In August of 2016, GAN announced it had signed a deal to partner with the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, owners of one of the most successful gaming enterprises in the world. The relationship was forged to launch GAN's proprietary social casino experience, Simulated Gaming(TM) for the 20 regional properties owned and operated by the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, which also serve Dallas and North Texas Metropolitan areas. Tribal casinos are an extremely important part of the United States casino ecosystem, and gaining a deep understanding of them is key in being able to operate in a wide a market as possible in the United States. To gain a more in-depth look at Tribal casinos, GAN's Dana Takrudtong and James Smurfit recently sat down with Victor Rocha- an expert in the space and Tribal member himself- to ask him some questions and gain some expert insight as to how and why certain Tribes are leaning into innovations beyond the gaming floor.
Victor is the principal of the newly formed Victor Strategies, a consulting firm with expertise in gaming operations, strategies and new ventures. Victor, along with partner Gene Johnson, paired their unique resumes together with the goal of impacting change in the gaming sector via a focus on enterprise innovation. Victor has long been the founder / editor of Pechanga.net, has been involved in the politics of Indian gaming since 1998, and has earned a number of awards for his work in the space. These include the National Indian Gaming Association's 2002 Outstanding Contribution to Indian Country, VCAT's 2001 Catalyst Award, Global Gaming Business Magazine's "40 under 40", Raving's 2012 Casino Marketing Lifetime Achievement Award and the AGA's Lifetime Achievement for Gaming Marketing. He is also the President of Victor Strategies, a unique professional firm providing expert advisory services and critical business insights to the gaming industry with a particular focus on Indian Country. The firm is dedicated to providing governments and industry leaders with the strategies, tools, data, and expertise essential for informed decision making and effective operations. V-S offers expert advisory services and the highest quality research and analysis capabilities in the gaming industry.
Dana: Hi Victor, thanks for sitting down with us today. To set the tone, we were hoping you would tell us a little about the history and importance of innovation driven from Tribes across the U.S.
Victor: Well, there is a long history of innovation among the Tribes, initially going back to the 90's in California and the creation of the California State lottery. Furthermore, the Tribes have a real claim of being the birthplace of video gaming technology. Necessity is the mother of invention: the Tribes started video lotteries (Class II gaming) out of need to complete and differentiate. When you're on a reservation, say in Southern California where there are 15-20 casinos in near proximity, you have to find a way to differentiate yourself. In addition, there was great incentive to be innovative with Class II as it provided the Tribes an escape valve from bureaucracy of Class III limitations. Innovation isn't just happening at the operational level but at the regulatory level as well. You can go out to Barona and see the gaming technology lab there, with people like Don Spears who have always embraced technology and innovation.
James: How have Tribes, often times single property operators, driving excellence in their standards of regulatory compliance?
Victor: The root of Tribal governance is one that is smaller and more responsive to the people. A regulatory structure with less bureaucracy and strong Tribal governance that is stable at the top allows Tribes to look to the future while keeping an eye on the casino as it exists today. Less bureaucracy promotes innovation which is rewarded with a healthy bottom line, and as such casinos have brought out the entrepreneurial side and spirit of the Tribes. In addition, the Tribes have both the NIGC and each other. One of the things the Tribes have learned in 25 years of gaming is the importance of having a strong regulatory system at the macro level of Indian Country for maintaining a quality casino gaming experience; which in turn is important to longevity. It's because of this that Tribal standards either meet or exceed the standards of commercial operations in place in almost all 50 states.
D: What can operators, vendors and suppliers do to be more Tribal-centric and further embrace the excellent opportunities afforded by working with Tribes?
V: The most important thing is being a good partner. Tribes didn’t get here solely by themselves; there were people they had in their corner who helped out and they are relied on. At the same time they can talk with people like myself to stay informed on what's happening in the industry. Look at what you have done in the sector as a technology and regulatory expert; we're all waiting to hear more about the undisclosed partner that you've contracted to provide a real money gaming website and services to in Europe. That deal shows Tribes can embrace new ways of doing things and that people are hungry for innovation. I think a wait-and-see attitude kills innovation and progress. Right now in the marketplace suppliers need to educate Tribes on what's available to them across brick and mortar as well as on online products to make Tribes comfortable with their complacency being disturbed and embrace trying new things.
D: Victor, I've been in the iGaming sector for nearly five years now, and Tribal casinos have not been the leaving innovators here. Larger commercial groups have made significant M&A plays, while the majority of Tribes have taken a wait-and-see attitude to the iGaming / social sectors. What are your thoughts on Tribal engagement across digital and other non-traditional categories?
V: Honestly there is an overarching complacency that really frustrates me, and a lot of what I've been doing in the last four years is trying to move the tribes into new paths and get them away from the mentality that the success they've seen on their casino floors will last forever. When the rest of the industry is moving forward and talking about new opportunities, like eSports, the Tribes are still talking about iPoker. In a certain sense I think there is almost an emotional attachment to the brick and mortar space, because of the success and revenue that has been provided through them. What I try and remind them of is that there is money left on the table- we can't simply stop time and shouldn't be cutting off our nose to spite our face. On the flip side, I think the good news is that the Tribes are taking their customers more seriously than commercial casinos are, as Tribes usually only have one location and one chance to succeed. That means they have more at stake if they make the wrong decision... the wrong investment...so in a sense I appreciate why they historically moved with a slow caution. That caution will have to be balanced with acknowledging that the world, and the competition - such online social casinos provided by major suppliers- are very QUICKLY looking to take a chunk of their players wallet and Tribes don't have all the time in the world to respond.
J: What kind of growth are you expecting to see for the Tribal market over the next few years as it pertains to social gaming acceptance? Also are there any particular Tribal markets you think will be more interesting than others?
V: I'm still surprised the acceptance hasn't been as big to date, with social media being the first big wave, but there is such a big market out there to tap. I really don't see any social gaming advertising yet and in honesty it's almost like it doesn't exist. However, once you see television commercial and billboard ads in California, Orange County and Los Angeles to 20 million people, then you'll know the tribes are backing this. I believe Tribes need to move away from just lifestyle commercials and start backing this in more meaningful ways. Once they start spending money pushing a meaningful social gaming presence it will be a real game changer as then everyone will see it and you'll start knowing the metrics of measuring success. At the same time, as pertains to media it can be a little monkey see monkey do and the market can be unimaginative and allergic to change. Tribes have yet to fully and meaningfully integrate social into their businesses and I think that's the point we're now waiting for. In terms of specific Tribal markets I'm keeping an eye on both Oklahoma and California, and I think in particular Oklahoma is going to be fascinating, though California will probably be the first to move online.
Returning to the original point- Tribes didn't get here by themselves; it's because of people with good minds and good hearts we've gotten where we are, and now that we've gotten here we rely on those same great people who've been in our corner to inform and educate us. This is about Tribes and Vendors sharing success together, sharing stories and then educating other tribes. The important thing is showing progress and that new ways of doing things can work, though of course this doesn't mean there won't be bumps in the road. In the long run what's really going to kill all of us is a wait and see attitude and not being willing to try new things. Much more innovation is coming down the road with things like augmented reality and virtual reality, and it's time for Tribes to try and share and pull each other up.
As mentioned above, GAN recognizes the importance and opportunity provided by the Tribes in the Gaming industry, which is why this year GAN partnered with the Chikasaw Nation to launch a social casino experience developed on GAN’s proprietary Simulated Gaming™ platform designed specifically for US land-based casino operators. You can read more about GAN's partnership with the Chikasaw nation by clicking here.
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