘post-Covid’ (at Ainsworth),” adds Trask. “I think that here we are at the beginning of 2023 and some of the things remain the same.

“This is a content-driven business. We’ve invested massively in R&D post-Covid. How much of that’s impacted by Covid itself? I’m not sure. But I can tell you that that content competition is fiercer than ever.”

In a fascinating way, the era of ultimate restraint has given rise to a time of ultimate freedom—freedom not in an economic or regulatory sense, but in a celebratory way. The pandemic, perhaps above all, caused the gaming industry to think, and think hard. Questions like, “Do I really want to do this?” and “Will we make it?” proved too much for many, which is understandable. Those who answered “yes,” however, have more clarity than ever. Indeed, those who climbed the mountain now bask in the incredible views that resulted.

“I think there will be forever a change in how we view pandemics after (Covid),” Schrementi says. “But I think all industries changed. I think there is no hard line in the sand of post-Covid… I think it got all of us to concentrate on really sticking to the core foundation of what our businesses are and learning how to operate through adversity, learning a lot about people throughout all of it.”

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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