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Iconic Wheel of Fortune still top slot 25 years later

You hear it all the time across the casino, the siren’s call to come play.

Wheel … of … Fortune!

The game’s sound effects, tones and melodies peeled from the popular television game show are just one of the reasons IGT’s most popular slot machine has endured for 25 years.

Since June 15 and over the next several months through Dec. 1, the company is observing “25 Weeks of Wheel of Fortune,” a silver anniversary tribute to the brand that includes special giveaways through the Wheel Facebook page.

IGT says Wheel of Fortune marked the first licensed slot machine brand and is a forerunner for many more themed games featuring prominent movies, television shows and celebrities.

And while Wheel of Fortune has a big visual impact on the casino floor with its 250 different game variations — some of them in cabinets that are more than 11 feet tall — it’s the sounds they make that seem to keep fans coming back.

Wheel zone

“You can’t walk across a casino floor without hearing it,” said Boris Hallerbach, IGT’s director of product management for premium products in Reno. “It’s like the games are calling out to the players.”

That’s the same impression Plaza CEO Jonathan Jossel has. The downtown property has the Wheel of Fortune Slots Zone where a mix of different variations of the machine are grouped together.

“It’s iconic,” Jossel said. “It’s the sound of the game, everyone knows those noises of the Wheel of Fortune game, whether you hear them in the airport or in the casino. It’s the first sound you hear when you get to Las Vegas and the last sound you hear when you leave. It’s almost synonymous with Vegas, that Wheel of Fortune song and the sound of those reels.”

But those sounds traveled a lengthy path to get to the casino floor.

By Hallerbach’s account, it began when former IGT Chairman Charles Mathewson attended an awards dinner and by “happy accident” sat next to an executive from Sony Pictures Television. During the dinner, they chatted about the potential of teaming to develop a game show collaboration on a slot machine.

It wasn’t a slam-dunk deal.

In 1996, when the details were being worked out, gaming still carried a stigma.

“Getting an entertainment and television company to consider their content on slot machines was a little difficult,” Hallerbach said. “Sensitivity to how we represented the slot game and the experience was important, and we wanted to have some separation from the television show and the slot machine.”

While 1996 is acknowledged as the year Wheel of Fortune was born, a significant development occurred a decade earlier that would create much of Wheel’s success.

Wide-area progressive jackpots

IGT introduced wide-area progressive jackpots, essentially linking machines from a broad area that feed money into one prize pool. IGT introduced the concept with another king of the slot floor, Megabucks.

Ten years later, Wheel of Fortune would borrow the wide-area progressive system, assuring that some of the game’s biggest winners would become millionaires.

The earliest Wheel of Fortune game that came out didn’t even have a wheel. It was just a three-reeled mechanical-reel nickel slot game with the game-show theme.

Anchor’s role

Around that time, a small Las Vegas company, Anchor Gaming, had a patented wheel that was a perfect fit to incorporate into Wheel of Fortune play. Anchor made slot games, including its Wheel of Gold, and operated casinos in Cripple Creek and Black Hawk, Colorado, and a tribal casino in California. But its biggest contribution to the industry was supplying the wheel that made Wheel of Fortune famous.

IGT at first leased the rights to use the wheel. But in 2001, IGT had grown to a dominating international presence and acquired Anchor in a stock deal for $1.1 billion, forming, at the time, Nevada’s largest publicly traded company.

“We used that wheel from Anchor in the process and created the game that combined the Wheel of Fortune brand with strong IGT base games like Double Diamond and created something that really struck a positive nerve with players,” Hallerbach said. “It was the first brand in slots, and people with their familiarity with the show on television every night I think had an instant affinity to the Wheel of Fortune slot game.”

With the popularity of the Wheel slot and the TV show climbing, IGT’s network of studios began inventing variations of the game that turned out to be as popular as the earliest versions. IGT introduced the video version of Wheel in 2001.

As technology improved, IGT added more pay lines and mixed in more denominations for play, attracting a wider audience for the game.

In 2006, IGT introduced the “Wheel of Fortune Super Spin,” a vehicle to get more people to the game’s bonus features faster. In 2009, thanks to those wide-area progressive jackpots, Wheel delivered its largest jackpot of all time, $14.4 million, to a gambler in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Cabinets and displays got bigger for the game. Some versions had seats for multiple players. The graphics got crisper and more realistic.

When IGT first promoted its True 3D screen products in 2016, the TV show’s Vanna White met and took pictures with people attending the Global Gaming Expo trade show in Las Vegas that year. She received the ceremonial Key to the City of Las Vegas as part of the celebration.

must run

MegaTower arrives

IGT followed with the Wheel of Fortune MegaTower, standing just over 11 feet tall, in 2017, and in 2018, the company introduced a new visual element of the game, True 4D, in which elements of the game seemingly jump off the video screen and into the player’s lap.

A total 250 different variations of the game are offered, and today players can sit down and play while the voices of host Pat Sajak with co-host and letter-turner White interact with them. Players might also hear Jim Thornton, the television show’s announcer.

For proprietary reasons, IGT officials won’t say how many Wheel of Fortune games are installed on casino floors across North America where the game is most popular, but Nick Khin, IGT’s chief operating officer for gaming, said it’s in the thousands.

“Players are very loyal to the product; they trust the game because it’s been on casino floors for so long,” Khin said. “They’re very comfortable with it, and many players have a relationship with the game that goes back a long time. Players will come to the casino specifically looking for that game.”

The sounds, the progressive jackpots and the familiarity of the game has enabled Wheel of Fortune to develop a diverse player base.

Another way IGT keeps Wheel in front of people is through lottery tickets. IGT is one of the largest worldwide operators of lottery games. In the United States, the company sells lottery tickets in 25 states. West of the Mississippi River, they can be bought in Oregon, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota and Texas.

Social media influencer

Possibly the most recognizable Wheel of Fortune slot machine player in the country is social media influencer Brian Christopher, a Toronto actor who moved to Southern California to try to make it in Hollywood and ended up becoming a YouTube sensation.

“One day, I posted a couple of funny videos of me gambling, and those videos ended up going viral,” Christopher said of the birth of bcslots.com and his company, BC Slots.

Christopher travels around the country, mostly in the Southwest, and comes to Las Vegas several times a year, making YouTube videos of him playing and explaining slot machines.

“I show how you win, how you lose and the excitement of just playing,” he said.

He admits the variations of Wheel of Fortune are his favorites and notes that when he produces a livestream of him playing, one of his more than 500,000 fans invariably ask him to play a Wheel game. As much as possible, he obliges.

“I think we all grew up with Wheel of Fortune at home and the excitement around it,” he said. “It was always a family game and something all ages could all enjoy together. I think everyone’s dream is to spin the wheel. Now you have a chance to do that in the casino.

“Honestly, spinning wheels is always an exciting part of any slot machine, so when you mix the two things together you get this amazing game,” Christopher said. “And, of course, we’ve all come to love Vanna White, and you see her in a lot of the newer games, interacting with the guests. There’s always the excitement of maybe this will be the one spin where I hit it big.”

Christopher started off playing the low-denomination Wheel games and branched out as he became more financially stable with the sale of BC Slots merchandise on his website — hats, T-shirts, sweatshirts, lucky wristbands and, more recently, masks.

A few years ago, Christopher was in the middle of a livestream when he won $10,000 playing Wheel of Fortune. He duplicated the feat in June while playing at Park MGM, a new favorite for him because he has become an advocate for smoke-free casinos.

When Plaza’s Jossel had Christopher on as a guest on his “On the Corner of Main Street” podcast, Christopher was asked what the future held for BC Slots, and he half jokingly suggested that a resort produce a Brian Christopher-themed hotel room or slot machine area.

Jossel took him up on the idea and produced an area in the Plaza casino — smoke-free, of course — that features Christopher’s favorite slot games. The only thing missing is a Wheel of Fortune game, but that’s OK with him because Plaza’s Wheel of Fortune Zone is right near him on the floor.

What’s next?

So what’s next for the nation’s most popular slot machine?

Right now, IGT is enjoying the attention of the “25 Weeks of Wheel of Fortune” promotion that, which ends Dec. 1. IGT’s studios are working to come up with more game variations.

“For 25 years, IGT has artfully captured the fun, excitement and authenticity of the Wheel of Fortune brand through its world-class Wheel of Fortune Slots portfolio,” said Suzanne Prete, Sony Pictures Television’s senior vice president of global licensing and brand management. “Wheel of Fortune Slots’ jackpot-paying legacy and capacity to entertain people across diverse generations, geographies and channels perfectly align with the global Wheel of Fortune brand.”

Asked about the prospect of developing a skill-based game that involves solving a Wheel of Fortune word puzzle as they do on the game show, Hallenbach and Khin said there are no plans in the works — but Christopher thought it would be a cool feature if it could be done.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter.

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