State of the Game: Organized Play

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It’s no secret: Grand Prix attendance is down across the board. It used to be that a 13-2 record hardly locked you for top 8, but now we have 12-3 players—a record that barely prized at last year’s GP Chiba—making the cut on the regular. A year ago, I was surprised and excited to hear about 12-player Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers (PPTQ) in Toronto suburbs. I wanted to win them, after all, and the fewer players, the better my chances, right? This is no longer the anomaly. We now live in a world where premier tournament offerings are on average so terrible that players are simply opting en masse to no longer participate. Gone are the years of 2500-player GPs. We’re lucky to see half that much these days.

What happened?

2014 was a hell of a year for Magic tournaments. There were 400-player PTQs in Toronto, and it became clear very quickly that the popularity of these events threatened their viability. While people obviously wanted to play Magic, titanic events with only one real prize were not sustainable. Something had to change, and so Wizards introduced the PPTQ system. You could play relevant competitive Magic almost every weekend, but that came with a drawback. These events used to fill stores, but the fundamental concept of having to grind every weekend to be on the path to the Pro Tour is starting to show its weaknesses. Giving out premier events to every random store results in massive variance in tournament quality, and requiring an experienced judge to preside over the event to maintain its integrity can exacerbate this problem. The issues with PPTQs are clear, and I don’t expect the system as is to last beyond this PT season. The problems with bigger events are far more nuanced.

In the aftermath of the 2014-2015 attendance boom, with massive events like GP Vegas and the 4300-player Modern GP Richmond, Wizards announced a series of changes to the Grand Prix system. The day 2 cut changed to 6-3 from 7-2, ostensibly to cater to the more casual crowd, and then coupled that by gutting the depth of the prize structure. First place was now 10k USD, but suddenly events under 3000 players only prized out the top 64. We then started to see events have a registration cap well under 3000, and entry fees started to skyrocket as Wizards made judge compensation the responsibility of the tournament organizer.

Over the course of 2016, Grand Prix became an endless money pit. In addition to travel costs, entry fees were hitting over 100 CAD, and the chance of prizing became hilariously unlikely. A 35th place finish was, after the IRS took their share, barely twice the cost of enrolling in the tournament. I’m far from the best Magic player around, but before the prizing change, I was able to consistently make an amount of money at GPs that offset the majority of the costs of being there. Between prizes and reselling the playmat and promo, I’d cover, on average, the entry fee and hotel. That dream is now dead. You’re going to bleed from your wallet attending a Grand Prix—unless you top 8.

So why did they make these outrageous and damaging changes? The narrative that I heard over and over again was that they wanted to take the game in the direction of esports. Let’s address this in two parts:

First off, Magic is not an esport. It is not a spectator-friendly game. Its audience is enthusiasts who are massively invested in the game. There is no audience for Magic outside of enfranchised players, and there probably never will be, thanks to the colossal information barrier-to-entry. There’s nothing wrong with that, and that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be coverage, or that Magic shouldn’t explore the same media platforms that make esports successful. There just has to be a systemic acknowledgement that it will never be something akin to CounterStrike or League of Legends. There will never be NBA teams paying 10 million USD for a spot in the Pro Tour Team Series because Magic has a fundamentally different ecosystem to the world of viewer friendly video gaming.

So why is Wizards so obsessed with it? Were I a gambling man—and I am—I’d put all my money on Hearthstone. Blizzard, known for its spectator friendly esports titles, went fairly hard on turning its digital card game into a spectator phenomenon. While its popularity as a spectator sport has definitely waned, it’s been pretty clear that it left Magic in the dust as far as the new media game was concerned. That means a lot in the corporate world, and I’d bet there was at least one angry meeting where Hasbro higher-ups had some words to say to the Magic digital department.

Magic couldn’t possibly match Hearthstone, because Magic is not a video game—and Magic Online is an embarrassment to both Magic and the mere concept of being Online. But why would it want to match Hearthstone? Both games make colossal amounts of money, but Magic isn’t flashy. It never makes it in the news—someone’s collection being dramatically stolen notwithstanding. The changes to Organized Play in the past few years have all been with the goal of increasing media awareness of the tournament scene. Corporate sees esports as a marketing success and says, “why don’t we have that?” The investment put towards this goal, however, is comically mismatched. “The International” Dota 2 tournament had a prize purse of loosely infinite dollars this year, and got a bunch of media coverage. League of Legends World’s has a viewership that trumps the NBA finals, so it got a bunch of media coverage. GPs now award two pennies instead of one to the winner, and the PT’s top prize purse is several decimal spaces behind its esports competition. Coverage, while dramatically improved in recent years, is still nothing compared to the extravagant productions in the weekly LCS.

It’s a totally reasonable goal to want to emulate the success of esports properties, but if you try to invest pennies against millions, you’re gonna make a fool of yourself.

What is being done?

That’s not to say, however, that the esports-ification of Magic is all doom and gloom. Structural changes like the Team Series that improve the likelihood of sponsor involvement promote real growth in the competitive Magic ecosystem, and Wizards has demonstrated willingness to work with and promote streamers with the Streamer Showdown and such. I could argue that this is just a natural reaction to the predicament of terrible tournament structures and prizing. People who love Magic passionately and want to be involved on a professional basis are forced to seek alternative income streams, as merely playing the game professionally is not a viable career.

Magic’s complex secondary market and the myriad revenues associated with it are outside of the scope of this article, however, so let’s get back to whining—I mean talking about tournaments. Wizards is obviously aware of the precipitous decline in GP attendance. Atlanta 2015 had over 2000 players. 2016 had 1600, and this year we barely broke 1300. This is not an outlier. They know something has to change, but they’re being very cautious with how they approach it.

There was massive outcry about the 6-3 cut to day 2. It killed the prestige of the achievement to many, and definitely exacerbated the problem of the shallow prize pool. Wizards announced some superficial changes to 2018 Grand Prix, including a compromise 6-2 cut and a less grueling Saturday schedule. These are, of course, positive changes, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re just band-aid solutions to bigger problems.

Another step in the right direction is the contracting of the Grand Prix circuit to Channel Fireball. The eclectic mix of tournament organizers running this premier event series led to a wide range of negative experiences, and a lot of the issues with the viability of Grand Prix as an attendee had to do with how miserable the experience was with certain organizers. Centralizing this with a consistent partner who can be held accountable is certainly a good start, though so far events in 2018 don’t seem to be much different from the status quo. They’re still very expensive, and registration bonuses like playmats are still premium add-ons.

The move towards more team-centric competition is also very interesting. Magic is, at its core, a very social game, and team events typically have increased attendance against comparable individual events. However, GPs already suffer from being incredibly difficult to prize, and the reduced variance of these team events produces another barrier to viability for amateur players. The same teams win Team Limited GPs every time because of just how skillful it is, and while that’s a positive for coverage narratives and such, it has an insidious impact on the competitive base of the game. Magic needs to be financially viable for the average competitive player, as it cannot support a spectator-only base. Every change that moves away from prizing out the average competitor reduces the enfranchisement of the base. That’s obscenely dangerous for this game that relies on that, and worries me for the future.

What more can be done?

Well, the onus is largely on Wizards to effectuate real, lasting change. They run the most prestigious tournament series, and as long as the Pro Tour represents the pinnacle of competition, the health of tournament Magic depends on Wizards taking action to restore the viability of the game for its core competitive crowd.

I believe that this starts with making the Grand Prix circuit affordable again. Wizards doesn’t pocket the entry fees from GPs, but still incurs a loss on each event with the prize payout ostensibly coming out of their marketing budget. It’s totally reasonable for the independent tournament organizer to pocket a profit for the massive undertaking of running a convention-level event, but Wizards has already started taking steps towards being more involved. I’d like to see them being more financially involved, hopefully bringing down the entry fees to encourage event growth. On top of this, they need to find a solution to the prizing situation at these events. To pay such an exorbitant entry fee for a thousand-player tournament with top 64 prizes is rather absurd. The Grand Prix is the flagship large Magic event, and it needs to be worth it to attend as a player for the sake of a healthy tournament ecosystem.

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