If Magic eventually succeeds on the highest level, we'll look back on this weekend as the birth of an esport.
That's me in the background, covering the biggest match of my life. I've been around Magic since the beginning of regular streaming coverage, and for the last three years I've been a part of the coverage team. Despite the headsets and my deep desire to make it so, I can confidently say that Magic has not yet made it as an esport, no matter how many press releases or conference calls Hasbro releases that say otherwise.
That may begin to change this weekend.
I'm talking, of course, about the Team Series. Thirty-two teams have submitted the necessary materials to compete in the soft launch of the Series, and I believe this could be the birth of the next level. If you're not familiar with the team series, it breaks down like this.
This is big news for the game, and if handled right I believe it has the potential to truly take the Pro Tour to the next level. Outside of the offices in Renton, I probably spend as much time thinking about how to make Magic a “real” esport as anyone in the world. I left a successful career working as a journalist in “real” sports to pursue a future in gaming journalism – that's how much I believe in the field, and the fact I'm writing primarily about Magic rather than something else is a testament to how strongly I believe Magic can provide a stable future for my family, and that includes continuing to grow in the realm of esports.
But despite the improvements of the last few years, we're not quite there yet. There are some important factors to discuss to how to make that a reality, and how the Team Series furthers that is what I want to dive into today.
First, let's begin with this caveat: I do not want to turn this into an argument over whether Magic can ever really be an esport since the tournaments are played with paper cards. I'm using the term esport to describe the reality in which Magic can draw big numbers on Twitch and hold its own against some of the other mid-level esports in terms of support. Whether or not the cards are paper or digital is certainly a consideration, but quibbling over the semantics of the term “esport” isn't constructive, so let's agree up front to just not.
Everyone likes a big check – just ask Happy.
But big checks are more than just a novelty – they're an important marketing tool. And with the Team Series, Wizards can finally lay claim to their own big check. It's not like the $40,000 awarded to Pro Tour winners is chump change, but when you're talking about games like League of Legends and DotA 2 that are awarding numbers in the millions, it doesn't do much to draw attention. While $100,00 is still obviously much less than those other games, it is an attention-grabbing number that will draw eyeballs to the coverage. Given Wizards of the Coast's recent partnership with Twitch, we can expect more crossover viewers than ever before, and the big check waiting at the end of the road only helps to draw those viewers in.
One of the big problems with the current structure around professional Magic is that it's almost entirely subsidized by Wizards of the Coast. While people will compare the $40,000 check to the $6 million the winners of DotA 2's The International receive and scoff at Magic, the truth is Wizards dumps a lot more money into the system than we see. Unlike “traditional” esports, where player salaries (for the most part) and lodging and travel are covered by their respective teams, in Magic much of that cost is borne by WotC itself. And I'm not just talking stages and banners and lights and cameras. Airfare, hotels, even appearance fees – so much more money is sunk into Magic events than we'll ever see written on a big check.
It's a model that made some sense in the past. After all, in 1996 when Pro Tour One happened in New York, this is what mobile gaming looked like.
I doubt anyone then imagined the world we live in today, where the League of Legends World Finals can draw more viewers than the NBA Finals or The Masters. Wizards was ahead of the curve in supporting professional play of a game, and in that world subsidizing those costs absolutely made sense.
Those times are long gone. I can pick up my phone right now and play competitive Hearthstone. I can play Overwatch on my TV or my computer. Even more importantly, millions of people can watch others play those games on Twitch and be entertained. No one has ever accused Wizards of being ahead of the curve technologically, but they're learning how to adapt to the brave new world we live in.
Enter the Team Series.
Magic has a lot of problems as an esport that we're all aware of – slow games, difficult-to-understand board states, a high barrier to entry both in knowledge and money, etc. We're not here to litigate those today. But there is one challenge other than the Big Check Magic faces that the Team Series does solve: making a connection.
Making a connection is what fandom is all about. Think about it. What's your favorite football or basketball or baseball team? What about your favorite band? Is there any particular reason it should be your favorite? Is it the best, the most technically skillful, the most famous?
Or is it your favorite because of the emotions it stirs in you? Being from Oklahoma and the first in my family to attend college, I didn't exactly have any teams that “belong” to me. The Dallas Cowboys were in another state, we had no basketball team yet and I didn't have any particular reason to be a fan of the University of Oklahoma or Oklahoma State, typically the big split among Oklahomans.
As a journalist covering OU, it was my job to be impartial, and I was and still am. But every time Oklahoma State plays Oklahoma I can't help but pull, just a little, for OSU, because I remember those Saturday afternoons with my dad watching them play. I remember my AAU coach taking the team to a game at Gallagher-Iba Arena. Those were good times, and because of them I formed a connection to OSU sports, even though there's no “real” reason for it.
The same applies to esports. Walk around any Grand Prix hall and you're sure to spot a few Cloud 9 jerseys and maybe a TSM jersey or two. Heck, I even own a personally NME jersey myself that was a gift from the owner during the organization's short-lived run in the League of Legends LCS. I'm no more a part of NME than that player in the Grand Prix hall sporting their Cloud 9 jersey, but hey, that's just fandom. You see it when you see players wearing ChannelFireball shirts despite no affiliation with the brand outside the fact they're just fans who feel an emotion connection to the brand.
Magic, by and large, has lacked that for its more than 20-year history. While ChannelFireball has undoubtedly done the best job at positioning itself in this way, the constant shifting of ambassadors of the brand hasn't made it easy, and having someone like Luis-Scott Vargas as the face of your organization is already a benefit most organizations don't have.
The Team Series can change that. Locking players and teams into year-long roles enforces a continuity that has long been missing from teams that form, split, re-form and re-name every three or six months. Moving forward, the Team Series will eliminate some of that confusion. Brad Nelson, a veteran of so many Pro teams that you don't associate him with any one brand, will be – until at least next season – a representative of Team Genesis. Shuhei Nakamura, an on-and-off member of ChannelFireball, will represent Team Hareruya.
If you don't think any of this matters, ask yourself why there are so many Cloud 9 jerseys and CFB shirts at Grand Prix, and why you don't see the same thing from every organization. Establishing that emotional connection matters, and to do that you have to have enough continuity to give viewers a chance.
Chances are you have a favorite player to watch on coverage. That's great if you're like most people and a huge LSV fan, since the man is either Top 8ing three Pro Tours in a row or hanging out in the coverage booth when he's not. It's a little less easy if your favorite player is someone less ubiquitous. 2015 World Champion Seth Manfield doesn't bomb out of many tournaments (seriously, his consistency is insanely impressive), but if you're tuning into the Pro Tour to watch Seth and he starts out 2-3, chances are you're not going to catch him on camera. If that was your biggest draw to tuning in, you're a lot less likely to keep the stream on.
But Seth is now a member of Team Genesis. Even if Seth bombs out, there are other members of Team Genesis still playing, members whose success equals success for your favorite player given the Team Series. Seth may not be on camera when you tune in, but maybe Martin Dang is – suddenly you have a rooting interest formed, and you're still invested in what's going on.
Magic is a game with inherent variance, and it's almost impossible to predict which pro will do well at a given Pro Tour. That leads to a lot of fatigue for the average viewer as the names at the top can change quite regularly. But the beauty of the Team Series is that you no longer have to be aware of 150 pros just to know who's playing – you just have to know a dozen or so of the top teams. That lowers the burden for fandom by an incredible amount, and comes with some built-in advantages similar to other sports.
For instance, region. Dex Army features a Hall of Famer in Willy Edel and Pro Tour Kaladesh finalist Carlos Romao, and the largely Latin American team has a built-in fanbase with viewers from that region of the world. Likewise with Team Last Samurai, with four Japanese Hall of Famers on the roster.
Continuity builds connection. Connection builds emotional investment, and investment builds fandom. For the first time in Magic's history, we're going to see where that can lead.
I know it all seems sort of “meh” now, but as we move forward these are vital concepts to recognize. They are the same concepts that leads to a Magic player wearing a Cloud 9 hoodie at their local Grand Prix.
So far I've talked about some of the less tangible benefits of teams – the emotional connections that will form for these teams. But there's another aspect to it that I touched when I mentioned the overall costs Wizards sinks into the professional scene.
In League of Legends, the game's parent company Riot sponsors a small salary for each contracted player. This was put into place in the very beginning of the professional scene to foster the lifestyle – exactly what Wizards of the Coast has been doing for all these years.
But League of Legends grew out of that. The amount Riot pays to players is now a pittance of their overall compensation – much more of it comes directly from the teams they're contracted with. This is a proposition that works out for the teams involved because of the monetization of the brand they've built over the years. Prize money from winnings is part of it, but so too are sponsorships and merchandise sales – our Cloud 9 jersey shows up again – that give them the ability to hire players.
Remember what I said about fandom? With that comes money, and it's here that Magic actually has a leg up on other esports. Monetizing hoodie sales only goes so far if you're Cloud 9 – sponsorships have to be a large part of the pie. Magic's viewer numbers aren't big enough yet to attract those kind of sponsors, but unlike those games Magic has something no other esport has – a thriving secondary market. Whether you're a store or simply an esport organization partnering with a store, there's a much more direct path to monetizing the relationship with viewers than in other esports. Players watch your team on stream, and follow them off stream, directly to their written or video content on a website that sales them cards.
We've certainly seen stores attempt this in the past – StarCityGames, ChannelFireball and Hareruya are the best examples of this. But with no formalization of the process, the entire chain became too diluted to create as much of a payoff as it should have – you'd have SCG writers playing for other teams, for instance, which undermines the brand loyalty you're attempting to create with your team.
Of course, that was all before the Team Series. Which is where coverage and Wizards of the Coast come in.
We've talked a lot about the value of teams, and how the Team Series is good for viewers. What we haven't talked about is exactly why anyone would want to foot the bill for a team – after all, we've seen major stores do so in the past and then pull out, a clear indication that the return on investment wasn't worth it.
If Wizards wants to encourage teams – as they should based on the factors we've discussed here – they need to help change the incentive scheme for potential team owners. After all, if you want to attract the Cloud 9s and Evil Geniuses and NRGs of the world – as Wizards certainly does – you need to make the case it's worth it. You don't do that with some five-minute update segments on the Team Series sandwiched in between deck techs at a Pro Tour – you have to push it hard.
I have no idea what Wizards has planned for the launch of the Team Series at this Pro Tour. But I know they only have one chance to make the right impression – teams have to feel like they matter to the average viewer. I want to see team logos next to their names on graphics. I want in-depth stories that give me reasons to root for particular players and/or teams. I want roundtable discussions of the relative strengths and weaknesses of teams and how they'll work together or match up against other teams. I want professional team photos spammed on camera every chance we get. I want a hype video kicking off the launch of the team series. I want regular reminders throughout the season that teams are building toward the Top Two at the World Championship. I want rivalries between the teams and not just individuals.
As usual, LSV said it best.
The Team Series is as much or as little as Wizards makes it to be. It can be a neat little sideshow to the main event, or it can be a defining feature of events to come. The more Wizards promotes the team aspect, the more value there is in a team winning, and the more value there is in a team winning the more money organizations will be willing to invest in Magic.
If enough value is attached to that, then we will see the landscape begin to shift toward that of other esports, where organizations can begin to foot some of that bill that Wizards of the Coast is currently paying. As that happens, those big checks can become even larger.
It all starts somewhere. We can trace the origin of “teams” all the way back to “Team CMU” 20+ years ago, and the ChannelFireballs of the world since. All of that has led to this moment, when Magic can shed one of its major limiting factors and emerge as a brand well-positioned to life in the esports world of 2017.
We've already seen signs there is demand for this, and if teams like ChannelFireball led the way in branding, Team Cardhoarder is taking it to the next level. The organization boasts year-round contracts with its notable players including Joe Lossett, Andrew Tenjum and Noah Walker that include Grand Prix appearances. They have travel budgets, a team manager and even a PR lead (Ken Crocker and Jennifer Long, respectively). If Magic is to become a successful esport in the future, Cardhoarder is paving the way for what professional Magic organizations will look like in the future.
Team Massdrop isn't waiting.
The former East-West Bowl group has gone a step further than most in the new Magic world and partnered with a non-exclusive Magic company. Likewise, the former Pantheon team also secured outside sponsorship by partnering with the creators of PuzzleQuest: D3GoGames.
These are quietly the biggest news to come out of the initial Team Series rush. Sure, Massdrop occasionally has "drops" on Magic product, but it's fundamentally a different company than something like ChannelFireball or Face to Face Games or Hareruya. It's no Red Bull or Monster or Razer, but it is a huge step toward making Magic an attractive advertising outlet for companies. The fact that every team in the Team Series will be wearing customized jerseys with space for more advertisement is icing on the cake here.
Let's be honest: Magic has a long way to go before it could ever rival the biggest esports titles in the world. I tend to get overzealous talking about this stuff, but like I said, I believe in the future of Magic. There is a ton of work to be done to achieve that future, but it's a future that is within reach, and the Team Series is a huge first step toward that, a step that we'll see taken this week in Dublin.
The future is now. Are we ready for it?
Thanks for reading,