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Wizards of the Coast’s $10M USD competitive push for Magic: The Gathering in 2019 was noteworthy not only for the significant dollar amount attached, but also the company’s attempt to merge the collectible card game’s traditional tabletop (“paper Magic”) community with esports efforts for the brand new Magic: The Gathering Arena digital game.
Across formats, Magic has more players than ever, according to the company, plus Twitch and YouTube viewership has more than doubled over the last year. Additionally, Magic led parent company Hasbro’s Q2 2019 revenue increase, between a rise in players for in-store tabletop competition and growing revenue from Arena.
However, partway through the season, the company’s first attempt at merging the paper and digital worlds of Magic: The Gathering hasn’t been a seamless one thus far. Some fans of the tabletop game feel that their side of the card game’s universe is being marginalized, for example. Meanwhile, other players have complained about the lack of a clear path into the top-tier Magic Pro League (spanning both Arena and paper), in which professional players are given salaried contracts to both play and stream.
Given those concerns, among others, Magic: The Gathering esports will shift its approach for the 2020 season, largely separating the competitive worlds of paper Magic and Arena. Each side will have its own distinctive approach, along with leagues and competitions, although they will still culminate in a season-ending World Championship that covers both formats.
“When we launched the program late last year, the intention was to integrate both Arena and tabletop together, and really provide a cohesive Magic experience that you could play across both platforms. But it was just proving to be super messy,” explained Bear Watson, Wizards of the Coast director of esports for Arena, during a phone interview with The Esports Observer this week.
“The paper system has a lot of moving pieces to it, digital has its own strengths, and Arena has been growing and growing since we launched last year,” he continued. “We really needed to take a hard look at the system and figure out where we could purposefully integrate the two systems instead of just doing it across the board.”
Both sides of the professional Magic equation see major changes as a result of the new structure. The Magic Pro League will now be joined by a Rivals League, a lower-tier offering in which up-and-coming and bubble players can vie for a chance to challenge for Pro League spots. Magic: The Gathering Arena will still have a trio of Mythic Invitational events in 2020, meanwhile, with $750K awarded at each competition.
This year’s Mythic Invitational event has been the most watched Magic competition to date by a significant margin, generating over 1M hours watched.
Meanwhile, tabletop Magic will feature a new regional structure called the Players Tour, with more than $2.5M awarded over the course of the season’s championships. As mentioned, Arena and tabletop players alike will compete in a $1M World Championship, plus both the Players Tour and Mythic Invitational events will feature twice the qualification spots for 2020, letting more players take a shot at rising to the top and winning some cash.
“We wanted to make sure that both games had the right experience for our players,” said Ben Drago, senior manager for competitive gaming for tabletop Magic, during the joint interview. “With the growth in Magic and how big it’s become and how many players there are, it really made it clear to us that we should take this opportunity to rebuild the foundations to accommodate all of these additional players that are playing Magic. Going down that path, we realized that a regional system is going to give way more players access to play.”
Overall, player feedback suggested that while Magic was making competitive strides in this first combined season, there were still some gaps to fill. Watson said that Wizards of the Coast has been taking in comments from current pro players and competitive Magic veterans, as well as noted community members.
“This program impacts and affects a lot of audiences who are super, super passionate about Magic,” he said, “and especially in the last few years of really large growth, it’s just a really important thing to make sure you’re talking to those people.”
Wizards of the Coast has also been speaking with esports organizations, which have shown growing interest in Magic esports as the competitive scene has developed and Arena has awarded nearly $1.9M in prize money so far in 2019. Team Liquid and Complexity Gaming are two of the teams that currently field Arena competitors, and Watson said that Wizards is working to make the revised league structure as appealing as possible to prospective organizations.
“We’re having a lot of conversations on the back end with teams on what they’re looking for within a system, and that’s anything from stability, monetization opportunities, promotional content, and pros being viewed on broadcast—the full gamut of value that teams would expect to see from an esports program,” he said. “We’ve been integrating that stuff thoughtfully into the system, and with the stability of the Rivals League and the MPL and how there’s a clear path now, a lot of teams are very interested in picking up players because there’s that stability now within the system. That said, we have to launch the system going into next year.”
He also added that the idea of expanding prize pools via crowdfunding is something that they will consider in the future. “We’re definitely interested in those types of ideas,” said Watson. “I definitely don’t have anything to announce or dig into, but I think just in general, community-supplemented prize pools have seen a lot of success in esports, so I think we’ll take a look at it and see if it’s right for the program. But I think that would be later down the line.”
Even with the revised structure, Wizards of the Coast will continue to make a sizable investment into competitive Magic, with at least $10M planned for prize pools and player support for the next season. Paper Magic and Magic: The Gathering Arena competition won’t be quite as intertwined in 2020, but the team aims to ensure that both ends of the ecosystem can coexist.
“There’s no other esport out there that has to balance both a physical and digital platform in competitive play,” Watson added. “I think as we launch our two systems going into next year, you’ll see some creative implementation to balance out those platforms.”
Editor’s Note: Interview conducted by Trent Murray
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