How Important Are Appearance Fees to Pros?

On Sunday morning at Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad, there were a few announcements regarding Premier Play for the upcoming year. Among those, one created a huge uproar.

For the past few years, Platinum Pros have been rewarded with $3,000 in appearance fees when showing up to Pro Tours ($12,000 total across 4 PTs), effectively guaranteeing them a stable income that would most likely cover the costs of all their trips during the year and more.

Wizards indicated their intention to move this money elsewhere—the World Championships—where 24 of the best players are invited to compete for a prize pool of $500,000.

Wizards explained the changes: “These decisions were not made lightly, and were finalized only after much discussion about the goals of the Pro Tour Players Club. The appearance fees we awarded for Platinum Pros were meant to assist in maintaining the professional Magic player’s lifestyle—upon scrupulous evaluation, we believe that the program is not succeeding at this goal, and have made the decision to decrease appearance fees.”

They walked back the changes, but if they determined the current Platinum level wasn’t meeting its stated goals after scrupulous evaluation, they probably still believe they aren’t meeting those goals, even if the first fix wasn’t right. 

On the contrary, the Platinum appearance fees made becoming a professional Magic player a reality.

Why Moving that Money to Worlds Hurts

On the surface, you would think that it didn’t matter since the announced Worlds prize structure has 15th through 24th getting $12,000, which sounds like instead of getting $3,000 per Pro Tour that they would get the whole $12k guaranteed at the end of the year.

But not every Platinum Pro gets an invite to compete for that $500,000 prize pool. At the end of the 2014-2015 season, there were an astonishing 38 Platinum Pros—at this point, if there are as many in 2017, it will mean that at least a third of them will not qualify, hence redistributing approximately $150,000 of the money that was their salary.

Naturally, to address the problem of having too many Platinums, the threshold to get there has been increased. To give you a better perspective, as I’m writing this, there are 19 players currently locked for the highest status and there is a quarter of the year left. I would estimate that there will be 28 by the end.

Unreliability. That’s the real issue. Imagine 4 players racing to get to Platinum. They fly all over the world and spend thousands of dollars because they know that it has a reasonably high expected return value and that they will get a minimum of $12,000. But then what if they end up not being qualified?

Let’s take a look at how life-changing an extra $12,000/year can be.

The Income of a Platinum Pro

Let’s assume our fictional pro has no job that’s not Magic related. Of course, this isn’t the case for everyone—a few pros even have full-time jobs, but the idea here is to see if it is possible to live exclusively off of playing Magic.

For my average GP and PT winnings per year, I chose 3 Platinum Pros who have kept their status for at least 3 years (Owen Turtenwald, Reid Duke, and Yuuya Watanabe) and 3 who only got it once (Josh McClain, Jason Chung, and Ari Lax). I then combined their winnings and divided by 6 to get the following average. Note that the GP winnings apart from the Top 8 are estimates because I don’t have easy access to those numbers, so take that part lightly.

  • $6k/year in GP winnings
  • $13k/year in PT winnings
  • $20k/year to produce content on various websites (ChannelFireball, StarCityGames, TCGPlayer, etc.)
  • $5k/year in sponsorships

Producing content is a major key to live as a professional player—it is not as time consuming as a regular office or store retail job because you can work while traveling and lets you mix your preparation for tournaments and your job to maximize time.

$20,000 is completely an approximate number, based on what I’ve heard depending on how often they write, the website’s budget, etc. I believe the number I chose is representative of an average Platinum Pro.

$5,000 in sponsorship income is again an estimate because some websites pay a base on appearance fees and some others on performance. I’m not as confident that my number here reflects the actual average, but it’s the best I can do.

Total: $44,000

Expenses

Let’s assume they are all living the simplest life—they have no kids, no car, and no other expenses.

I can’t tell exactly how much everyone is paying so I’m just going to use my own expenses from last year (having traveled to many Grand Prix, that should be representative).

  • $5k/year in flights, hotels and cabs
  • $5k/year in rents (apartment/internet/phone)
  • $1.5k/year in food during trips
  • $1k/year in registration fees (represents about 15 GPs played)

My flights are quite expensive because of where I live compared to U.S. flights, but I’m sure it balances out if I add up Asian pro’s flights. My rent is low—there are ups and downs of living in a small city and that is definitely an upside. You could potentially go up to $7-8k if you consider all Platinum Pros live in major cities.

Total: $12,500

Can You Make a Living Out of Playing Magic?

If you total up the numbers above, you are left with $31,500 of which you have to pay taxes, buy clothes, house stuff, food, cards, and everything necessary to live. That’s not a lot.

The short answer is yes. I personally have been Gold for the past year and a half and do live from basically playing and working on Magic-related stuff (content producer for ChannelFireball and DeckedDrafter). But I wouldn’t be able to sustain a wife, kids, and a house, and that’s why Platinum appearance fees push it to the next level. $30,000 a year is what you get working at McDonalds—$40,000 starts getting in the territory of a teacher’s salary.

Wizards has determined that a mere $12,000 isn’t enough to create a “real professional” out of a Magic player, but in reality it is pretty much exactly what Platinums need to reach that line—the difference between full-time pursuit and trivial hobby. $12,000 isn’t much, but it represents enough to start storing extra money to eventually buy a house and diapers.

I don’t have the resources necessary to tell if you can live strictly from Magic anywhere in the world because I don’t know how much each country pays in taxes or even what the cost of living is, but you get the small picture.

Proposed World Championship Structure

Invite all, and only, Platinum Pros to the World Championship, and make it so that 15th through dead last gets $12,000.

There are flaws to this structure. What happens when there’s an uneven numbers of players? Also, depending on how WotC’s budgeting works, there will be years with 30 invited players and that’s most likely over their budget, but there will be years with fewer players than expected—that probably evens out over the years.

If they absolutely don’t want to invest more money on the pro circuit, I believe this is how it should be structured, assuming they come up with good solutions for the flaws (which are pretty minor).

[Editor’s Note: Cost of living expenses updated for better accuracy.]