Sometimes I tend to just ignore the recent MTG “drama” because, frankly, a lot of the time it’s just made-up concerns that the Internet wants to rage about because that’s what it does. So I brush it off and move on.
This is not one of those cases, and I can’t do that.
The (since retracted) cut to Platinum pros may not seem like something that affects most of us — and for the most part it’s not — but the community has stood together on this and come out with a very strong reaction. All of us at one point or another have dreamed of playing on the Pro Tour and (gasp) make a living playing Magic. That was something very few players in the world got to claim, but it was something that was possible thanks to the prizes Wizards gave those players.
That safety net — better defined as “expected income” — has been pulled out from under them, and in the worst possible way from a PR perspective. We just had what was by all accounts an awesome Pro Tour with eight different archetypes in a Top 8 for the ages, a great documentary by the Walking the Planes guys Nate and Shawn (seriously, check out “Enter the Battlefield” on Netflix), and we’re in what should be a golden time for Magic.
This hurts all of us. Even if you don’t care about the financial plight or the death of the Pro dream, chances are you do care about content. Kenji (Numot the Nummy) stopped streaming for a week in solidarity. The Vintage Super League was delayed due to players pulling out. Content will likely be affected, and there’s the realest possibility I’ve ever seen of a Pro Tour being boycotted.
Since then, Wizards has walked back this change. Players are getting their benefits for the next year and the World Championship will keep the increased prize pool, while future changes may be made.
This is a good decision by WotC and I’m glad they recognized the need to make a change. They should be applauded for their decision to right the wrong and move forward. That said, we must also question why this decision was ever made in the first place, what led to this decision and what that might mean for the future.
I hate that a very good Pro Tour and the awesome success of Steve Rubin has been overshadowed by this decision. I can understand some of the reasons this change may have been made, but the fact that there are some valid reasons doesn’t change the reality that the narrative has become that Wizards “tried to kill the highest level of the game,” regardless of how accurate that statement is.
I’m glad that they took the minimum step of extending the benefits through next season so those players who have been pushing so hard to reach that level this year don’t have that bombshell dropped on them three-quarters of the way through the season.
So while I wanted to spend today writing about the Pro Tour results and the effects it would have our seemingly wide-open Standard metagame, instead I’m going to talk about how important the pro system is to Magic, the danger in losing it, and where we might go from here.
Everyone likes a Big Check
I’m not talking about the appearance fees here — I’m speaking about those big Happy Gilmore sized checks. Checks like this.
Notice something about all those checks? They all come from big sporting tournaments, both of the eSports variety and the Happy v. Shooter kind. They’re big, in both value and size. They are heralded by fanfare. They’re exciting. They generate interest, headlines and, most importantly, revenue for the company.
All it takes is a quick Google search of “DotA championship” and you’re blasted with images of stadiums sold out and players sporting those big checks. Every year there is a new round of articles talking about just how big the prize pool is for this year’s International, the equivalent of the World Magic Championship.
We don’t know the full reasons behind the cut to the Platinum appearance fees. There’s been no shortage of theories, from basic cost-cutting to legal reasons to a desire to see new faces at the top. Every few hours over the past few days there’s been a new conspiracy, all of which seems aimed at the belief that Wizards “wants to kill the Pro scene to save a little money.”
I don’t believe this is true. In fact, I know it isn’t. They want a vibrant pro scene, and they want those big checks for themselves. That’s the reason why most of this “lost money” was funneled into the World Championship, which is meant to be Magic’s marquee event on the calendar.
This in itself isn’t a bad thing. Magic benefits from a robust World Championship prize pool, and especially given the fact they’ve placed it at PAX means that there are going to be news stories written about it, headlines seen and coverage given from outside news outlets. They don’t want less money for pros, they want more — they just don’t want it to come from within.
Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Those big checks given out at the International? That’s what those DotA players made — they didn’t receive an appearance fee for being there. With a few exceptions — basically just the LCS in League of Legends where Riot provides a minimum salary for players that is supplemented by their teams — players in other eSports aren’t paid by their parent companies, they’re paid in sponsorships for their teams or have outside means of income of their own.
There is some of this in Magic. Article writing, for instance, is in many ways a sponsorship — the prestige of having a writer like Sam Black or Owen Turtenwald on your site is worth more than the actual income generated per clicks. While this is somewhat unique to Magic thanks to the secondary market — a positive side effect of that thing players like to blame for all of the game’s evils, by the way — it in many ways mirrors the sponsorships other eSports players receive in their games.
The difference is entirely in scale — Star City and Channel Fireball aren’t paying what Red Bull or AlienWare are. Per-article payments from Magic sites aren’t alone enough to live the modest life of a Magic pro — that’s where WotC’s appearance fees came in, and why pulling it from Platinum Pros was so devastating to those relying on it. It’s possible that Wizards thinks that by funneling that money into the World Championship instead for that all-important big check picture, it will help grow Magic’s image as an eSport enough to attract those “real” sponsors and make up that gap in pro’s lives.
Of course there are plenty of problems with this line of thinking — which we’ll get to shortly. But it’s likely that this was the intent behind the changes: make players less reliant on Wizards, put the onus on sponsors, and increase the prize pool and visibility of the World Championship to help speed up that second point.
I have no idea if this was the reasoning or not. For all I know it was a simple matter of just cutting costs. I’m just trying to envision ways in which there was an intent other than “cause the faces of our game to revolt.”
Regardless of that intent, the rollout itself illuminates some problems with the current system.
Let’s start with the obvious: you can’t pull benefits from players without any advance warning. That was obviously the biggest problem with the rollout, and the one that has since been addressed by keeping these benefits in place through the end of next season.
We can all agree that reinstating that subsidy for those promised it is a good thing. But the fact that such a subsidy was necessary in the first place is a problem. Twitch streams aren’t supporting Magic pros. Articles go a long way, but aren’t in themselves supporting Magic pros. Appearance fees alone aren’t enough to support Magic pros. Tournament winnings are not large or consistent enough to support Magic pros.
All of these things together combine to give these players an income they can live on, but let’s not pretend they’re living well. Taxes are difficult to plan for. Basic bills like rent must be planned for months in advance due to uneven income. Forget about putting much of anything back into a 401k.
Things can be summed up simply: being a professional Magic player is a good job, but it isn’t a career. Compare this to professionals in other eSports, where they may not enjoy a career as long as the average Magic pro but they make orders of magnitudes more, meaning that there is plenty left over after the peak of their career to be invested or saved or see them through college.
None of this is necessarily Wizards’ fault. They have a tall order in front of them: sell the dream of making a living “as a pro” without having anywhere near the money of other eSports titles. The dream of being a Platinum Pro is incredibly important to keeping Organized Play going at the lower levels — as I said, we’ve all dreamed of winning the Pro Tour — but reconciling that with a game that simply doesn’t have the reach that other titles do is a difficult task.
Add to that the fact that Magic has more inherent variance, that an 0-3 start in a Pro Tour doesn’t mean a player isn’t still one of the best in the world, while an 0-3 start at Worlds for a League of Legends team means they have no ability to compete at the top. Appearance fees were actually a great way for Wizards to try and offset this problem of variance, but the problem is that money by necessity pulls away from the top of the prize pool, which we’ve established is an important tool for outside attention. No one cares that the 185th-place finisher received $3,000 for being there — they care what the number of that big check is. While I was watching Enter the Battlefield on Twitch, there were plenty of people in Twitch chat unfamiliar with Magic watching the documentary. The most common question wasn’t “how sustainable is the life of a Magic pro?” It was “How much does the winner get?”
Consider all of this and you can see why it’s not as simple as “pay the pros” or “give us more prize support.” Yes, Wizards of the Coast can increase the prize support (and they should), but that only addresses part of the problem. Prize pools alone don’t make for a healthy and growing eSport game — look at Versus from the late ‘90s in which big payouts were given but the game died anyway — and in 2016 player income provided primarily by the game’s parent company is an outdated model.
There is no easy solution to this, and there is no one answer to fix the problem. But here are a few steps that I believe will come about over the next few years to help push Magic into the future.
Let’s talk League of Legends. I’ve followed it very closely over the past three or four years, though I admit I fell off a bit this split. That said, when the playoffs began I was ready to watch with a vested interest: I wanted TSM to win.
Why? I know Bjergsen and Doublelift (who I’m not even a huge fan of) but after they revamped the lineup this year I don’t have any particular pull to any of their players. But when they opened the first round you can bet I cared about their prospects regardless of roster because I enjoyed following them in the past.
That’s brand loyalty to a team that doesn’t exist in Magic. And it’s not Wizards that’s to blame here. Just like I’m a TSM fan or you’re a Cubs or Packers or Duke fan, the names on the back of the jersey matter less than the names on the front.
We don’t have that yet in Magic. ChannelFireball has come the closest of any pro “team” to achieving this goal, and I think that Team EUreka and Team Ultra Pro have been doing a good job recently. But even as someone who follows the ins and outs of Magic teams closely, it can be hard to keep track of rosters. Further confusing the issue is that different members of the same team actually have different “sponsors” when it comes to the shirt they want to wear in front of the camera. Players write for one website, play on the team of another and are sponsored by a third. It’s insanity on the part of sponsors and impossible to keep up with.
This is all a problem. If Magic’s own companies don’t want to invest in teams, how can we possibly expect Red Bull or Monster to do the same? Until we see more “internal” investment in teams and branding to the point that fans want to buy jerseys (or polos or what have you) like they do for Cloud 9, it’s going to be hard to expect much more than we have now.
Another benefit of effectively branding teams is that when Casual Joe from your FNM does happen to find the Pro Tour on Twitch, they’ll be going into it with a team in mind and some faces to root for whether they’ve ever seen them in the past or not.
Teams are a wonderful thing, and the concept has not been pushed nearly enough in Magic. I hope to see that change in the years to come.
I know I’ve talked about how Magic doesn’t draw the eyeballs that it needs to lure in big sponsors, but let’s not pretend that Wizards — a subsidiary of Hasbro, as we’ve been reminded — is a little upstart company with no strings to pull. Sure, maybe Coke or RedBull isn’t interested in sponsoring just the Pro Tour — but I bet they’d be willing to listen to an agreement that includes integration with other Hasbro products. When we see Optimus Prime plastered all over 12-packs of soda, why isn’t Hasbro including another of their “core brands” in Magic as part of those negotiations?
Sure, it may not be super desirable for Mountain Dew to put Jace on its packages, but they’re also unlikely to make it a huge sticking point when it comes stapled to other Hasbro properties. Hasbro has an opportunity to use its existing brands to increase exposure to another in Magic, and to date we’ve never seen much of an indication of that.
I’m aware this is a mammoth goal, but there’s no reason it can’t start on a much lower scale. Magic doesn’t have the raw numbers to pull in the sponsors it would like — but in this case being owned by an industry giant like Hasbro should be a positive. After all, Heroes of the Storm isn’t so popular as to be on ESPN over something like DotA or League of Legends, but the fact Blizzard merged with Activision years back means they have the power to make deals like that happen. I’d like to see Hasbro step up in a similar, if smaller, manner.
Obviously this is a touchy topic, and one I don’t to spend forever on. I’m of the opinion that Magic Online is much better than it’s generally given credit for — I very rarely encounter bugs — but the fact that it both is difficult to learn, use and watch is a big problem for interest in Magic as an eSport. Magic is a much more complex game than Hearthstone — that’s why it’s better and always will be — but due to the cost and ease of viewing online it holds a huge advantage in the Twitch realm.
I’m not going to claim to have the solutions to this, but I’m cautiously optimistic about the rumored “Magic Next” platform we’ve seen mentioned in company filings. Provide a product that better sells to the masses in both accessibility and viewability, and you open up a huge realm of income for the game’s top players and most entertaining personalities.
Integrate with the culture
On this note, I have to give Wizards credit for doing a lot of good things in this area. Tying Worlds to PAX is a genius move that elevates the event and its status in the world of eSports. The Spellslingers series is great. LoadingReadyRun is awesome. As much some people may not like it, having Wil Wheaton narrate Enter the Battlefield is great.
For all the flak that Wizards receives, the marketing team actually has been doing a great job in the past few years, and the Escape Rooms for Shadows Over Innistrad are just the latest step in this.
The problem is that these things are overshadowed by the blunders made in other parts of the company. Too many times it feels like the PR department either doesn’t exist or isn’t consulted, and these missteps overshadow good work done by the company and just serve to give the Internet something to rail against the game’s parent company, which happens to be a favorite pastime of the Internet.
Pro Magic is not dead. Wizards didn’t do this to kill professional Magic, and they didn’t do it because they don’t care about their players. They made this reallocation of funds in an attempt to grow the game in the big picture, but as is too often the case with Wizards they gave the impression they forgot those standing in that picture.
The pros got paid, and I’m glad they did. But this is not when we sit back in chairs and chant “we did it, Reddit.” There are still very real problems with Magic as an eSport to solve, and that’s a conversation we need to have.
Thanks for reading,