EO Bill Carstanjen said that his company’s existing online operations through Twin Spires and Luckity needed a complementary boost from “a much bigger platform, much broader scope,” and that was achieved by entering the social gaming and casual mobile sectors.
“Luckity taught us that having a good game isn’t enough,” Carstanjen said. “We learned it’s not enough to have one game. We need to have a portfolio, and the ability to produce and create efficiently, consistently, regularly. The ability to market and understand if marketing is working.”
The decision was made to buy a company that could build and cross-promote all types of games, he said.
Big Fish was selected because it delivers around 450 mobile games in virtually every genre…with another 20 expected to launch this year.
Carstanjen told Kentucky.com that social casinos are a relatively new phenomenon, one that has burgeoned with the technology shift to smartphones and tablets.
“Free-to-play is a constantly changing, evolving, dynamic space,” Carstanjen said. “In recent years, gamers have moved away from playing on PCs to mobile, and away from premium games that are paid for up front to those where they can improve their experience as they wish.
“And within that genre, there are constant changes going on with the types of games they want to play.”
The Churchill Downs CEO said that the Gummy Drop game had been especially successful, rising steadily in the ranks of most popular social games and delivering growing revenue.
On a recent day, Gummy Drop was number nine in the App store’s Top Grossing Apps, while Big Fish Casino was number six, he said.
Carstensen also noted the increased capacity to sell other products to more eyeballs that social gaming brings to the table.
“That’s important to Big Fish because we can leverage the portfolio of customers and we constantly introduce to customers of one genre other types of games. And we’ve found pretty consistent success to doing that.
“Many (players) have very set preferences, but they like to look at new things, like to try new things. There’s plenty of cross pollination that happens and that’s a big advantage with Big Fish.”
Adam Krejcik, a consultant with Eilers Research, told Kentucky.com that social casino gaming delivers very predictable revenue streams that have steadily increased, and that Big Fish is already biggest in terms of revenue.
“It will be the most valuable because it’s also growing very nicely,” he said. “It’s profitable, and it’s a recurring and predictable revenue stream as well. The social casino category, unlike lots of others, has retention and longevity because there’s no start to finish to these games.”
Krejchik observed that the Big Fish casino app has characteristics of social apps in that players upload pictures, chat, and play at certain hours just because other friends are present. He said that this popularity made for big numbers, from which even a small percentage converted to real-money action ensured success.
Another analyst, Joost van Dreunen of SuperDataResearch, explained Big Fish’s success, attributing it to an above average ability to retain customers.
“People come back because something is there that appeals outside the game,” he said. “What Big Fish does well is to funnel down the social layer. It makes playing the game just an excuse to be there.”
While spending in social games in general is low – less than 2 percent will pay and the average they pay is about $20 – in the social casino games, that amount is two to three times more, with an average of around $60, Van Dreunen said.
Earlier this year Churchill Downs revealed that Big Fish generated Q4-2014 in-app payments up $23.9 million, or 33 percent y-o-y, so its first quarter 2015 earnings due out at the end of this (April) month are likely to make compelling industry reading.
Social casino gaming demographics are interesting: According to Krejcik, most are 40-50 years old, female, and with a very high overlap among people who play slots at casinos. Bingo games are similar, but table games and poker are more favoured by younger males.
Legalised online gambling proper in the United States will be a welcome bonus, Carstanjen opined in the Kentucky.com interview.
“The casual games, social casinos, are real markets, established markets, that are going to be around and strong areas of interest well into the future,” he said. “If we get the additional opportunity to have real money franchises in the U.S., that’s a bonus, and we’ll be looking to harvest those types of opportunities as well.”
In the meantime, social casino gaming is booming, and is described by the Churchill Downs chief executive as “…an extremely large market, and it’s getting awful close to being as big as horse racing.”
Kentucky.com reports that the comparison with horse racing may have a way to go yet. Last year, about $10.5 billion was wagered on horse racing in North America. Spending on social games in the U.S.A. alone in March was about $150 million, according to SuperDataResearch…and the market is growing by an estimated 20 percent a year globally.
However, the global mobile games market is estimated at $30 billion in 2015, rising to $40 billion by 2017.
“It’s a big world and lot of people playing, and you have the whole world to find customers,” Carstanjen said. “Add them all together and you get a pretty good business.”