Magic the gathering decks

Magic Really Is a Legitimate Esport Now

First off, let’s catch everyone up on the big changes coming for Magic:

The big announcement—$10 million in prizes next year.

Matt Sperling’s take on changes are here.

Possibly the biggest change of all was this: “We’re also introducing the Magic Pro League, creating a new level of professional play. The inaugural year of the MPL comprises 32 of Magic’s top-ranked players from around the world who are each offered player and streamer contracts with a combined worth of $75,000. They’ll be competing in seasonal weekly competitive matchups on MTG Arena, and in Mythic-level tournaments in both MTG Arena and tabletop.”

This is an actual MTG league instead of one loosely connected four times a year through a nebulous team system. This is a radical shift in how Magic does competitive play, which is nearly all individual tournament based, and actually gives out contracts and salaries instead of only prize winnings. This turnaround in prizing and yet another rework in the pro system is an indication of how much Arena has really taken off and how badly Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro want to take advantage of this.

I’ve seen two popular comparisons: Overwatch and Hearthstone.

Let’s start with the background information for the structure of these games. For season one, Overwatch League employed roughly 125 players and everyone in that league made a minimum salary of $50,000 plus paid health benefits. The largest public contract that anyone has disclosed was one member of one team at $150K. From general chatter, the majority of players got the league minimum or a slight bump to $60-70K. Team performances also could bump this up with payout bonuses totaling $3.5 million over the full season. Call it $10 million dollars total.

For season two, the League has expanded from 12 to 20 teams and rosters also look to be expanding. While not doubling in size, it’s possible that by the time the season begins that the league eclipses 200 players. That’s a cool $10 million in salary if we assume the league minimum (since again, contracts aren’t public) and that’s going to be on the low end since more successful players will be making more now that there’s a clear baseline set by season one.

But this not being subsidized by one company. Like League of Legends and traditional sports leagues, Blizzard has gone the franchise route and hence the companies or owners of these teams paid large sums ($20 million or more, reportedly) to secure a slot in the league, not counting infrastructure, staff, and other assorted expenditures. As a result, there’s more money to go around and Blizzard is only fronting the payout bonuses.

Still, let’s consider this again for a moment. Many players in the OWL, one of the premiere spots at the moment, will be receiving on par or less in salary than these new Arena contracts. That’s pretty wild to consider. Of course, in Esports it often works that smaller numbers are better, at least in terms of getting paid. It’s a lot easier to justify $2.4 million paid out to only 32 players and keeping a closed ecosystem, especially when you lock them into built-in streaming (which also will likely make some of them want to stream more and double down on sponsorships/donations/subscribers), which helps pay for itself in advertising.

Another consideration is how much more work a game like Overwatch requires to stay at the top of the game. Players are expected to play 6-10 hours a day and it is their full-time job. Many MTG players compete at the highest level and have a day job on top of that.

So everything is sunshine and rainbows for OWL, and now Magic Pros, right?

Well, something to keep in mind is that this is the best of the best, and the margins for making the cut are incredibly slim. Congratulations! You came in 33rd. No salary for you! That part was lifted wholesale from Esports in general. It turns out when you pay the top a lot of money, an easy way to shave costs elsewhere is by gutting everyone else’s paycheck to make it work. As one poignant counterpoint to the success of the OWL, the tier 2 scene for OW barely exists at this point and is treated with neglect. Contenders League is about it for a tier 2 tournament series and they do not get paid all that well (as you may imagine, data for this is harder to find than OWL) for a whole lot more work and delayed payments (some Contenders teams have gone months without getting paid in certain regions).

Outside of not being a completely open series like GPs, the prize pool is similar. For all regions combined for the year, Contenders prizes run about $3.2 million but are spread out more as a result of all regions sharing. Tournaments outside of this are few and far between with no real money in any of them—they’re basically just practice and exposure for the OWL or bust. Compared to something like the SCG Open circuit, there is no equivalent for the game.

So effectively, unless you make money off of generating content (streaming) or are in OWL, you are probably making somewhere between jack and squat.

All right, but what about other card games?

Hearthstone is a closer comparison.

Here’s a fun compare and contrast tool:

Tournament Payout for Hearthstone since 2013: $14,948,075.07 from 809 tournaments

Prize money from GPs in 2018 alone was in the $3.2 mil range. Throw in the Pro Tour and you’re looking at a million for four “normal” PTs. That’s over four million a year in the primary worldwide tournament scene for Magic coming only from Wizards/Hasbro. If you include some of the bonus tournaments like Worlds and the 25th Anniversary PT, then it goes up even more.

That whole $4.2 million in MTG—that only looks at the actual tournament payouts. That had nothing to do with Pro Players Club, which may have been the most difficult to understand and constantly changing system I’ve seen for a sports league structure. I’m not going to actually do a breakdown of the payouts there. Long story short: I’m lazy, the information varies and has changed a lot over the years, and the benefits are variable and based on appearance fees.

There were (according to Wizards site) 39 Platinum, 70 Gold, and 132 Silver pros as of October 29th, 2018. Removing the travel benefits save a fair bit (depends on what you cost the average ticket at) to reinvest into their new structure and killing Platinum likely generated around half a million. Meanwhile, you aren’t even significantly reducing the slots on the gravy train of Platinum under this model—you kill 7-10 slots.

The key difference is that the prize payouts are flatter, and due to how many of the tournaments are large Opens, it makes it more difficult to get the same larger payouts for spiking a tournament. Almost every player on the top Hearthstone cash list got there by winning a tournament worth roughly 50% or more of their total income earnings. Blizzcon’s major tournament paid out a million in prizes ($250k to first) and Hearthstone Championship Tour tournaments, which are essentially the stepping stone qualifiers for this huge tournament, have payouts of roughly $80k ($25k to first). The majority of big Hearthstone tournaments that aren’t HCT fall into the GP payout range for $25-40k.

So if the total prize payouts end up in the $6-8 mil range and the contracts and other benefits consume the rest, then we’re killing it compared to most of the competitors. Especially with only one company fronting the bill for all of it. Important to note is that, again, there’s really not a great second or third tier tournament scene for Hearthstone like there is for Magic. Dreamhack HS and a handful of one-off tournaments (typically thrown by team orgs for promotional purposes) are basically it. Meanwhile, your primary way of getting onto the HCT circuit usually means spending hundreds of hours a month shooting for strong ladder finishes each season.

In fact, for the vast majority of these scenes there’s no “spike a tournament” like in Magic. You grind. Even when you make it to the next level, you grind more. In Magic, once you reach a certain point, you can spend the bulk of your time away from the game and only put in some hours right before a tournament, relying on your overall skill and knowledge to carry the day. A good example is Lucas Siow. After he “quit” Magic, he ended up coming back to spike his hometown GPs in Toronto in 2015 and 2018, and put up his best PT results to date (three finishes in the top 45).

You can argue one way or the other regarding how much you think grinding and practice should matter in Magic. But the number of hours needed to maintain being a good or even pro level Magic player is basically nothing compared to the hours required for an FPS, RTS, or MOBA-style game. It is something unique to Magic as a competitive game, especially in this day and age. Once you reach a certain level of proficiency, you have a high enough baseline that you could effectively play at the highest levels again if you wanted to. This is also why I shed no tears at the rework of the Magic Hall of Fame, as recent years have made it more of a joke than people may have liked.

OK, so what does this all mean?

Magic is moving toward an ecosystem where it’s realistic for someone to invest a ton of time and effort into the game, and be able to make a living wage. This new system is not only comparable to already successful Esports structures, but potentially pays out even more on average.

MTG Arena is the future. I don’t think Magic Online is totally dead—it’ll still be the only go-to for formats like Modern and Legacy for some players—it’s only going to lose more Limited and Standard players. It doesn’t help that one article caused the entire market to go belly up in the matter of a few days. Good stability there.

Good news for grinders—you get to live up to your name! Start putting in those hours. We’re like real Esports now in that the tier 2/3 players are likely going to be completely shafted in this new world. They have to get the money for the top players from somewhere until they start seeing returns. Due to the secondary market, it’s still reasonable for companies like SCG and Axion Now to run tournament series and it isn’t all on Wizards of the Coast.

This almost feels like a gap year in that they wanted to roll out all the Arena announcements and shift in tournaments ASAP, but realized, “Oh, it’s already November and we’re locked in.” So instead of throwing everything out, they cancelled two Pro Tours, scaled back in other spots, and decided to run them together. 2020 is when I’d expect a much more cohesive paper/online strategy for organized play to come together.

RIP to minor regions. At least you don’t have to worry about whether or not you’ll have servers.

This opens up a very real idea of utilizing crowdfunding a la DOTA 2: The International and Compendium. For those out of the loop, The International is a DOTA 2 major that has a battle pass selling alongside it with a bunch of extras and rewards for players. 25% of every pass sold goes toward the prize pool for The International. So what bump in prizes does that work out to? The top 5 DOTA 2 payouts are…

  1. The International 2018 $25,532,177.00
  2. The International 2017 $24,687,919.00
  3. The International 2016 $20,770,460.00
  4. The International 2015 $18,429,613.05
  5.  The International 2014 $10,931,103.00

Oh. Now think of a similar tournament being done with a similar online package for MTG Arena and a percentage going toward the prize pool of a given tournament. You want bigger prize pools? That’s one way of getting them and it doesn’t require other companies buying in. You could even do it in paper if you wanted, though the costs would be slightly higher. Just imagine if something like Guilds Mythic Edition had 25-50% of the purchase thrown into a prize pool.

Hopefully that gives you some better context for the payment changes and how they stack up to other games. Apologies for not getting League of Legends in the comparison, but I know considerably less about the tournament/team structure of the game compared to the Blizzard scene, and DOTA 2 payouts are ridiculously high because of The International’s growth. If someone more familiar with League of Legends would like to add some insight in the comments section, please do.

[Editor’s Note: This piece originally mistakenly referred to “Axion Now” as “Axiom.”]

Share this


Scroll to Top