Magic's Esport Future - Interview With An Industry Veteran

Feature Article from Corbin Hosler
Corbin Hosler
2/22/2017 11:02:00 AM
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There seems to be a ton of talk these days about Magic's future as an esport. From the Team Series (a concept I've given a lot of thought) to increased Magic Online offerings to the future of online play under Magic Digital Next, we have no shortage of things to speculate on when it comes to Magic's future in the arena.

One thing we know for sure: Wizards of the Coast is clearly interested in pursuing the esports angle and putting it front and center. The discussion over whether or not paper Magic can ever be a “real” esport notwithstanding, Wizards is dumping a ton of resources into growing their Twitch presence and streaming capabilities. We've seen an increased number of Grand Prix with video coverage this year, and the Pro Tour coverage is improving every event.

All of this forward momentum is great, and though Magic has a lot of challenges to overcome before ever truly “making it,” we're on the path.

Nothing illustrates this better than Team Cardhoarder, which has taken the team concept and absolutely ran with it. Not only do they have a Pro Tour team for the Team Series, they've gone a step further under owner Nathaniel Buckley-Wright and make regular Grand Prix trips as a team. But it doesn't stop there – Cardhoarder has management positions filled as well. Jennifer Long (Mrs Mulligan on Twitch) does PR for the squad, while Ken Crocker is the team manager.

If these positions sound a little strange to you, you're not alone. As far as I'm aware, this is the first example in Magic of teams filling out management positions so formally. But it's a sight common to teams in other esports, and you'll find all kinds of similar positions on a League of Legends team, for instance, along with analysts, equipment managers, diet managers, etc. If Magic continues to grow as an esport, Cardhoarder is just the beginning.

Which brings me to the topic of today's piece. If Magic is going to try and take its place among other esports, there are some changes coming. The formalized Team Series is the first and most painful part of that process – “teams” that were really just loose groups of friends were torn apart as they jockeyed for sponsorship and to give themselves the best chance of winning the money that Wizards of the Coast is putting on the line.

Unsurprisingly, that has led to more formal arrangements and commitments, such as the ever-more-common sight of team jerseys or the Massdrop and PuzzleQuest sponsorships or the Pantheon Twitch channel kicking off. What these all have in common is an increased commitment from players that goes beyond just meeting up a week before the Pro Tour to test for the format.

We all know what comes with increased commitment: contracts. And negotiations. And lawyers. Trust me when I say this is a good thing – there are some truly abhorrent stories of relationships between teams and players in other esports as they were growing (a few years ago I even wrote a magazine feature about the very subject), and we're lucky that we'll probably be able to avoid many of those issues in Magic.

That's exactly what Matt Dillon plans to do. A graduate of Loyola Law School, Dillon went to work for the law firm Gatzke Dillon & Balance and now works exclusively in the area of esports law. It's a burgeoning field, and Dillon is one of the few lawyers practicing right now. He has experience working with players and teams across a variety of esports, including League of Legends. With Magic slowly but surely moving into the field, Dillon – a lifelong Magic player – hopes to make the transition easier for players, teams and fans alike. I sat down with him and discussed a range of topics, and the following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

C: How did you get where you are today?

M: I'm from San Diego and have lived in California my entire life outside of a few excursions. My original career path was actually in baseball – I was a bat boy for the Padres and Yankees in high school.

C: That's wild. What was that like?

M: It started when I was 10 or 11, I would hang around bug the coaches and managers. Dusty Baker, and eventually he gave me a chance to be a bat boy. It was a great experience.

C: So you got your start in baseball?

M: Yeah, my original career path was working in baseball. While I was at UCLA in college I started working for the Dodgers, and then later for the Red Sox. They told me if I wanted a career in baseball to go to law school and take the (architect of the Sox' World Series title) Theo Epstein path, so that's what I did. When I was in law school the fight for my attention and love and free time was between baseball and video games, and video games definitely won. Esports was just starting to become something it looked like you could have a career in, and then Justin.tv (the precursor to Twitch) came up, and the first wave of streamers began.

C: How did you move in esports law?

M: I got my start with the High School Starleague. There are 10,000 kids who participate each year and they play for college scholarships. That was my first springboard, and from there the first team I started working with was Team Fusion, a League of Legends Challenger team. That allowed me to really develop my contacts in esports for the first time. It began as work on weekends and was a secondary gig on top of my regular case load. Eventually it started to produce enough clients to become my primary practice. Now, it's all I do. I work with players and teams and publishers on anything and everything, from disputes, contracts, negotiating and acquiring sponsorships, immigration and visas – it isn't just one thing, it's a jack-of-all-trades job.

C: Let's talk Magic. How long have you been involved with the game?

M: I started playing as a kid. I definitely remember cracking packs of Ice Age. I took a break and then got back in around Zendikar when I was in law school. Now I enjoy drafts and playing Modern.

C: What's your take on the current state of professional Magic?

M: I've always wanted it to be more than it has been. I saw the rise of Hearthstone, and that game is not as fun as Magic is. If Magic can be presented differently to be more enjoyable to the average person, it could be an esport on the level of Hearthstone. But getting to that position is difficult – a lot of it has to come from WotC and Magic Digital Next. I like that they hired someone with a video game background with (new CEO) Chris Cocks. I love the Twitch partnership. People mistake that as being a partnered streamer, but Magic has been that for years. That's not what this deal was – this is a partnership agreement in the way other esports like Rocket League have partnered with Twitch. Twitch is investing permanent resources into the game and hiring a full-time position for Magic programming. It's a huge step in the right direction.

C: What about the Team Series?

M: It's huge. It's important to get players consistently on the same team. There's been loose teams and associations for years now, but I like that they're putting together six-man teams.

C: A common criticism is that Magic is an individual game, and the teams feel forced.

M: There were teams in Starcraft, and Starcraft is an individual esport – teams can definitely work. It's the same with fighting games. Echo Fox has signed several players for fighters now. Those are individual esports that are not team-based, but they're working together as a team and you can see it paying off.

C: Can Magic stay paper, or does the game have to go digital on the professional level to succeed?

M: I think it can stay paper, but there are improvements that can be made. There are a lot of tech solutions out there to improve Pro Tour coverage. RFID chips in sleeves? A modified table that can produce digital versions of the cards? There are so many unique technologies available that can improve coverage, and if they can find those it can work.

C: So what's the next step for Magic as an esport?

M: We need to get more engagement and more online viewing. You get 10-15,000 watching a Grand Prix, but it doesn't translate – I'd like to capture more of the online audience casually from day-to-day. There aren't enough pro players with consistent streaming schedules or putting in the effort to building up an audience. If Kenji (NumottheNummy) or Paul (Haumph) aren't streaming, Magic can't reach those numbers. Team Pantheon started streaming in the past few weeks, and that's been really good to see. But there also needs to be a platform change: Wizards has to do something different, and hopefully that's Magic Digital Next. There has to be a platform change, but the players also need to be on there consistently.

C: What's your plan for being involved moving forward?

M: To be honest, right now I want to give back to the community and help it grow. If that means putting players and teams in touch with some of the more traditional esports partners, great. If that's negotiating contracts as teams become more of a thing, that's great. We can avoid a lot of the growing pains other esports have had, and I want to help with that.

Conclusion

My conversation with Matt echoes some of the things I've written about in the past, but the perspective of an industry veteran is invaluable. I think that one of the best points made during our conversation was that about streaming and branding – right now, it just doesn't exist the way it does for other esports. You can't imagine a famous League of Legends player like Sneaky or Bjergsen not streaming regularly, and yet with a few notable exceptions it actually seems to be the norm for Magic pros to not stream regularly. Obviously there are a plethora of reasons for this that are very valid (older average age so more family time, for instance), not to mention the criticisms constantly level at Magic Online, but the point stands – growing the game's online presence takes more than just Wizards of the Coast.

Personally, I think something like the Super Leagues that Randy Buehler has been running are a huge opportunity. These have been consistently popular, and the concept of regular Twitch programming has found a niche in the Magic community. I'd love to see Wizards invest more resources into these and explore other similar ideas. Grand Prix and Pro Tour coverage is great, but I think there are some strides that can be made in the online space outside of that. Did you know, for instance, that League of Legends produces a full-on “Sportscenter” style show before the LCS each week? While obviously Magic is nowhere near that level right now, the Super Leagues show the potential of weekly programming online. The secret to popular Magic streaming isn't just skill, it's entertainment.

I don't know how close we are to having lucrative Magic contracts being signed that require legal representation, but I do know that branding in Magic has traditionally been very lackluster. The Team Series isn't just a way to promote teams during the Pro Tour – it's an opportunity for organizations to make an investment into team branding with a tangible benefit for doing so. Outside investment from companies like Massdrop are huge for future investment in the game, and some of the strategies Matt and I discussed are key to facilitating more of that in the future.

There's a long way to go for Magic in terms of becoming a “real” esport, but we are squarely on our way. I'm excited to see where things go from here.

Thanks for reading,

Corbin Hosler
@Chosler88




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