For many businesses 2020 has been a troublesome year, with lockdowns pushing a distressing number of companies to close their doors for good. However, problems for some are opportunities for others, and with our social lives IRL (in real life) curtailed, online businesses have flourished.

The headline stories of lockdown success tend to focus on the likes of Netflix, Zoom, and Amazon as populations around the world turned to streaming to keep themselves entertained and shifted to buying from online retailers instead of risking the high street. However, the successes have not been limited to a handful of household name technology companies, with numerous online-focused businesses growing rapidly over the last nine months, from independent coffee roasters meeting the needs of coffee drinkers missing Starbucks to online gambling outlets that offer people another way to unwind.

Following a global trend, UK poker sites registered record visitor numbers between March and May of this year, with the industry attracting back established players alongside thousands of new signups. Indeed, the scale of growth in the sector prompted a discussion over new regulations in parliaments and the Gambling Commission to publish additional guidance during the period so that operators could safely and responsibly meet the soaring demand.

Online poker’s second wave

Online poker rose to prominence in the early 2000s after Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 World Series of Poker after just a $40 (£30) buy-in, and demonstrated to millions of people that poker could be a lucrative game that could be played from home.

However, despite huge sponsorship deals and late-night television shows around the world, the first online poker boom came to a screeching halt when then President George W Bush introduced the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) in 2006. The legislation outlawed many such gambling activities and a number of leading operators, such as PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker had their US assets seized for processing what had suddenly become illegal transactions.

Online poker continued to be legal elsewhere around the world, with the European and Asian markets becoming the focus of the industry throughout the 2010s. But without the US market the poker industry never regained the hype and explosive growth of the early 2000s until the pandemic changed the game.

Looking forward after a winter lockdown

As the first lockdown was eased this business boom stalled, but with England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland now back into another lockdown all signs point to a resurgence of online gambling activity. However, with sporting fixtures permitted to continue during this winter lockdown, it is likely that online poker establishments will see a smaller jump in visitors, as sports betting remains available unlike during the spring and early summer, and the growth will likely be shared more broadly across the gambling sector.

2020 is likely to be a record-breaking year for online gambling firms, with poker and casino sites some of the biggest winners. However, industry figures are less optimistic about the middle or long-term prospects of the sector once the pandemic is brought under control and life returns to “normal”. Part of this will be that gamblers will split their loyalties between poker sites and sports betting, but more that people will likely return to a broad range of entertainment activities, with the real world once again offering a wealth of options to be explored.

The question for online gambling firms in 2021, therefore, will not be how to attract new signups so much as how can convince people to continue playing their games online when there is once again so much to do and so many people to see in real life.

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