Hollywood Casino has been at the forefront of several arms of gambling expansion. It accepted the state’s first sports bet. HollywoodCasino.com was the first casino site to take a bet. And, it was the first PA online casino to get listed in the Apple App Store, too.
Yet, it seems Hollywood gets lost in the conversation.
Not only is there no online sportsbook yet, but sister property The Meadows is stealing the spotlight thanks to its DraftKings’ deal. On the online casino revenue front, Hollywood remains in the last place — for the moment.
Thanks to a new deal with IGT and a forward-thinking approach to its online casino app, Hollywood may be behind the curve now. PlayPennsylvania spoke with the interim general manager of iCasino for Penn Interactive Ventures, Rich Criado, about how the tortoise could be poised to beat the hare sooner rather than later.
Hollywood Casino iPhone library about to triple
Hollywood’s listing in the Apple App Store was a victory, certainly. It initially was a moral rather than a financial one though. The app launched with just five titles. It is worth noting one game, Game King video poker, did feature nine variations of the game.
Since then, the library has grown to 12 titles. Criado admits that the library leaves a lot to be desired at the moment. Thankfully, he said, the iPhone app is about to get much better:
“We are going to have an update going live in mid-October. We will basically triple the size of our library. We will be live with a lot of IGT games and are actually bringing NetEnt games into the fold, which we are really excited about.”
IGT games bring fan favorites to an online platform
The other good news for Hollywood is that IGT has some of the most popular and recognized titles in the business. Video poker is a great example.
“Game King is huge. It’s very popular. A great land-based game that players can also play online. That’s really the advantage of the IGT library. All their great content is available on land. A lot of players we have on our site our from our land-based properties, so there is a lot of great game title recognition,” Criado said.
The addition of IGT blackjack is a big boon for Hollywood, too. Since launching a month ago, the game is the most popular option on HollywoodCasino.com.
Each of the three online casinos is struggling to add games. The fault doesn’t reside with the casinos though. Nor is the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB) to blame.
Wire Act, Apple guidelines slowing PA online casino growth
Operators, game providers, and the PGCB all dealt with multiple curveballs. The new Wire Act opinion threatened to shutter online operations altogether. Then a change to Apple guidelines forced the entire industry to improvise.
When it comes to the latter, casinos approached the issue from several angles. The problem at the heart of the Apple guideline change is that gaming apps need to be coded entirely on iOS. For gambling companies, this change, and its Sept. 5 deadline, was a huge problem. The standard for casino apps has always been HTML5, so shifting everything to iOS was a big ask.
These two hiccups make a market with an oppressively high 54% tax rate on slots all the more difficult to thrive in. Even with the setbacks, Pennsylvania is still a market everyone is eager to be in. Which means iPhones and Wire Act be damned; these companies are going to find solutions.
Hollywood playing the long game on iPhone front
When it came to Apple, SugarHouse and Rivers opted to employ a browser-based solution with GeoComply. Hollywood, on the other hand, decided to go all-in early.
“A lot of the industry was focused on delaying Apple’s deadlines or looking for other workarounds. We just decided to go right out the gate into building the native app,” Criado explained.
Thankfully for Penn Interactive, it was only beginning to build an app when the Apple problems started. Initially, it was using HTML5, but with a finite amount of time and resources, Criado and the team made a strategic decision.
“Rather than trying to find a workaround, I know GeoComply held many calls with the industry, we just said no,” he said. “Let’s just pour our attention and limited resources on building a native app because we know that is where Apple is going to go.”
Hence, this is how Hollywood managed to gain crucial entry in the App Store. And, therefore, how the app did so with a paltry number of titles.
That is alright by Criado, who expects this slow start will pay off in the long-term.
“Eventually we [will] build that back up over time and be ahead of the game from an Apple perspective.”
Blame the lack of games in PA on the Wire Act
When the new interpretation of the Wire Act came out at the start of 2019, it wasn’t clear just how dangerous it would be. Now, momentum in the courts is on gaming’s side. When the DOJ released the new Wire Act take, PGCB and others developed contingency plans to ensure compliance no matter what happened.
As part of this process, PGCB asked all online casinos to submit plans to prove full compliance with the DOJ’s new, restrictive opinion. The biggest element to address in these plans was servers.
Not just operator servers either. Game providers also had to relocate server plans to be within Pennsylvania, which was not part of the initial plans for any PA casino site.
“The original plan for PA was for the content providers to leverage their real gaming servers in NJ,” according to Criado.
“That really pushed back a lot of the content vendors’ timelines. It’s not that we don’t want a content library of hundreds of games. We do. It’s really just that the content providers have to stand up entirely new servers in Pennsylvania. We had planned to go live with more content than we have currently.”
If you’re unclear what Criado means by content vendors, those are companies like IGT and NetEnt that provide game titles to online casinos. Most of them have servers up and running in New Jersey, where online gambling has been legal for years. Sharing those servers with PA sites made sense until the Wire Act made the idea of any online casino crossing state lines much less tenable.
For players, the bottom line is that these server delays are the culprit of why the Pennsylvania casino libraries pale in comparison to New Jersey. It amounts to more than turning on and off a switch. The PGCB betting process, per Criado, is no more or less arduous than any other regulated market.
Hollywood partnerships will pay off in the long-term
With the complications facing game vendors in Pennsylvania, a partnership like Hollywood’s with IGT becomes even more important. Currently, only NetEnt and IGT are operational in PA. Hollywood is currently the only online site that offers games from both.
Hollywood’s August numbers were not astonishing. However, the casino is starting to rack up the kinds of differentiators that should lead to a bigger market share. Hollywood has had its fair share of firsts, but when it comes to online casinos, the company is banking on slow and steady winning the race.