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Turning the Tables

Electronic table games gain momentum in the U.S. as operators tap what has become a game genre in itself

Turning the Tables

The evolution of the modern casino industry has largely been the story of shifting appeal for two styles of games. The classic view of Las Vegas for decades centered around the table games loved by the World War II generation, but the last two decades of the 20th century saw tables declining in favor of slot machines that were newly computerized, carrying popular entertainment themes and advertising huge jackpots.

Table games have staged something of a comeback over the past decade or so, aided not only by a younger clientele that prefers social interaction over slot-machine isolation, but by progressive jackpots and a variety of side bets that draw from the appeal of slot machines while boosting the house’s hold on games which, in their original state, did not approach the house advantage on slot machines.

Over the past few years, the best of both the slot and table-game genres have merged on U.S. slot floors in a third genre of game that is borrowing floor space from both original styles of casino game—the electronic table game, or ETG.

ETGs themselves are not new. Interblock founder Joc Pečečnik invented what many recognize as the first automated electro-mechanical roulette game in his garage in the early 1990s, and other companies in Interblock’s home country of Slovenia, as well as Austrian gaming supply giant Novomatic, subsequently spread the auto-roulette genre through European casinos, allowing small casinos to offer the popular game despite a lack of space for the live version.

Space also was a factor in the rise of ETGs in Asian markets like Macau, where limits on the number of table games left a ton of unmet demand from players. The solution there has been the stadium-style ETG, which sets up cameras on any number of different live tables and beams the video to slot-style terminals often numbering in the hundreds.

In North America, ETGs began to appear after gaming expanded beyond Nevada and Atlantic City in the 1990s, mainly as a way to offer the traditional table games to players in jurisdictions where live tables were forbidden by law. The former Shuffle Master (now part of Scientific Games) was happy to oblige in these markets with the Table Master series (now Table Master Fusion), which features video dealers on screens in front of slot-like betting terminals.

However, in the U.S. casino market at large—in places where live table games are, in fact, permitted—there traditionally was no real market for ETGs.

Over the past few years, there has been a palpable change. A perfect storm of declining slot-machine play (and the floor space that trend opened up), advancing technology and a recognition of the success of the Asian model has made the electronic table game a growing choice for casinos across the U.S., and a viable offering to bring in incremental revenue.

As with traditional live tables, side bets have helped fuel the ETG surge, bringing house hold up and injecting slot-style excitement into the age-old games. Many casinos are creating special sections for ETGs—some, as with Interblock’s Pulse Arena product, complete with DJs, disco lights and bottle service in an arrangement designed to draw younger patrons who otherwise would not play a table game or a slot machine.

The stadium style of ETG also is popping up across the U.S. industry, especially in casinos that have a large Asian clientele like Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which two years ago installed an IGT Dynasty ETG stadium with 150 play stations—the largest ETG installation in the U.S. to date.

The Sands has since added a Scientific Games blackjack ETG stadium next to the Steelworks Buffet & Grill.

Meanwhile, ETGs continue to shine in markets where tables are not yet authorized, as evidenced by Empire City Casino in Yonkers, New York. While the average ETG footprint in the U.S. hovers around 1 percent, Empire City has an ETG presence that’s more akin to Macau.

“Empire City Casino has the sixth largest gaming floor in the country, and ETGs currently make up 10 percent of our floor,” says Ryan Munroe, head of VGM operations at Empire City. “That percentage has grown substantially in the past three years, as we have nearly doubled the floor share for our ETGs with the addition of new games such as blackjack, Three Card Poker, Ultimate Texas Hold Em and the Big 6 Wheel, which have helped to revitalize interest and substantial growth in this segment.

“When New York state regulations first allowed for the addition of electronic table games to our floor, Empire City integrated approximately 180 positions into ETGs including roulette, craps, sic bo and baccarat. The games were sought after by patrons, which led to the casino quickly increasing the number of positions to nearly 350 in 2015. Currently, the casino has more than 520 ETG positions on the floor to meet customer demand.”

Particularly since no live table games are in the market, he adds, the ETGs are providing revenue that is incremental to the slots. “We were originally a facility with no live or electronic table games,” says Munroe, “so when New York state regulations allowed for electronic table games, Empire City was able to attract new players to our property who were interested in playing the electronic table games, but were not historically slot players.”

Aside from markets where live tables are not authorized, the regional markets such as Pennsylvania are the drivers of growth in ETGs. “ETGs are slowly gaining adoption in the U.S., and are particularly stronger in regions where table games are absent or at a premium due to capacity constraints,” comments Rick Hutchins, senior vice president of slot strategy for MGM Resorts International. “ETG growth over the past few years has been steady.”

Michael Dejong, who is senior vice president of slot operations and marketing for Wynn Las Vegas—and has been helping in the ramp-up for the operator’s new Encore Boston Harbor—agrees that the ETG phenomenon is starting out as a regional happening in the U.S.

“On the Las Vegas Strip, it doesn’t seem to have taken hold like it’s taken hold in other areas,” Dejong says. “The stadium style seems to be the most popular back East. I know in touring there and talking with our team building the (Encore) property back there, we’re going to have an implementation of a small stadium in the beginning with potential to grow in the future.

“Especially if there are restrictions on live table games, it seems like ETGs are really a home run. But it’s outside of Las Vegas, and specifically the Strip, where it seems to have taken hold first and at its largest.”

Wynn Las Vegas and a few other Strip casinos have been testing the ETG waters for several years. Bellagio offers small groups of dealer-assisted ETGs offering roulette and baccarat, while the Venetian has been the most ambitious on the Strip, with a 44-seat IGT Dynasty ETG stadium in the Palazzo and individual mullti-player ETG units such as Aruze’s popular Shoot to Win Craps.

Dejong says Wynn is currently examining possible expansion of its ETG footprint on the Strip as well. He says the operator has been testing the waters with automated roulette from Interblock and the Fusion series from Scientific Games, and is in discussions with Aruze as well.

“We’ve engaged Aruze to build a machine to our specs,” he says. “We have very demanding design specs and colors they have to commit to before we’ll take their product. It’s in motion, and I’d expect next year we’ll be installing the Aruze (Shoot to Win Craps) dice game. And I think it will do well.”

Las Vegas locals casino giant Station Casinos also has been testing the ETG waters, according to David Horn, corporate vice president of table games (he also is assistant general manager of Palace Station). “We have stadium ETG setups in three Station casinos now,” he says.

ETG stadium installations using the LT Baccarat system are currently feeding live table games to 30 play stations in a setup at Palace Station, with upwards of 20 seats at the Palms. An 18-game setup using Scientific Games’ Fusion Hybrid system recently debuted at Red Rock.

Station also employs individual multi-player ETGs at several of its properties. “The craps and roulette ETGs are at nearly every property we have,” Horn says. “The blackjack game seems to struggle from within our market, being mostly local, but the craps and roulette have stayed constant with us as a success.”


New Revenue

IGT Dynasty Roulette

Horn comments that the ETGs are settling into a niche of their own, and are generating incremental revenue for the casino.

“There are operators who are afraid to put ETGs close to the table games, but I’ve never been an opponent of that, because there’s a natural intimidation with a social game—particularly roulette and craps. Craps is obviously more intimidating than roulette is, but for the gamer who wants to learn, it’s an intimidating process.”

ETGs fill the need of many new table game players to learn the games without being intimidated by trying to learn amid seasoned players, he says, but also serves the purpose of offering a lower minimum than the live games. There also are many players—both young and old—who simply enjoy the machine experience and the ability to play several games at once in the stadium setups.

“Younger players have grown up in the tablet and smartphone era; they are used to playing all forms of games on those devices,” comments Chris Wester, product manager for electronic table systems at Scientific Games. “As such, I think that the younger demographic is more likely to dive in and play blackjack or Three Card Poker in an electronic environment.”

“One of the catalysts is that is appeals to more mid-budget players who may be intimidated to play at a live table,” adds Kathleen McLaughlin, vice president of product management and marketing for Novomatic Americas. “Players can learn at their own pace without fear of making an error. That appeals to a lot of people. It’s why I don’t play live table games. This I would easily play. Slot players who have wanted to try tables can now learn in a more private, comfortable environment.”

The result is that ETGs are, for the most part, representing incremental revenue to the casino. “I believe it’s new revenue, based on the high level of unrated play,” comments Dejong. “The blackjack and baccarat games we had before weren’t producing the win-per-unit numbers we wanted, but they were 80-plus percent unrated play.”

Dejong adds that ETGs do not affect the take of the live table games. “Even if we did install dealer-assisted ETGs in Las Vegas, our table games people are not looking to decrease games. We believe it can completely coexist without cannibalizing from either side.

“Part of the appeal for that unrated guy who sits down is a low point of entry. It’s less intimidating, and again, that’s play I don’t think we would otherwise get.”

As the ETG has evolved, the genre has gone through something of an identity crisis in the U.S., particularly when it comes to the various regulatory regimes. Are they slot machines or table games? That depends on the jurisdiction, but even where they are considered slot machines for regulatory purposes, the operators—some are slot operations officials; others are on the table-game side—find ways to measure their performance that does not involve comparing them to the house average take for slot machines.

For instance, in Nevada, where ETGs are considered slot machines by regulation, Horn at Station is on the table side, while MGM’s Hutchins and Wynn’s Dejong are both on the slot side.

Horn notes that while the revenue reports to the state list the ETGs with slots, management does not gauge their performance the way slots are evaluated.

“We just have to do our own bookkeeping on the back end, to make sure it pencils out right,” Horn says. “We slice it up in a pretty detailed manner, so we know what kind of contribution we’re getting, and what the numbers are from an expectation standpoint… We had to rewrite the internal controls at Red Rock, just because we had never had that system in the past.”

What brings the ETG numbers up closer to the slot numbers, all agree, is the collection of side bets employed by the various manufacturers.

Horn says side bets appeal to the slot mentality, creating a hybrid experience that brings in new revenue. “There’s a lower entry point for the side bets, just like there’s a lower entry point for the game itself,” he says. “I think it has more of a slot mentality, because basically you’re looking to hit a jackpot, as well as playing a true version of a live game, only automated.”

All agree, however, that the biggest advantage of a complete lineup of side bets is that the slot-style excitement is accompanied by a slot-style house hold on those wagers, which brings the overall house advantage up closer to what the slot department has enjoyed for decades.

The major manufacturers of ETGs understand this as well.


ETG Innovation

Interblock Pulse Arena

“Side bets of any kind are where the operator really recognizes their ETG revenue,” comments Scientific Games’ Wester. “The ability of ETGs to offer multiple concurrent side wagers, while not needing any additional time to reconcile those wagers, makes this an ideal growth area of the market.”

IGT has realized the same, launching a new effort to grow its ETG library this year after bringing in Paul Baskerville, formerly with London-based table-game giant TCSJohnHuxley, as director of ETG product management. In addition to the auto-roulette and the Dynasty brand of live blackjack, baccarat and sic bo, the supplier has introduced LiveConnect, which enables any live baccarat or roulette game on a casino floor to be beamed to ETG setups.

IGT innovations being launched this year also include Triple Zero Roulette and a new baccarat ETG that includes no less than 28 betting options with all the side bets.

“At IGT, we see a lot of potential in side bets for a variety of reasons,” says Baskerville. “We’re building up our side bet content library, and also developing new games like our baccarat, with 28 betting options. That’s just new; it’s exciting. It adds more dynamics to the game.”

“In live table games, we have seen side bets and progressives make a major impact already,” adds Brandon Knowles, Aruze’s executive director of table games. “ETGs can provide further growth in this area due to the increased flexibility and ease by which an electronic, software-based game can manage transactions.”

Aruze is another supplier that has redoubled its ETG effort, last year bringing in Knowles, who previously managed ETGs for both Shuffle Master and IGT. At G2E, Aruze introduced the follow-up to its popular Shoot to Win Craps, a hybrid table set up to resemble a live game. Called Roll to Win Craps, the table features real dice with separate play stations for electronic wagers. The table itself uses projection animation to display anything from roll history to outside advertising, and the game progresses like a normal craps game, with only one dealer required.

Projection imaging is also used to enhance Super Big Wheel, an ETG version of Big 6; and Lucky Roulette, a new automated roulette game.

And of course, the old hands in the ETG genre are still pumping out new products, with both Novomatic and Interblock riding the new wave of ETG popularity in the U.S.

“When we first entered the North American market, electronic table games were not a focus in our growth plan,” comments McLaughlin. “It was not an obvious product to add to our product plan. ETGs’ popularity has grown domestically and internationally for the past several years, so we began to have requests based on the success of our products in Europe.”

“As a Europe-based supplier that excels in electronic table game technology, we have had incredible expertise and a large installation base from which to learn,” adds Rick Meitzler, president and CEO of Novomatic Americas. “We have different solutions available for live games such as roulette, blackjack, baccarat and sic bo.”

Interblock, meanwhile, continues to progress with stadium setups, led by its Pulse Arena, which has been installed in casinos from Greektown in Detroit to Seneca Niagara in New York.

“Interblock, being in Macau for decades, was aware of that (stadium) product, but no one had ever really tried it in the U.S.,” says Interblock CEO John Connelly. “I think there was a perception that was very demographically conducive to an Asian player, but we decided to try and really introduce that in a more aggressive fashion… And it seemed to be working quite successfully, which gave us some confidence that if we were to really create a product and take it global, it could work.

“We started creating these areas of force in stadiums, creating an environment around them, with both live dealers and automated. Fast-forward to today, we’re signing up one stadium on average every 10 to 12 days, in North America.”

Macau, of course, is the gold standard for the ETG genre, with typically more than 10 percent of entire casino floors filled with the game style. In the U.S., it’s more like 1 percent to 2 percent currently, but those numbers are rising, and will likely continue to rise as manufacturers introduce more innovations.

“In five years, I can see us getting to 10, 15 percent of a casino floor in North America and South America, and globally,” says Interblock’s Connelly. “In fact, outside of North America, and parts of Latin America, the industry is already there.”

Wynn’s Dejong says a 10 percent floor share in North America may be overly optimistic, but he does not discount that possibility. “In five years, I think that might be optimistic, but there is growth,” he says. “The genre seems to be growing more outside Las Vegas than in Las Vegas, and I don’t know why that wouldn’t continue. I think it’s going to be a gradual growth. Ten percent of a floor seems optimistic, but it remains to be seen.”

Adds MGM’s Hutchins, “As manufacturers continue to innovate with new offerings such as carnival-style games or more interactive experiences, operators will continue to incorporate ETGs into the casino environment.”

“North America has shown itself to be the global leader in new ETG placements, far outpacing growth in Europe and the Australasia markets,” says Scientific Games’ Wester. “We feel there is a lot of opportunity in this market in terms of growth in the next five to 10 years as we look to expand the player segments we appeal to and help the operator find ways to provide new entertainment options that offer the best possible player appeal and ROI.”

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.  

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