Show Notes from Knup Sports Show

Show #84 – J.R. McCabe of PokerGO & Estars Studios Joins the Show

Listen in as the chief business officer at PokerGO and Estars Studios joins the show to discuss some of the developments for their company. J.R. McCabe talks about the explosion of online poker and esports during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Listen in as the chief business officer at PokerGO and Estars Studios joins the show to discuss some of the developments for their company. J.R. McCabe talks about the explosion of online poker and esports during this Covid-19 pandemic.


Show notes from J.R. McCabe Interview

Ryan Knuppel: All right, welcome back to another episode of the Knup Sports Show. My name is Ryan Knuppel, I’m your host here each and every time. Thank you so much for joining in, all you listeners out there, we really appreciate it.

Ryan Knuppel: I got a special guest with me today, I got J.R. McCabe. J.R., are you with me?

J.R. McCabe: I am here, Ryan. Glad to be here, thanks for the invitation.

Ryan Knuppel: Super pumped to have you today, I appreciate you being here. How are you holding up during these interesting times, I guess I’ll call it? How are you holding up?

J.R. McCabe: Pretty well, thank you. Very fortunate, trying to adapt, as is everyone. But, trying to help those who might need it wherever we can, and try to stay out of everyone else’s way.

Ryan Knuppel: Yeah, absolutely. J.R., I’m just going to go straight off LinkedIn, the Chief Business Officer of Poker Central, pokerGO with Estars studios. Give us a little background. Most of the listeners of this show are true iGaming professionals, a lot in the sports betting space, the esports space. Give us a little background of, I guess, your background in this space, and maybe what you started doing, leading up to what you’re doing now?

J.R. McCabe: Okay, sure. Well, thanks for that beautiful setup, that was really nice, quite humbling.

J.R. McCabe: I came to this space, Ryan, a little over five years ago, from the competitive gameplay space, I mean, and came out of the television, studio, and brand side. Had come out of television syndication, and sales, and content development, and then building digital businesses. When I joined my present group, it was with an eye toward really focusing on competitive gameplay, with a primary focus on the poker space. Poker as an entertainment vehicle, as an event experiential business, and then we added to that, over the last couple years, into the esports business. Again, it fits into the whole mantra of experiential, both in person as well as, now, online, and in the virtual world.

J.R. McCabe: My background really was to come out of the world of creating content, distributing it, finding new models to monetize, and then really trying to create value propositions, and putting assets together that really created greater value in the end. That’s really what brought me here, and the places we focus today.

Ryan Knuppel: That’s amazing. It looks like quite a background you have. It’s very interesting to me, being in the content space myself, just hearing that content’s really driven where you’re at today, and what you’re doing, and what you’re up to.

Ryan Knuppel: Give us a little more, I guess, about pokerGO, or Estars Studios. Tell us a little more about, I guess, what the company does, and so forth?

J.R. McCabe: Sure, I’d be happy to. pokerGO is the subscription VOD channel, the SVOD channel, of the Poker Central company. Poker Central is the umbrella business on our poker side, and we own events, and hold events, as well as we have asset holdings in the media space, including the global media rights to the World Series of Poker main event. We have a very large digital television and video studio in Las Vegas, at the Aria. So, essentially between the assets that we own, which include the Poker Masters, the Super High Roller Bowl, the US Poker Open, those are events that we actually have created inside the company, plus the WSOP and other partnerships that we have, it allowed us to create this amazing opportunity for a subscription video on demand channel called pokerGO.

J.R. McCabe: pokerGO streams, Ryan, and has original programming. So, we stream live, or live as poker events, where we need to, we run a delay for gaming compliance to keep integrity of the sport at the top of the chart. Then, we also do an amazing amount of original programming. Some of the most recent things we’ve done include the Championship Run, and something we just launched this week called 2020 Hindsight, which has looked at some of the best WSOP hands from the past.

J.R. McCabe: We marry live events with amazing original programming, and then we distribute in over 180 countries. It’s a pretty unique offering in the poker space, around pokerGO.

Ryan Knuppel: Yeah, that’s pretty amazing. I’ll cut you off there, before you talk about the Estars Studios.

J.R. McCabe: Sure.

Ryan Knuppel: No, it’s just amazing how much you do. How much of an impact is this company, I guess, seeing with this shutdown now? And, how has it pivoted to more of the … We saw the World Series of Poker was delayed, and a lot of these live events are now being delayed, and put off until later. Is that affecting what you guys do? Or, is it just allowing you to pivot, and create some other type of original programming around online poker, or something like that?

J.R. McCabe: Yeah, that’s a really insightful question, spot on. Clearly, it’s having a huge impact across a multitude of businesses, not the least of which is sports. In our world, in our part of the sports’ world, our partners are casinos as well as events. So, our partners with MGM, the doors are closed, Caesars, WSOP event closed, so huge impact. When you look at it in that light, you’ve got so many people who are affected both health wise, and economically with their jobs.

J.R. McCabe: What we have done to focus on our piece of the business is to pivot, to use your term, it’s a perfect term. Because of our subscription service, we were running the ability, and having the ability to show and stream online events, anyway. But now, we’ve made some of our events actually online only. For example, we just are concluding our Poker Masters Online, with Party Poker. Poker Masters is an event we have historically held in person, we pivoted to an online only event, and have had amazing success over these last couple weeks. We’ve pivoted in that way. We will have another one, there will be another one we’re going to announce upcoming that we’re going to do in May, the same way.

J.R. McCabe: In addition, we have created, and we’re in the middle right now of working on a virtual studio. What that’ll basically be is an animated type version of a virtual studio, a representation of our facility, at the Aria in Las Vegas. Through either avatars, or small clips of video, or literal head shots, you’ll be able to see the players participate in a virtual environment. We’ve tried to really work to make entertaining, engaging experiences in world that none of us have really seen before.

Ryan Knuppel: Yeah. I love that answer, that’s just spot on. We’re all, as businesses and as companies, we’re all forced to pivot, and that’s the true word, pivot to something. I think when we come back to normal, I guess we’ll call it the new normal, I think some of the stuff that we’ve pivoted to are going to now be additions to our business. Now, with the old stuff coming back, you’re just going to have more and more growth going on. I think you guys are looking at that the right way, as I knew you would, but I think you guys are looking at that the right way.

J.R. McCabe: Well thanks, we appreciate it. We’re trying hard, for you and for us alike, it’s an unprecedented moment, or moments. We have to also understand, as you said, whatever the new normal is, it’s not going to snap back immediately. I think a lot of what you’re seeing here is habit creation, and some things that will stay past whatever the new normal is. That means we need to be wherever the consumer is, with whatever engages and entertains them. Whether that’s the online ability for players to compete at high stakes, or whether that’s us, you and I, sitting down to be entertained with an original program. We just need to be very mindful of how consumers are going to participate going forward, not just for today but in this new normal, whatever that involves.

Ryan Knuppel: Yeah. We all love poker, we all love to talk poker. I love to play poker all the time. But, let’s shift gears a little bit, let’s shift over to esports, and talk a little bit about Estars Studio. The next generation of iGaming enthusiasts is going to be talking all about esports, that’s where the future is, that’s the hot space, especially right now.

Ryan Knuppel: I’d love to hear a little bit more about Estars Studios. For those listening that aren’t familiar, tell us a little bit more about what that is, and that space?

J.R. McCabe: Sure, sure. Estars Studios is under the Estars business. The Estars Studios is part of our world that produces what we think are some of the higher quality esports events, tournaments, and gameplay in the space. Essentially, we work with publishers, we work to create events. We then publish, distribute those events in the ecosystem that you know, includes the likes of Twitch, and YouTube Gaming, et cetera. The idea here is we’re looking to really create, inside this ecosystem, opportunities for gamers, players, fans alike, to consume best in breed content.

J.R. McCabe: As a part of that, what Estars Studios does is we really cherish the publishers’ brands and rights, and we really take care of them in a way that we think is leading edge. As a part of that, what Estars Studios also does is we created an event series, that’s a league like series, called the WSOE. It’s the World Showdown of Esports. If you will, Ryan, you think about it as a bracket challenge, regardless based on category and skill level. So, think of it as the NCAA March Madness bracket, or the UFC bracket by weight class. The WSOE can accommodate any game, for any player, in any game category.

J.R. McCabe: The whole vision there is that will be able to stand the test of time, regardless of what game is being played.

Ryan Knuppel: Sure.

J.R. McCabe: Estars Studios creates, and holds, and produces and distributes, and monetizes events, but we also have our own WSOE brand that we’ve built. We’re up to WSOE Seven as a numbered event, and WSOE Eight will be an in-person event as soon as we’re all able to have them.

J.R. McCabe: In the meantime, we’re pivoting there, as well, and we’re soon to come to the marketplace with WWSOE, which is the Women’s World Showdown of Esports.

Ryan Knuppel: Wow.

J.R. McCabe: We think there’s a very large market there, as well.

J.R. McCabe: That’s essentially, when you look at either in-person, online, and virtual, that’s how we look at the competitive gameplay business, and that’s why these two businesses make so much sense, between poker and esports.

Ryan Knuppel: Yeah, they really do. Both areas are really … You never want to think of the good things that are coming out of something that’s going on, like the Coronavirus, but if you look at it online poker and esports are both, I would say, booming right now. They’re both really gaining traction, they’re both getting a lot of attention, a lot of eyeballs. Kids all over the world playing esports, and my buddies all over the world are playing online poker. It’s just interesting to see, I guess, the silver lining for businesses like yourself, or businesses like others in the iGaming industry, that maybe can’t do the physical events, and the physical stuff, but seeing these virtual events really take shape has been, I guess, rewarding for a lot of us to see, as we go here. I love what you guys are doing with Estars Studio and pokerGO, so congrats.

J.R. McCabe: Thanks, I appreciate it.

Ryan Knuppel: Now, do you think the esports industry … I guess, what is your take on the industry as a whole? When we can start getting out and going, is this going to slowdown, and we’re going to start seeing esports come back to real life, I guess some people call it? Or, do you think this is really the beginning, and esports is here to stay, and it is not going away?

J.R. McCabe: Well, I would say I think esports is here to stay, period. I think this pandemic has put the esports world under a light, and a light’s been shined on it, that no one really expected. What I think will happen is I think a lot more people have been exposed to the sport, the esports in general, and I think you will see, naturally, peaks and valleys. You’ll see a huge peak of people who are consuming it, and then when others have to go back to their offices for day jobs, or have to travel, et cetera, you’ll see a little bit of a decrease, I’m sure, in consumption. But, it will not be back down to the levels pre the pandemic, because so many more people have been exposed.

J.R. McCabe: If you think of it, Ryan, as a mountain climber, up five or six steps, down one. Up three or four, down one. It’ll be that continued trajectory upward, is what I believe in. Because I think, I don’t know what a gamers’ going to play in 10 years, I don’t know what my son or my daughters will play in 15 years. What I do know is they’ll play something, and I believe that now, by the necessity of what culturally have happened, people have found esports more than ever.

J.R. McCabe: Take a look. Did you ever think you would see FIFA playing a virtual event? Did you ever think you’d see NBA 2K do 12 hours on ESPN. NHL Challenge was recently announced. F1 and NASCAR are doing virtual racing that Nevada Gaming’s approving. Did you ever think you’d see that?

Ryan Knuppel: Yeah.

J.R. McCabe: I think a lot of things have come to light, that will withstand whatever the new normal is. I think the exposure to the sport of esports will only do the industry, serve the industry well in the long term.

Ryan Knuppel: Amazing, amazing. What’s your take … I may be putting you on the spot a little bit here, but a lot of the listeners here probably come from the sports betting background, probably have a lot of betting in them. I’m curious what your take is on esports betting, and the future of that space? So, gambling around esports, that’s something that’s just now surfacing, state by state, and things like that. But, do you see that as something that’s going to be big over time, here?

J.R. McCabe: Oh, I do, 100% do. I think as long as the integrity of gameplay can be monitored and well judged, I think it’s there. I think what’s you’ve seen happening in Nevada with regulators recently, between what they’ve done with iRacing, and DOTA, and League, Overwatch, these are all things that the books can take action on now. I think you’re going to have limitations, right?

Ryan Knuppel: Sure.

J.R. McCabe: I think of some situation where you’re going to have betting on the winners overall, your match winners, and your head to head. You may not have the micro, the end game transactions, but I think the answer is yes. I think that, more and more, that esports becomes a virtual world, you’ll see additional books allowing it.

J.R. McCabe: I think it’s also going to be very interesting how legislation happens, and when it happens, based on the needs that each state is going to have, coming out of this pandemic. You’ve got state by state needs on taxation and revenue that I can’t even imagine how they’re going to fill those dollars without taxation on gaming and sports betting. So I think you’re going to see any opportunity that can have integrity alongside it, I think it’ll be considered more quickly than before.

Ryan Knuppel: Man, we’re listening to one of the sharpest and biggest advocates in the competitive game space, J.R. McCabe. Man J.R., this has been amazing, I definitely appreciate you being here.

Ryan Knuppel: What’s in the future for pokerGO, for Estars? Give us a little something, I know you’ve talked a little bit about what’s coming. But, anything in particular that you specifically want to call out, that you guys are looking at, I guess bring in, or you just want to bring awareness to the audience?

J.R. McCabe: Well, I appreciate it, Ryan, that’s very humbling. Thank you for the compliment, I’m glad to be here.

J.R. McCabe: I think, for us you will see us continue to double down in this space, in poker. We’re long on the business, we’re long on both experiential and in-person events, we’re long on the online space, and we’re long on the global growth. I think you’ll see us continue to acquire assets where we can, and where we can do that effectively, and where two plus two equals five, if you will. You can see us continue to grow there, you may see us have some announcements coming up on how we’re continuing to grow the business of poker, and our assets in the space.

J.R. McCabe: In esports, as I mentioned we’re going to get into the Women’s World Showdown of Esports, the WWSOE, will be a part of our future. I think you can see us look to some strategic partnerships, and we may even work with some other third parties to really help grow the sport, and the sport in general. Those are some of the things you can expect from us, in the next six to nine months.

Ryan Knuppel: Very cool, I can’t wait to see it all, I can’t wait to see what comes from you guys.

Ryan Knuppel: Hey, if anybody here listening wants to get a hold of you, or just have some questions for you, or maybe the company in general, where are they going to get a hold of you? What’s the best route to, I guess, get to J.R. McCabe?

J.R. McCabe: I will give your listeners my direct email, for whatever that’s worth. Here you go, it’s simply I don’t screen them, I read them all myself, and I try to respond in a timely fashion to everybody.

Ryan Knuppel: Awesome. We’ll put that in the show notes as well, we’ll make sure we link that up. You’ll get flooded with emails, J.R., I’m sure you’re able to hook up with all the … You’re not busy enough, you’ll have another set of emails that you get to deal with.

Ryan Knuppel: Well man, I really appreciate this, I appreciate your time. I know you’re busy. I love this, and I hope to be able to talk to you again in six to nine months, and really hear the growth that you’ve had with both sides of the company here, and I can’t wait to see where you go from here.

J.R. McCabe: Well thank you, we appreciate you, Ryan, and thanks for thinking about us. I’ll always make time, and I appreciate what you’re doing on the show. I’ll keep listening.

Ryan Knuppel: All right. Well, great. That was J.R. McCabe with pokerGO and Estars Studio. J.R., one last sign off, thank you for being here, appreciate it, and take care. Stay safe.

J.R. McCabe: Take care, stay safe.

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