Magic has announced some big changes to professional play, online play, and basically everything that touches either professional or online play.
Readers here are familiar with my skeptical bent, but in reading these changes I find myself encouraged by the direction Wizards of the Coast has decided to take the competitive scene. And most importantly, it isn’t pure lip service.
As the philosopher Justin Bieber once put it, “You’re lookin’ at the truth, the money never lie.”
The headline here is a $10 million total prize pool in 2019 for the next iteration of competitive Magic. “More than double 2018” per the announcement, let’s see how they will spread it around:
1) Magic Pro League with 32 players
2) Mythic Championships (Formerly Pro Tours; “high prize pool, high drama events in both MTG Arena and tabletop”; prizes all the way to last place; no travel awards)
3) A $1 million MTG Arena Mythic Invitational (let’s just say they are not concerned about diluting the term “Mythic”)
4) “[A] significant prize pool set aside to partner with independent organizers who want to host MTG Arena esports and tabletop competitive gaming events.” (With a note about Channel Fireball, who pays me to write this column, having a large 2019 budget for MagicFest events).
It’s worth noting that the two extra Pro Tours announced just a few months ago are now cancelled (Dallas-Fort Blame Worth and Sydney). This serves as a good reminder that Wizards is quick to the trigger with changes regarding organized play these days, and that their budget isn’t unlimited even though it seems to be expanding. Business as usual, but trending in the right direction. Just don’t ever book non-refundable travel or accommodations to any of their events in the next calendar year or planning cycle.
Also getting canned to make room ($) for the new stuff are the World Magic Cup, Nationals, and the Team Series. These events were cooler for participants than they were for fans, and that’s not the direction the winds are blowing. The Hall of Fame is getting big structural changes (thank God) and I’m pretty excited about that.
Let’s dive into a player experience that isn’t my own for a second: between the cancellation of PT Sydney, the World Magic Cup, and the end of travel awards. I don’t think our friends down under will be overjoyed about the changes, though the prospect of doing a bunch of competing on MTG Arena softens the blow a bit. This is probably the lens through which these changes will be viewed around much of the globe (outside the USA that is). Decreased physical accessibility to premier play, but hopefully an ever-growing ability to compete, not just practice, online.
The Big Picture for Magic as an Esport
My copy of Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize “esport” as a valid English word. This stuff is still relatively new, and I’m certainly a generation behind the times here. I prefer “real” sports (defined as any competitive activity in which one or more players may sustain irreparable joint and/or brain trauma during the course of their career). But my Steve-Buscemi-carrying-a-skateboard-ass “gets it.” People like to watch streaming gaming in a competitive setting, and what excites us, or inspires us to root for this person/team and not that other person/team, is no less arbitrary in gaming than it is in sports.
We’re all tired of hearing about how competitive play is “just marketing” for the game. Marketing is fine, but I don’t think that captures what esports is. Esports is about the fan experience. If the fans aren’t showing up and aren’t engaged, but Magic is selling like hotcakes, we should be really careful about attributing much of that success to the esports push. Magic is a great game, MTG Arena seems to be doing well, and those could make growth happen even if the esports push flops.
On the other hand, if people really do start tuning into these broadcasts in large numbers, and, just as importantly, if they are deeply engaged in what is happening and feel tied to their rooting interests within the Magic Pro League, then the investment by Wizards is more than just marketing. People will feel more deeply connected to the game, they will see a path for themselves in MTG Arena when they boot the program up and there are tournaments you can play there that might lead to playing against their MPL idols, etc. It’s not that much different than PTQs on MTGO and PTs on Twitch, but they might not miss all the little things this time around.
The question for Magic as an esport now isn’t whether Wizards will fuel it up and propel it down the runway, but whether the game itself is conducive enough to a fan-centric experience that it can actually take off. We’ve heard all the arguments a hundred times: Magic is closer to Chess than to a first-person shooter. And for Chess, even if the Knight is animated to drink a can of Red Bull and detonate a bomb when it captures a Bishop, Chess can’t be made into Fortnite. It has to succeed on its own terms (and it does if you watched the recent 2018 World Chess Championship). But if you took the “Magic is too complex for its own good” arguments to their natural conclusion, you wouldn’t predict that so many players around the world love the game and play it every month. There’s something (my editor will fire me if I say magical) special about Magic that has captured our imaginations for 25 years. It won’t become Fortnite, obviously, but it could probably kick the crap out of Hearthstone at some point soon. Fingers crossed.
The Bigger Bigger Picture
The headline is about a $10 million esports investment. But the biggest story is about MTG Arena. WotC’s plan as recently as three months ago might have been six pro tours in 2019 and then esports push in 2020 because they weren’t sure how MTG Arena would be going or how it would be received. Well, I can’t throw a rock on Twitter without hitting someone who loves playing MTG Arena and can’t wait to tell their friends about it.
Now, personally, I was always confident that MTG Arena would succeed in this way:
The egg is on my face this time, not theirs. However, they aren’t at the finish line yet in any sense. Will there be hiccups in MTG Arena’s adoption across a wider section of the player base? Will the extremely popular Commander and Modern and Legacy formats, to name a few, ever be supported on MTG Arena in a way that pulls the eyeballs and wallets of those entrenched players into MTG Arena? Will Wall of Roots crash the entire program if those formats do become supported?
WotC has proven enough in MTG Arena’s short initial run to allow us to be cautiously optimistic about the future of drafting the new sets and playing Standard in a smoother interface, for higher stakes. But the number of players who don’t have much interest in Draft or Standard is LARGE. I play more with Volcanic Island these days than I do with Vraska’s Contempt, and I’m by no means alone. What does the future look like for these players? Or does it matter given that we’re clearly stuck in the past, to some extent? Well, it matters to us. But our fate is not entirely in Wizards’ hands like it is for the Standard players.
Overall, I’m feeling encouraged. I think the older formats have strong enough communities that they don’t need Wizards Organized Play to do a whole lot to prop them up. You kind of have to pay people off to get them to play Standard, know what I mean? $10 million dollars? Okay, that might be enough to get people to attack planeswalkers with midrange creatures over and over. Those of us who prefer to flip a Delver or a Chaos Orb will be at the bar down the street. And eventually, when the competitive bug bites us again, we’ll be on MTG Arena and probably enjoying it. Again, I’m optimistic about things.
For professional Magic players, the 32-player Pro League sounds like a dream come true for those who make it and a dream to shoot for if they don’t. Double the total prize pool (and the loss of travel awards) won’t make anyone rich, but again the future is bright enough—if this year goes well, things could get even larger in future cycles. These are real investments being made. Just don’t quit your day jobs until you actually make that 32-player league or get those thousand subscribers on Twitch, please.