Interview With Neil Walker: A Live Casino Comparer

niel walker cyclingToday we are thrilled to talk to Neil Walker as part of our interview series.  Neil is casino veteran from long before the online revolution and when online casino games first came around he was distinctly unimpressed.  That was until he was introduced to live casino games online.

Neil started to play these games in 2011 and is now passionate about live dealer games running a leading comparison site that helps players understand how live casinos work under the bonnet, how to get the best out of them and where is best to play based on players preferences.

Neil goes far beyond other affiliates in this niche, for example, he has visited many live casino studios to gain understanding about how they operate behind the scenes.

Hi Neil, can you give us a little bit of background on yourself and how you got involved with the gambling industry?

I’m just about to turn 60!, and live in the South East of England. I have a wife and two grown up kids, I play Golf and now Road Cycle since needing to give up Skiing because I need a new right knee!

Work wise, I had a 30 year career in IT before being made redundant in 2013, when friend who was an Affiliate said I should try it out.

I didn’t know much about being an affiliate but he showed me the ropes and I helped him out with running an existing site before starting my own, LiveCasinoComparer.

You worked in IT for a long time.  Why did you decide to leave and what skills from your previous life have been most useful in your new role?

I got made redundant, which is why I left. Apart from tech skills, which I’ve used a bit, the majority of my experience was in Management, Budgets, Risk Management, Service delivery and Security – which I’ve used in my role as an affiliate.

Knowing how to run and manage a business has prevented me from making mistakes and being able to manage relationships with others (Aff programs, software developers etc).

What made you choose live casino games as your major niche?

It was suggested to me that I pick something that I would enjoy researching and writing about. I didn’t like slots, and sports just looked too big.

Live Casino was just becoming popular and I already played Blackjack and Texas Hold’em in land based casinos so I had an interest there already.

I was also advised to go niche, so Live Dealer was perfect.

Can you tell us about your site, LiveCasinoComparer, and what the main features and services are?

I like to go above and beyond normal reviews. I’m keen to explore behind the scenes so players can see how the games are created and presented. A review is just a review, there are millions of casinos reviews, so I don’t spend much time on those, I’m more interested in reading and creating content on the games and games manufacturers.

I also like providing guidance on how to play the games and making the most of your Bankroll. The sort of stuff I’d look for. In the beginning the content I created was geared towards what I discovered rather than trying to target players and calls to action. I’ve kept to that ethos pretty much.

You operate largely as a one-man band, why is that, do you see yourself expanding in the future?

I’m a life style affiliate, so my leisure time is more important to me than work. It works out about 60-40 in favour of work / life balance at the moment. I don’t want staff and the hassle that has and I don’t need to set the world on fire.

I’ve done all that in my IT Career. I’m happy ticking along doing what I do. I certainly won’t be expanding by myself, but if someone came in with an offer to buy my site I’d certainly enter into a conversation if the price or terms were right.

How much do you think live casino games are a substitute for the real thing?  What are the pros and cons of live casino games vs land-based game?

The online games are slicker, quicker and have real time auditing, so in terms of comparisons, online live dealer games are far more advanced than their land-based counterparts. However, they lack the atmosphere and crowd appeal that land-based table games give you.

We’re now seeing some of the online live dealer gameshows being installed in land-based casinos – so you can now play Crazy Time and Lightning Roulette at land –based casinos!

Some people think live games online might be more likely to be fixed, what you would you say to those people?

There will always be people who think the games are fixed, no matter what evidence you present to the contrary. I’m tired of trying to help these people. They’ll believe what they want to believe.

You’re less likely to find a fixed game online than you are in a land-based casino – where players have direct access to cards and the tables. The level of monitoring at every level of a game and the presenters is off the chart. The monitoring tools are comprehensive to keep the games clean, while also monitoring player behaviours for fraud and risk management purposes – including responsible gambling.

I’ve yet to see anything in my behind the scenes visits to suggest that anything is amiss. A ball bouncing strangely in a roulette wheel isn’t odd, it’s what happens in real life and doesn’t mean a game is fixed.

What is your favourite live casino game and why?

I’m a Blackjack player at heart. I also love Ultimate Texas Hold’em. I play Crazy Time for fun – it’s the most brilliant game ever, for all sorts of reason – a one in a million!

You make the effort to travel to live casino studios.  What are they like on the inside, are they all the same, are there any insights you can share with us?

They are pretty much all the same. Some are tidier than others, and you don’t get to see the mess of cables and cameras when you’re playing online.

They are very much like a computer data center – so lots of air conditioning, underfloor cabling, multiple power and data supplies. Generally a couple of control rooms monitor the infrastructure and every game. There is a help desk which supports the game presenters and one for the customers.

Generally the studios are in converted office blocks or warehouses, but some are purposes built. They must cost millions. Outside of the studios there are the staff facilities, makeup rooms, training areas, rest areas, restaurants.

Many live casino studios are based in Eastern Europe and locations where it may be cheaper to employ people.  Do you think that is the major factor that determines this or are there other reasons why studios based themselves where they do?

You’ve got it spot on. The other reason is licensing. So a country or state in the US says that you can only provide games if they are transmitted from within the country or state.

This ensures local employment and of course taxes remain in the country.

Are live games really that different between different sites and studios?  Are they not all ultimately the same?

These days the core games are nearly all the same. It’s the small details that make the differences when you play them, like quality of the staff, the video stream.

The rules and payouts tend to be the same now, but you can find the odd difference which is what I highlight on my site.

What is your favourite live casino studio or studios if you cannot pick just one?

That’s a tricky one. In terms of scale, Evolution and Playtech have big studios. Imagine Live are building a very big studio setup in Armenia.

The trend now tends to be smaller studios, as it adds resilience to a suppliers network. For example some studios had to shut during Covid, but games could still be transmitted from studios located in other parts of the world without problem.

What markets are live casino games most popular in and why do you think that is the case?

It’s evolving. The main market was European, but we’re now seeing the Asian and South American markets open up as demand increases.

America will be a slow burn as more states come online.

Was the covid pandemic good or bad for live casino studios?

I think it was a challenge for them to remain open. being a people business, social distancing must have been an issue, so even if the studios remained opened, they would have used less tables. From personal experience at the time it was very difficult to get a seat on a Blackjack table and be able to play for reasonable stakes.

It was a case of supply and demand, more demand than they had to supply so minimum stakes were put up. As for the bottom line I don’t know. Evolutions figures for example have continue to grow, pandemic included. Live Casino is continuing to grow.

Actual casinos have space restrictions but online that isn’t an issue.  This has led to many new formats for live online games.  Do you think there is more scope for development of new games and novelty games online or have we reached a peak?

I think it’s becoming more difficult for operators to stand out. Evolution has been leading the way, and no-one has really brought to market something than we’ve not already seen before. I think the games will continue to evolve and the suppliers need to create games that the next gambling generations will want to play.

They have grown up with video games, so the next obvious step is something in that direction with more social interaction.

Do we need live dealers and studios for live games, do you see a future where games are run using AI that look like live games but of course are computer generated?

To me a live game is a game where there is a human controlling the play, using real physical equipment. Personally I don’t like hybrid games where the RNG is taking over, but that seems to be the directions we’re going.

Robot dealers and arms are already being used. They’re a gimmick, although in some markets they are used for trust as humans are untrustworthy! As for AI, I’m sure its already being used on the monitoring side, but dealing cards – no thank you.

On a personal level do you gamble much?  If so, what is your biggest or most notable win?

I like to play in land based. I go to Vegas once a year so that is where most of my gambling is. Of course I play online to test the games and do my videos, and sometimes for a bit of pleasure but not that often.

My biggest win was $25,000 on Cleopatra 2 in Las Vegas on my last few spins on the night before I left. I took it all home with me – took it back the following year, and yes you can guess what happened!

You live in the UK, like us, how do you think attitudes to live casino games and casino games in general have changed in the UK since you have been working in the industry?

I think players attitudes remain the same. People want to play good fair games and get paid when they win.

I think there is too much regulation which is driving players offshore. I’ve seen income drop from regulated UK casinos and increase from off shore operators.

Where do you see yourself and the industry in general in the next 5-10 years?

Hopefully I’ll be long retired. As for the industry, it will be over regulated; it won’t be easy for players to play without getting a million and one checks done first. I think Off-shore operators will see the benefit and unfortunately players will experience more problems as a result.

Affiliate programs operating in regulated markets will continue to close affiliate accounts, choosing instead to work with only a handful of big affiliates, so small affiliates will be pushed to promote offshore casinos if they want to keep their businesses running.