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    How Mark Balestra and iGNA are advancing online gaming in the U.S.

    Posted by Marco Valerio March 28, 2012

    After co-founding iGaming North America in 2011, BolaVerde Media Group director Mark Balestra plays an important role in uniting and educating the industry.

    In 2011, a team of representatives from four different companies – Steven Rittvo (The Innovation Group), Tony Cabot (Lewis and Roca LLP), Sue Schneider (eGamingBrokerage) and Mark Balestra (BolaVerde Media Group) joined forces to organize the inaugural iGaming North America conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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    Over a +15 year long career in interactive gaming, Mark Balestra had been a longtime collaborator of Sue Schneider at the River City Group, a publisher with Clarion Gaming, and an advisor to numerous conferences including the Global Gaming Expo (G2E) and the Global Interactive Gaming Summit and Expo (GIGSE).

    With iGaming North America, however, Balestra and his colleagues were trying to create a unique foundation. “We had it in our heads that it would be great to do something for the igaming industry in North America. We had done a lot of events in Canada, and had moved things around to Europe at one point,” Balestra told The Gaming World on March 27, 2012. “In around 2007 and 2008, things started coming together in the United States, and the time had become right to base an event in the U.S. focused on interactive gambling.”

    As the co-founder and co-director of what became known as iGNA, which held its second conference earlier this month (March 2012), Balestra and his team are helping to bring the online gaming industry together in the United States at one of its most defining periods.

    This puts Balestra in a position to intimately witness the behind-the-scenes of the gaming world. Things are already looking quite distinct than they did as recently as one year ago, in 2011, when the first iGNA event took place hardly a few weeks after April 15. Black Friday was certainly one of the turning points and may have cast a shadow over much of the 2011 conference. But this year, the legal momentum that has been taking place since then was the real star of the show.

    EURO-AMERICAN RELATIONS

    “There are always certain developments taking place in the industry that take precedence in the conference discussions, regardless of how the program is designed. One of the big themes this year was the DOJ letter, which became public in December and certainly remained a story to be looked at for how it will affect the industry in the next several months.”

    Sometimes the conference must not only catch up with the most recent developments preceding it, but adapt to breaking ones during it. This was definitely the case when Las Vegas-based Shuffle Master Inc. announced on Monday, March 5 – in the middle of day 2 of iGNA 2012 – that it had officially acquired the poker network Ongame. But Balestra and the team were prepared.

    “The formal announcement brought up a great discussion point through the conference, because it was a sign of things to come – the merging of European networks and U.S. vendors, a trend worth noticing. We had Ongame at our conference as an exhibitor, and Shuffle Master on the program. Therefore, we didn’t have to see completely unrelated sessions get hijacked by the discussions that had to take place.” (OnGame CEO Peter Bertilsson and Shuffle Master Chief Strategy Officer Louis Castle and Executive Vice President Katie Lever were all panelists at separate sessions throughout the event.)

    Most of these alliances between American and European companies are pretty straightforward, says Balestra. “When you look at it as a marketplace, the Europeans are there to sell to the Americans. Europe has been doing igaming for fifteen years now. That’s where the experience, the tactical knowledge, and the products are. Then you’ve got your gaming companies in the U.S. that are newer to igaming and are seeking either partnerships or acquisitions, or licensing, with existing vendors.”

    With so many of these partnerships being announced seemingly faster than can be kept track of, how can we tell them apart? “If you are a U.S.-based vendor right now, you’re looking for what you don’t have. Many of these American companies have good technology, but not necessarily the ability to market it properly. For some it may be a question of certain types of games, or eventually optimizing the structure and functionality of a network. Some U.S. companies are emerging as vendors, and the trend will eventually change, but for now, you will continue to see people come over from Europe. We definitely saw an increase in European representation this year.”

    STATE OF PREPARATION AND SOCIAL MEDIA

    On the level of comprehension of online gaming by the same American companies which have shunned it for years, Balestra agrees that the unpreparedness is often self-evident. This is not, however, a terrible or incurable thing. “Their understanding of it right now is surprisingly low. Online gaming is actually something that’s been coming for a long time, yet you’re just now seeing some people quickly trying to get ready as if it just snuck up on them. There are exceptions, a handful who really know what’s going on, but an alarmingly large amount making up the rest do not really have the knowledge base you would expect. But I don’t necessarily look at it as ignorance. It’s a learning process, and something they will have to become more comfortable with over time. That is what iGaming North America is trying to provide.”

    Mark Balestra has demonstrated a particular curiosity in social media, a subject which he admits he does not understand perfectly yet, but wants to learn more about. This might explain why he conveniently appointed himself moderator of a session dedicated exclusively to social media’s role in online gaming, during which he could pick the brains of Twitter virtuosa Scarlet Robinson (Rungood Gaming) and Chief Information Officer Hai Ng (Continent 8 Technologies). With social media exerting an enormous online influence, anyone serious about online gaming must become familiar with it, and Balestra understands this, as does most of the industry. “However, while virtually everybody recognizes how important social media is, and how it will have to be part of their strategy, most of them don’t really understand how or even why. I find myself in the learning position just as much as the audience in this respect.”

    Balestra also mentions another frequent point of consensus from the conference, and that is the role which will be played by social gaming. “A very significant role could be played by the media and entertainment entities that aren’t necessarily gambling related. These would be forces which have the eyeballs, the traffic on the Internet, and are already very successful with what they do. For instance, everybody talked about Zynga all week at the conference. I cannot claim to know what Zynga’s intentions are, but everyone was trying to figure it out: what is going to happen when Zynga does this or that? How is it going to pan out? Are we going to have to compete with them, or partner with them?”

    THE FUTURE OF THE CONFERENCE

    In the end, much like the brick-and-mortar industry worries if online gaming will negatively affect live performance, Balestra takes into account the impact which developing communications technology will have on live conferences such as iGNA. However, he is far from anxious.

    “I don’t think you’ll ever be able to replace the value and importance of face-to-face contact. Just like the gambling industry is learning that online gaming will not damage, but rather enhance and complement the live experience, I think that’s what we will also see with the conferences.”

    “We are looking at interactive communications technologies as ways to enhance the experience, and there are a lot of ways to do that. We are also going to connect with networking technology that will enable the attendees to find and communicate with each other, before the event, during it and after. That is one area where we’ll be making major changes for iGaming North America 2013.”

    To learn more about iGaming North America, visit its website at www.igamingnorthamerica.com. You can follow iGNA on Twitter @ignaconf, and view its Facebook page here.

    QuadJacks – Wednesday, March 28, 2012

    About Marco Valerio

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