Credit: Wizards of the Coast
There is some debate among fans and gaming historians about when the current era of esports began. Some say everything changed with the rise of League of Legends . Others would say that the StarCraft boom in South Korea really kicked things off. Another group might argue that everything began, and still owes its success to the original DOOM. Regardless of any of these starting points, there is a competitive game that predates them all: Magic: The Gathering.
The 25-year-old trading card game has supported its own professional, competitive tournament circuit for longer than many gamers have been alive. However, the focus had always been largely on Magic’s physical product rather than its various digital iterations. That all changed this week when developer Wizards of the Coast and its parent company Hasbro announced an overhauled competitive structure for Magic—one with a heavy focus on esports and a $10M prize pool. The Esports Observer spoke to Wizards of the Coast VP of esports Elaine Chase to learn more about the company’s decision to dive into the esports industry.
Mythic Championships and the Magic Pro League
Magic’s new competitive structure has two main pillars: Mythic Championships and the Magic Pro League (MPL). Mythic Championships are large-scale tournaments held both online and in physical venues from local card shops to big convention halls, which are open to a larger pool of players. The Magic Pro League, as Chase described it, is “made up of 32 of the top ranked players from around the world.” These players will compete in weekly online matches played in Wizards newest digital offering: Magic: The Gathering Arena.
Across these two pillars, Wizards will distribute $10M USD in prize money throughout 2019. Additionally, players in the Magic Pro League will each receive a $75K “streaming and playing contract.” Chase explained that this salary is in place for players to not only compete in weekly MPL matches and Mythic Championships, but to also regularly livestream on their personal channels.
“We’ve designed the structure very specifically to provide lucrative opportunities for the pros, for other players, for sponsors, for esports partners,” said Chase.
“Tabletop itself is going to be even bigger than ever in this new structure.”
A developer launching their own esports initiative is nothing new, but Wizards and Hasbro had a rather unique challenge in developing a system for Magic. For over 20 years, Magic has had a robust, well-supported competitive structure known as the Pro Tour. Players of the physical product gathered in local card shops, regional convention halls, and eventually worked their way to large-scale, high-stakes tournaments culminating in a World Championship. An entire ecosystem has grown around the pro tour including pro players, commentators, teams, event organizers, content creators, and even a hall of fame.
Wizards needed to find a way to continue supporting it’s tabletop gaming ecosystem while also moving into the world of esports. According to Chase, this new system does just that.
“Tabletop itself is going to be even bigger than ever in this new structure…In fact, we’re evolving the branding of the pro tour to be Mythic Championships because we want to be able to clearly communicate that competitive Magic exists both in digital on MTG Arena esports and on tabletop with competitive gaming, and make a clear delineation between the pros who are in the Magic Pro League, and those championship tournaments that are open to the public to be able to come in and try to battle against them.”
“With MTG Arena we have a modern, digital platform for the world’s best trading card game.”
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In addition to serving both the existing tabletop ecosystem and a new esports audience, Chase said that the new structure should open the door to more opportunity for sponsors as well. “We do really believe that Magic’s built-in fanbase combined with the amazing new offering that MTG Arena is, along with the esports program that we’ve put behind it which is really industry leading in the [collectible card game] space, all those things combined makes us very expectant that we’ll be able to work very closely with a number of different sponsors for very good opportunities for them to talk to our playerbase and as part of our esports entertainment offerings.”
Credit: Wizards of the Coast
To an outside observer, it may seem odd that a company with decades of history supporting competitive gaming would suddenly decide that now is the time to jump on the esports trend. However, up until this year, Magic was missing one key piece of its esports puzzle: a compelling digital product.
Since 2002, Wizards has supported a digital version of the game known as Magic: The Gathering Online. The platform supports a wide array of game modes, tournaments, and even a secondary market to purchase cards. Unfortunately, a game which still relies on systems which were developed at the turn of the millennium has not aged well in a world where Hearthstone is king of digital card games. Magic Online simply lacks the visual polish, player incentives, and new player experience of a modern digital card game. In short, if you are not already a big fan of Magic, it is very hard to enjoy Magic Online.
While Magic Online remained the primary digital product, the game’s highest level players focused their competitive efforts on tabletop tournaments. For a Twitch audience, watching players interact with small pieces of cardboard had many of the same visual challenges as Magic Online.
“Unless you already know and love Magic, watching competitive Magic tabletop play can be pretty intimidating.”
“We’re very proud of our tabletop program,” said Chase, “which has been running for over 20 years. But at the end of the day, unless you already know and love Magic, watching competitive Magic tabletop play can be pretty intimidating and dense to figure out what’s going on and watch your favorite competitors, and really get a good viewing, esports experience. MTG Arena on the other hand is built to be able to deliver that level of entertainment and esports followings.”
Arena essentially solves all of the problems of Magic Online both from a viewer and player perspective. The game has all the visual flare and polish of a modern digital card game, and has a natural system for educating new players. “With MTG Arena,” Chase added, “we have a modern, digital platform for the world’s best trading card game…we built it from the ground up knowing that we wanted to take Magic’s heritage in competitive gaming and explode that out onto the esports scene.”
With a modern digital product in tow, Magic is poised to become a powerful force in the esports industry. Not only does the game have a competitive history longer than Hearthstone, League of Legends, Dota 2, and Overwatch combined, it also has the support of a massive company in Hasbro. Chase emphasized that with this experience and backing, Magic is ready to shake up the esports industry.
“Magic is not a new entrant into competitive gaming. We’re a new entrant into esports, but we have a very proven game, we’ve got a proven fanbase, we’ve got a proven competitive structure that’s held up for 25 years. It’s got the full weight of Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro, making this a major initiative for us. We’re coming into this and we mean business, and we’re eager to make business with all of the other folks in the ecosystem.”