When Wizards announced the creation of the Hall of Fame in 2005, I was very happy to see steps taken to recognize the history of our favorite game and to move Magic in line with other great sports organizations. Being elected to the Hall is a huge honor and is something that most professional players dream of achieving. For this to continue being the case, the HoF needs to mean something. Election should be difficult and the voting process should be rigorous.
Selection by the Numbers
Looking to Major League Baseball as an example, there are 203 former players in Cooperstown out of approximately 17,000 people to play in the majors. That is less than 1.2% of all players. In comparison, there have been over 10,000 people who have earned at least 1 lifetime pro point. 8,616 people have earned 2 pro points, the number awarded for playing in a single Pro Tour.
But how many actual “pro players” have we had? I used a cutoff of 10 lifetime pro points, which wouldn’t even put you close to the train for a season but represents a decent number of pro level appearances to differentiate major and minor league players. Using this guide, we’ve had 2,261 professional players. Applying baseball’s 1.2% tells us that we should have around 27 people in the Hall. I think this is a good benchmark that keeps the Hall of Fame very selective while recognizing the best players the game has seen. Given this selectivity level, we clearly cannot keep electing 5 people per year. We aren’t introducing that many new pro players every year so we will quickly water down our selectivity to the point where admission is meaningless. At some point soon, we need to move from thinking electing less than 5 people is a travesty of inefficient voting (last year) to being the standard.
I know one very respected voter is considering just voting for Nassif and Saito this year. He isn’t convinced that the next tier of candidates (Steve OMS, Kibler, AntonJ, Pikula) cross the threshold for admittance that he wants to maintain and he can’t find a good means to rank one of them above the others. While I personally don’t agree with his execution of the idea as I think Steve OMS should be a slam dunk under any cutoff, I completely support how he is approaching the problem. We should start proactively fighting against criteria creep as aggressively as possible.
Evaluating the Candidates
There has been a significant evolution in the Pro Tour over the last 15 years and comparing players from the first years with modern players on the same metrics doesn’t make sense. Players in the first few years didn’t have many (or any) GPs to attend and tournaments awarded far fewer pro points. Cash payouts were a fraction of what they are now and there was so much uncertainty surrounding a “pro tour” that no one could expect to make a living playing the game. We either need to evaluate these two pools of players separately (against their peers) or make some attempt to convert historical stats into modern equivalents.
In baseball terms, we don’t expect modern pitchers to put up totals comparable with Cy Young. They are playing different games. So why are we holding the very first professional players to this standard? This effect is even more dramatic when they are sitting next to each other on the same ballot vying for the same votes.
One crude conversion metric would be to take a base year and sum the total pro points awarded, and multiple the pro points for every other year by the ratio of that year’s total to the base year total. For example, in 2009 there were over 8,855 Pro Points awarded. In 2001, there were approximately 7,600 Pro Points awarded. For this comparison, for every Pro Point a player earned in 2001, they would get 1.16 Adjusted Pro Points). The ratio gets even more extreme the further back you go. This obviously breaks down at the extremes; for example, it wouldn’t work for 1996 when there were no GPs as you’d end up giving players hundreds of points for a PT win.
A better solution, and one that Wizards should be able to execute easily, is to simply plug in the modern Pro Point formula into all old events and calculate how many points each player would have. This will let us compare apples to apples.
Along this same line, I think many modern voters don’t give enough credit to the pioneers of the Pro Tour. We take so many of these things for granted now. The first Pro Tour involved calling Wizards and asking for an invite. These guys helped build the PTQ circuit. In a time when international play was just getting started, early players flew internationally to GPs to help build local playing communities. They put in a lot of the groundwork necessary to make having a Pro Tour a worthwhile investment of Wizards dollars. These Pro Tour accomplishments should absolutely factor into the Hall of Fame resume of many of these players.
Another difficult issue to tackle is comparing players with very different career lengths. Unlike other professional sports, Magic isn’t really a profession for 99% of all players. As I mentioned above, this is especially true when we look back in history. How do we account for players who leave the game early? Do we penalize players them for choosing to move on from Magic and cutting short a brilliant career? I think this is particularly applicable to the early players. They were not compensated nearly as well for their time on the Pro Tour and it is more understandable that they chose a “real profession” over the expensive hobby of the Pro Tour.
Baseball confronted this question many times when players were injured or otherwise forced to end a Hall of Fame trajectory career early. We shouldn’t leave our Sandy Koufax’s out in the cold because they moved on too soon. How short is too short? That is a good question, and one that the 100 point threshold helps answer. We shouldn’t require 6+ years on the tour to even be in consideration for election.
On the flip side of this coin, do we reward players for “grinding it out” and playing for 20 years? If players play for long enough “just getting by” and staying on the train, eventually they will amass tournament successes. Anyone good enough to stay on the train for 10 years is good enough to randomly stumble on a top 8 every now and then. The question here is how heavily to weight the rate stats that will help adjust for career length.
Imagine we move forward 20 years from now and Magic is still going strong. An Austrian player named Ham Applebanger just earned his 700th Pro Point and 8th pro tour win. However, he’s played in 160 pro tours to amass those currently lofty totals. Is this really a hall of famer? Hank Aaron’s 750 home runs would look much less impressive if he had another 20 seasons to get them. These are questions we need to be asking now as it is going to keep coming up.
Taking a Stand Against Cheating
I don’t want to get bogged down in a debate of who cheats and who doesn’t, and if cheaters like Mike Long should be treated the same as “cheaters” like Bob Maher. I do think that anyone with a DCI suspension on their record should not be voted in on their first ballot. In many other sports, a first ballot hall of famer is a big deal. And while right now it doesn’t seem like much, I hope that in 10 or 15 years we look back and can point to first balloters as being very special. Losing this privilege is a small price to pay for the potentially large ill-gotten gains earned by the suspended player in instances prior to them getting caught.
Stare Decisis Does Not Apply
One more quick aside before getting back to the meat of the article. I don’t think anything that has happened in the first few years of elections has any sort of precedential power over subsequent ballots. I look at the HoF to date as a scramble to fit 10 years of history into a few short ballots. Jon Finkel wasn’t even a unanimous selection. Going forward, we no longer have the excuse that we weren’t sure what we were doing.
I would like to see the voting process mature in the next few years and establish some strong precedents for future voters to follow. I hope this includes my above point of no first ballot suspended players (which otherwise would be knocked out by the “precedent” we previously set), but I am sure there are many other things we can do.
Methodology of Election
How should we be electing people to the Hall? This is a question that Wizards has struggled with since the first class. There are three categories of people who are interested in voting: Pro Tour / Wizards staff (judges, R&D, organized play, etc), writers and players. Let’s walk through each group individually.
Pro Tour / Wizards Staff
This is actually the cleanest and most coherent of the groups. There isn’t a lot of turnover and most people in this category have seen a long stretch of Pro Tour history firsthand. Additionally, most of these people work in a capacity that requires them to set aside personal relationships for impartiality. This makes them ideal voters for the HoF.
Writers have a long history linking them with voting for the HoF. For both the NFL and MLB, writers are the predominant (or only) voters in the selection committee. It is considered a great honor to be selected to vote and voters tend to treat their role very seriously. Only writers with a long history writing about the game are deemed qualified for this important role.
Magic suffers from a much closer relationship (and often overlap) between its writers and players that makes it hard to trust in the unbiased nature of the writer votes. Also, Wizards seems to hand out selection committee seats like candy; on their list of writer voters I didn’t recognize a surprising number of people and almost half of the list are active players. This ensures that the writer ballot will not help to achieve an unbiased perspective.
Magic is unique in allowing active players to have a prominent role in electing members of the Hall of Fame. This opens the process up to many questions regarding its integrity.
Integrity of Voting
There are five major areas where Magic HoF voting differs from modern voting for other professional sports and they all introduce unique conflicts into the process that are not easy to fix.
First, the Magic Hall of Fame is currently still in a “catchup” period where many voters were not even playing the game when half of the players on the ballot were in their prime. It is very challenging for a ‘modern era’ voter to compare the professional life of a player who retired in 1999 to someone who is eligible now for the first time. This makes it especially hard for older players to get elected regardless of their qualifications.
Second, active players can be eligible for the Hall of Fame. This is another factor playing off of natural human biases to over-weight recent results when evaluating a historical time series. Every other professional sporting Hall of Fame that I am aware of enforces a mandatory waiting period post-retirement to distance voters from the immediacy of a candidate’s performance and add perspective and reflection to the voting process. This is not an easy thing to solve for Magic; these other sports benefit from the fact that players eventually must retire. You will eventually find it impossible to compete in a physical sport as your body atrophies and breaks down but you can keep playing professional Magic until you are 60. Do we want to make these people wait that entire time to gain eligibility?
Third, the pool of voters for the Magic HoF contains a significant number of the candidates’ peers. These people have developed close personal relationships with the candidates and have both friends and enemies up for election. It is very difficult to remain unbiased as a voter in these cases and consider a friend’s qualifications in the same light as a stranger’s.
Fourth, players can be both voters and candidates at the same time. This introduces a strange strategic game into the voting equation. Players who are going to be up for consideration in the near future (or are eligible at the same time) are incentivized to game their vote to maximize their own chances of election. This could lead to vote swapping and other unsavory practices that tarnish the legitimacy of the Hall.
Finally, unlike for other sports, election into the Hall has an immediate impact on a person’s ability to compete. Many older players on the ballot fell off the train or retired from the game years ago and have not returned because of the arduous and fickle qualification process. Qualifying for a single Pro Tour (much less getting on the train) is a crapshoot even for very good players As the Hall of Fame grants immediate Level 5 status to a player, voting someone currently on the train is sometimes perceived as “wasting” a potential invite.
Most of these problems are unique to the Magic professional and voting processes and they must be kept in mind when evaluating how to handle the Hall of Fame going forward.
Whom do we recognize?
The current criteria for selection into the Hall of Fame is that an individual has 100 or more lifetime pro points. This is a pretty clear signal that this isn’t the Magic the Gathering Hall of Fame; it is the Pro Tour Players Hall of Fame. I would like to see more emphasis put on Pro Tour accomplishments and history and less put on general Magic accomplishments.
In connection with this, I would like to see a second branch opened up recognizing the great community and Pro Tour contributors we’ve seen in the last 15 years. It is crazy that there isn’t a spot somewhere for Richard Garfield, Skaff Elias and many others who built the game and the community around it. We’ve been blessed with some truly great writers who have dedicated themselves to the game, and there should be a place to recognize the works of Mike Flores and Pat Chapin (as an author; not to be confused with his player candidacy).
Baseball and football have their coaches, referees and writers alongside their best players in memoriam forever; let’s take a cue from that and get started so we don’t end up with 20 years of backlog recognizing these people when the time comes.
These problems are not unsolvable. One easy fix would be to remove the level 5 privilege for being elected. This removes the big incentive to people to game the process just to get a lifetime qualification. It also eliminates the pressure on Wizards to try and control for an ever expanding pool of qualified players.
However, this undercuts Wizards’ marketing attempt to get HoFers out to tournaments for publicity. They like having Hall of Famers playing the game and promoting the brand. I’m not convinced they’ll like it as much when there are 50 of them running around collecting checks, but that is a cost/benefit analysis for the company to settle.
There are lots of compromise solutions like giving HoFers level 3 status, giving them level 4 for the year after their election, etc. These options reduce the incentive to game the voting by reducing the value of the prize, but they don’t address the fundamental underlying issue and seem like poor kluges.
A better solution is to revise the electoral process to account for some of the concerns. This could take a number of forms. Wizards could restrict who gets to vote further; perhaps no active players get to vote, or no players themselves eligible. Wizards could take players who are level 5+ off of the ballot, only restoring them when they “retire” at least partially from the game. Wizards could eliminate the player vote all together and instead go with a veterans committee, similar to baseball, that is responsible for evaluating candidates that were missed by the normal electorate after they pass of the ballot.
There are literally infinite permutations of these rules that can be combined to correct for many of the problems with the current system. They all have their own drawbacks as well. For example, reducing the voter pool reduces the buzz around the HoF as fewer people publish ballots, fewer people discuss their votes, etc. It would make it more of an academic and less of a populist / passionate topic. I think this is ultimately very good for the HoF as an institution and probably bad for the brand of Magic in the short term.
An easy fix is to come up with some era-adjusted statistical measures to compare players across times. I could do this in a weekend if I were given access to a good historical data set showing how each player on the ballot earned each of their pro points. If baseball can have park-adjusted stats to account for Coors field, this seems like a slam dunk for Magic. I think the voters would find it very helpful to see that Steve OMS has something like 290 modern pro points or to even know that Hammer didn’t actually have GPs to play in when he was at his prime. There isn’t enough education going on in connection with the HoF to teach “new” voters about these players from the past who deserve to be elected.
2010 is my 10th anniversary of my first pro point and had I gotten my act together in years past to get myself on the train, I could have my name on that ballot this year. I want to do whatever I can to protect the sanctity of the HoF as an institution so that, if I am lucky, when I see my name on the ballot a few years from now it means just as much to me then as it would mean to me now. With a little communal brainstorming I am very confident that we can resolve these open issues and come up with a process that meets all of the objectives we have for the HoF.