Call of Duty: Black Ops 3

Games Millennials Play

Casinos bet on video games to get a younger generation in the door

In the past two years, as gaming revenues stubbornly refuse to return to prerecession levels, many voices within the industry have sounded an alarm: Something needs to be done. Casinos’ past bread and butter—customers in their 50s and older—are aging and may not have as much wealth as they once did. If nothing is done, casinos in general might end up looking like Atlantic City, minus the refreshing sea breeze.

So, leaving Generation X, who are entertaining themselves by binge-watching old X Files episodes and reminiscing about Beavis and Butthead, casinos have jumped to millennials to save the day.

Millennials—technically those born between 1980 and 2000, but more generally anyone younger and more tech-savvy than whoever is running things—started aging onto casinos’ radar about a decade ago (today they are 16 to 36 years old). Past millennial outreach efforts have included nightlife (great for those who can afford bottle service prices) and social media (an already crowded arena).

The real issue, though, is that millennials might just not be interested in the existing offerings on the casino lazy Susan. Card games, dice games, slot machines—each of which are frankly more expensive forms of entertainment than most have a budget for—might not have the appeal in 2016 that they did in 2000, let alone 1980. The last major shake-up for casinos was the migration from tables to slots as chief revenue producer, and that was more than 30 years ago.

Casinos are hoping to bank on one thing millennials love: video games. Affinity Gaming is partnering with LEET, which has been running weekly video game tournaments at the Downtown Grand since last year (see “E-sports Start to Take Hold of Casinos’ Imaginations,” May 25, 2016), to make Sunday a night for a different kind of gaming at its Silver Sevens’ Corona Cantina bar. Since September 30, players have had a chance to win money at games including Madden NFL, FIFA, Call of Duty and Rocket League.

The off-Strip Silver Sevens, far from the Strip’s bustle and the Downtown buzz, might seem like a strange incubator for this marriage between casino and keyboard, but that’s precisely why it is happening there.

“We would like very much to appeal to millennials,” says Vincent Lentini, chief marketing officer for Affinity Gaming. He describes the Silver Sevens’ average customer as a 55-year-old slot player—close to the norm for casinos—and notes that while 70 percent of customers are residents of the surrounding three miles, guests from as far as Scandinavia frequently stay at the hotel.

LEET co-founder Carson Knuth talks about the tournaments as a millennial bridge for a property more associated with its bingo and buffet.

“They can come in, play the games they love and get to love the Silver Sevens,” he says, adding that the casino gets exposure to “a huge, fickle and underserved audience.” Thus far, the tournaments have skewed heavily male, in the 21-to-34 age range. That’s the coveted millennials right there, and if female gamers haven’t been out en masse, most players do bring friends and partners to balance the gender mix a bit.

The first event drew eight players; the most recent attracted more than 40 attendees. Lentini says his goal is to bring in 25 to 30 tournament players each week, and around 80 guests.

Right now, the $15 admission fee is barely enough to cover the prize pool, if that; Silver Sevens is benefiting from ancillary nongaming spend. But Lentini sees a time when pari-mutuel wagering on the tournaments will add a gaming component to the event. And, once successful, it will go beyond the Silver Sevens.

“This is an alpha/beta test,” he says, “for other properties nationwide.” Affinity has casinos in three states outside of Nevada, with additional outposts in Sparks and a trio of properties at Primm. This, Lentini thinks, could be a great place to expand. “Our 6,000-seat arena,” he says, “would be a great place for a huge championship tournament.” There’s even a chance that Generation X might be invited; Lentini talks about possibly offering a Sega Genesis tournament for those who coordinated their eyes and hands on Tecmo Super Bowl and NHL’94.

At its core, the tournament seems to be a value proposition that could resonate with millennials and others. $15 will get you a guaranteed two hours of play with a group of like-minded enthusiasts. That money probably wouldn’t last 15 minutes on a slot machine.

What casinos offer has always shifted. Affinity and LEET are showing one way that it will continue to do so. The lessons they learn will no doubt inspire others.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.