When you think of casinos you think of Las Vegas, of Caesars Palace and the dancing fountains at the Bellagio. You think of slots machines and blackjack tables, and the attractive dealers who flirt with you in-between hands. Then there’s the round the clock partying, the bars and nightclubs and stunning showgirls that have earned the desert town its nickname the City of Sin. But times are changing, and in a nondescript building in the Latvian town of Riga, a new type of casino experience is threatening the existence of land-based gambling Meccas the world over.
The rise of online and mobile gaming has been a major contributing factor to falling casino visitor numbers; Vegas strip revenues have tumbled 14% from 2007 to 2015 to $11.1bn. In comparison, online gambling has become a multi-billion-pound industry in the UK alone, driven primarily by the convenience it offers. Players can now get their fix from home or while on the go; whether commuting to work, slouching on the sofa, or sat on the toilet. Roulette, blackjack, poker, slots, they are all just a screen swipe away. But playing casino games on your iPad does have some drawbacks, particularly when it comes to socialisation.
Live casino, however, offers a hybrid between real-world and online gambling, allowing players to interact with a human dealer while still being able to access their favorite games online. The tables are real, as are the cards and the roulette wheels. The studio in Riga is owned by Evolution Gaming, which offers its live dealer solution to some of the world’s largest online gambling sites. But online casino pioneer 888casino is the only operator to have its own dedicated live casino space at the studio, and with a total of 52 tables is the same size as a mid-tier Vegas resort.
To understand why live casino is so popular with players, it’s worth talking a look behind the scenes of of 888casino’s studio in Riga. The first thing that stands out is the tech; the tables are covered by high-tech, high-def cameras. Roulette tables carry up to 15 cameras each, allowing players to switch between various angles as well as watching the action in slow motion if they want to crank up the anticipation even further. Each table also has microphones so that dealers can speak directly to players, as they would on the casino floor.
The studio is decked out like a real-world casino. The tables are set in clusters for each type of game, with the dealers dressed in traditional outfits. The males look smart in their shirts and ties, while their female colleague’s dresses are on the right side of suggestive. The tables are set against backdrops that can be changed depending on the game; some replicate casinos in Macau, others London and Vegas. The ambient noise is authentic too, from the cards being swiped across the felt to the roulette ball rattling round the wheel. When viewed through a computer screen or mobile device, it looks very convincing indeed.
While the tech used to capture and stream the live action to desktops and devices around the world is undoubtedly impressive, so too are the dealers themselves. 888casino has a dedicated training academy, which ensures dealers are qualified to the same rigorous standards found in land-based casinos in Macau and Vegas. They are also taught how to perform live in front of the camera while still ensuring the integrity of the game is not brought into doubt. For tables with multiple cameras, dealers need to be able to switch between them with the ease of a seasoned talk show host.
But what is playing live casino actually like? The answer: strangely thrilling. Armed with a log in for 888casino, I easily find the live casino tab on the main site and click it. A new window opens and offers me the choice of six games. I’m not a particularly proficient gambler, but understand the basic rules of blackjack. I go through to another lobby, with all the different blackjack games on offer – from low stakes (50p to £100) all the way through to the Grand VIP table where you can play up to £10,000 a hand. Yikes. If you hover your mouse over each table and a picture of the dealer comes up. Jelana looks nice, so I click to join.
A screen opens up showing Jelena sat at a blackjack table. She says hello to me, and asks me to place my bet. Which I do, £10. The other players do likewise, bets are closed, then Jelena deals the cards. I get a 10 of Clubs and a 2 of Spades. 12. She asks me if I’d like another card. “No rush, take your time,” she tells me. I decide to go for it, hit me. 5 of Diamonds. That’s 17. I stick. The other players take their turn, sticking or hitting as they see fit. The dealer’s cards are 8 of Spades and 4 of Clubs. 12 also. Jelena slides her next card out. King of Spades. Dealer bust. “Congratulations,” she says. “You are very lucky, well done.”
Jelena then removes the cards from the table, and asks us all to place our next bets. A clock appears in the right hand corner of the screen, and begins to count down from 10. We all then place our next round of bets. During the next few hands I notice a chat box on the left hand side of the screen where players can communicate with each other as well as the dealer. I ask Jelena how she is today. She replies, in real life, that she is good; and I realise just how cool the whole thing actually is.
After half an hour or so I can see the appeal of live casino. Online gambling can often be seen as a solitary activity, a little bit sad even. You imagine someone locked away in their bedroom for hours on end holding out for the roulette ball to land on black. But having a human dealer changes the dynamic of the game entirely. You feel fully immersed in the casino experience; it’s fun, exciting, social and, dare I say it, a little bit addictive. It’s so accessible and easy to play, you just log-in or open the app and away you go. Then, once you’re done, you simply leave the table and that’s that.
Online gambling may never be able to match the experience of playing in a real-world casino, but the rise of live casino is certainly closing the gap. The internet has changed the world we live in, and continues to do so. Like many other activities and industries, the future of gambling is online and particularly on mobile and tablet devices. Live casino offers the best of both worlds, and for the land-based resorts in Macau and Las Vegas, is one of the biggest threats to their long-term sustainability. I probably won’t be jumping on a flight to Sin City any time soon, but I’ll certainly re-join Jelena’s blackjack table now that I’ve finished writing this.