Monday, April 25, 2016

On the Organized Play Changes

Yesterday during the Top 8 of Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad, Director of Global Organized Play Helene Bergeot took to the news desk to announce some broad changes to the way Professional level Magic will work moving forward. The aspect of her announcement that was heard loudest was the reduction in Platinum Pro appearance fees. Platinum Pros are the all-stars of Pro Magic and slashing their Pro Tour appearance fee per event from $3,000 to $250 is drastic. While there is more prize money going to a marquee event - the World Championships - there is still a ton to unpack in this announcement.

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way - the timing of this bombshell was horrific.
No, it was worse than that.
While this announcement was surely scheduled well in advance of Sunday, April 24th, the calendar confluence could not have been worse. The story going into the day was that we were witnessing a Top 8 for the ages.
The elimination rounds featured three Hall of Famers. One - Jon Finkel - is just adding to his Greatest of All Time resume. Another - Luis Scott-Vargas - is an affable ambassador for the game who does so much for growing Magic I could write an entire article just on that. But here is a picture that helps sum it up:
Then there’s Shota Yasooka, who continues to be a force unto himself. Brad Nelson finally found another Pro Tour Top 8 after his Player of the Year season over 5 years ago. Seth Manfield is the reigning World Champion and has spoken about how this may be his last go around now that he has a young child. Luis Salvatto made the Top 8 for the first time and gave Argentina its first Sunday stage in years. Andrea Mengucci made his second Top 8 after leading Italy to a World Magic Cup victory. Eventual champion Steve Rubin was the quietest Platinum Pro last season and notched a win in his first Top 8.

There is a tome worth of tales there but what was everyone talking about on Sunday? The changes to appearance fees.
Pro Tour Sunday has, for better or worse, become the primary avenue for disseminating important information for the upcoming year with regards to professional play. So it made sense to have this announced in the predetermined slot.
It also made no sense at all. Not only did it completely overshadow the event itself (which was awesome) the timing of the change means that people who have been flying around the world in pursuit of making it the Platinum are left in the lurch.
Before even having an opportunity to see the fruits of their labor it’s rotted off the vine.
Which brings me to the next point - the timing of this change in the context of the history of Magic.
The last time there was a massive change in the Pro Tour was during the 2008 season. At this time a pro tour was being removed from the schedule and Professional Levels were being redone. There was a huge outcry from the Professional and Fan community alike and there was plenty of discussion surrounding the change. Pro players and Wizards staff came together to try and find a solution.
That season came during a low point for the game. Time Spiral and Lorwyn were loved by entrenched players but did not succeed in attracting new players. It was around this time that there was greater talk of acquisition and this led to New World Order. Once fully implemented with Zendikar, Magic started a string of “Most Successful Year Ever” where each year surpassed the achievements of the one prior.
So why did this change happen in 2016 if the game is continuing to grow? The 2015-16 season has seen a reduction in Grand Prix video coverage. When taken in context with the Escape Room events at Grand Prix Melbourne, Bolgona, and Detroit we can infer a few things. First is that Wizards is continuing to push acquisition but it now wants to also push immersion. Magic is far more than a game for a large portion of people who play it. Focusing on this population - those with no aspirations of making the Tour - makes good business sense. Second, Wizards may be aiming a proportional amount of funds at the number of customers affected. There are far fewer Platinum Pros than Commander Players.
I do not think this is the right mindset (if it is even accurate) and I’ll return to this point later.

Magic is entering a new phase of storytelling. The Origins Five are the new protagonists and the story is going to take place in a more sequential manner. The last time there was a huge reboot to the way the story was told, the introduction of Planeswalkers, was between Time Spiral and Lorwyn. If the game wants to do the same thing with its Professional Players, why make these cuts?
I have no good reasoning for this other than it wants to tell new stories and these changes are designed to push a new crop of pro to the forefront.
But this is terrible in terms of acquisition and visibility. Visibility matters now more than ever for a broadcast game. While Hearthstone and other games may not qualify as “competitors” to those in charge they certainly compete for players and viewers. Magic is the greatest game in the world and it should be seen as such. Focusing on the All-Stars should be a priority. In order to focus on these players they need to be able to attend events and support the lifestyle.

Which begs the question - what does it mean to be a Professional Magic Player? If Wizards wants professional players then the players need to be able to earn a living from playing the game. Matt Sperling has some thoughts about how this may tie to the change and I would recommend giving his piece a read. It appears on the surface that Wizards wants professional players but does not want the onus of having to pay them. On some level this makes sense - Major League Baseball does not pay salaries, individual teams are responsible for that.

So does Wizards want to move to a sponsorship model? Is that a bad thing?
The mistake here is thinking that sponsorship does not already happen. Every writer is sponsored by their site and many Professional Testing teams are affiliated with a business. Most of those businesses are Magic websites (StarCityGames, ChannelFireball) but at least one - Team UltraPro - is sponsored by a product. The Vintage Super League is sponsored by Puca Trade and has ads for other products. The successful Star City Games Tour is funded by the associated business. Sponsorship is happening and it looks like it may be coming to the Pro Tour.
But there are problems with this. Sponsors want visible competitors and by removing the incentive for the Magic’s best to keep battling it creates a gap where Platinums would be literally playing for exposure and as anyone who has been asked to do work for exposure knows that notoriety doesn’t buy you breakfast.
So how bad is this? These come from the voices of the Pro Tour:
From Magic’s stars:

There are more, of course.

So how does this get fixed? First Wizards needs to promise the players that are Platinum that their benefits will be honored for the 2016-17 season. These people put in the time and effort and they succeeded at the game. They should be rewarded in line with what they were told.
Second, Wizards needs to find a better way to support professional level players. I am not saying it needs to be at the same level they had in the past but they should help to support these people play the game at the highest level and make it possible to do so.
Announcements regarding professional play should be timed so that those directly affected have time to make decisions before deciding to pursue the quest for Platinum. Remove the “feel bad” press releases from Pro Tour Sunday and save them for another time. I know Wizards wants as many eyes on those as possible but doing so can detract from the main event which runs contrary to having the Pro Tour.
Magic also needs to figure out how to cover its events. It is not a fast paced game like League of Legends or Hearthstone. Trying to mimic those brands won’t work for Magic. Yes, gameplay is important, but so are the stories of the players. The stories have to be the focus, and for that the game needs professional players.
Wizards is not George RR Martin and can’t keep creating new protagonists.
Why do I care? I’m not a pro and have no real aspirations of ever making the tour. I’m a writer for a niche format and an editor on a site. My job is the cover the game in some capacity.
Yet I love the stories. Magic has a rich history that should be told over and over. I may never make it to the Top 8 on Sunday but being able to debate which Top 8 is better- Kai’s Chicago or Rubin’s Madrid - is something I want to do over beers. Players all over the world should be talking about the Pro Tour the way generations past tried to figure out who was the best in centerfield - Willie, Mickey, or the Duke? I’m invested in this game because I love it and it’s part of my life. These debates should happen and Wizards should encourage the discussion.
In the ongoing history of Magic I hope this moment is a footnote and not a chapter.