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By: one million words, Pete Jahn
May 28 2021 12:00pm
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Did #PaythePros Kill the Pro Tour?
 
The answer to that questions is – it’s complicated. Let’s start with some history.
 
The Pro Tour began in the late 1990s. For the first two decades, the Pro Tour paid out decent prizes, and Wizards provided some support for players, but players couldn't really make a living playing magic. Not at a professional level.  With side hustles and other support, players could survive by playing Magic full time – but that was about it.
 
Since the very beginning of the Pro Tour, players wanted to be able to make a living wage playing Magic. It was always an aspiration, and pros always asked Wizards for more support. That culminated in the drive called #PaythePros. #PaythePros was a coordinated push – by pros, commentators and streamers, and others – for professional players to earn a reasonable / professional wage. In 2019 Wizards acquiesced. They created the Magic Pro League. Members of the League were paid a serious salary. This resulted in some serious changes to the Pro Tour, and – arguably – to its discontinuation and to what some people are calling the end of professional magic.
 
Let's look at this in more detail. But before going there, I should provide my bona fides.  I started trying to qualify for the Pro Tour late last Millennium. I Top 8ed some Pro Tour qualifiers back in the day, but by the early 2000’s it was clear that while I could get close, I was not going to be a fixture on the Pro Tour as a player.  I got there as a judge, instead.  I have been to five World Championships, a couple dozen Pro Tours, over 100 GPs, etc., etc., etc. I've seen the Pro Tour not necessarily from the inside, but from a very privileged position all around the fringes. I’ve known most of the Wizards employees that worked on pro Magic, plus many of the TOs, scorekeepers, and a lot of pro players. I wrote about the Pro Tour and professional Magic for 20 years, on this and other websites. But enough about me.
 
Back in the day - and by this I'm talking in circa 2000 – pros could expect prize money and – if they were very good – some appearance fees and maybe end of year bonus payments.  Players who won a Pro Tour qualifier received a check for $250 to cover airfare ($500 if it the Pro Tour was on another continent.) Beyond that, there really wasn't any support.  Even for the best of the best, this still did not add up to a decent salary. It was also complex and somewhat opaque.
 
Around 2005, Wizards created the Pro Players’ Club to try to clarify matters. The Pro Players’ Club had multiple levels:  bronze, silver, gold, and platinum.  At lower levels, players would get things like byes to a Grand Prix, and some invites to Pro Tours. These things have value, but it is not necessarily monetary, and not huge. At the highest level, platinum players could expect invites to all of the Pro Tours, plus appearance fees of $3000 per Pro Tour, an additional $1000 if they attended the World Championships, and $500 for up to 6-8 Grand Prix's per year. Basically if the pros attended all of the Pro Tours, Worlds and GP's they could, they would get appearance fees totaling about what a minimum wage job would pay. Wizards also covered travel expenses to the Pro Tours and Worlds for Platinum pros.  Platinum level was not easy to reach - players needed to accumulate 52 pro points during the previous year to qualify.
 
In short, even being a Platinum pro during this time period did not mean you earned a respectable salary. Most magic pros supplemented this income by sponsorships, writing articles, streaming, appearance fees from other sources like being part of a team, etc.
 
Enter #PaythePros.
 
As long as there has been a Pro Tour, players have tried to make a living playing magic. Pros have always asked for more support. This drive became organized beginning around 2010, and coalesced into #PaythePros later in the decade. A lot of pros, plus a significant number of writers, commentators, streamers and other influencers got behind the hashtag. The lobbying effort asked Wizards to pay pros a professional wage.  It pointed to other e-sports, which were paying their pro players. With Wizards looking to get into e-sports, comparisons to what other eā€‘sports were doing became increasingly relevant.
 
Beginning in 2019, Wizards began paying the pros serious money. They created the Magic Pro League. Under this new system, the top 32 players were paid a real salary for playing Magic professionally. This was a big change.
 
Now I'm not saying that #PaythePros was the only reason for the creation of the Magic Pro League and resultant changes to the Pro Tour. A number of factors were coming together to push Wizards in this direction. First, large paper tournaments were presenting numerous problems, which I may talk about in another article.  Arena became a huge hit surprisingly early, and Wizards had to incorporate that in Pro play. Arena was hot. Equally importantly, Arena is much more viewable than paper events. It is much glitzier then hanging a camera above a table, even when that camera is on a boom and handled by a professional operator. And, of course, you don’t have to wait while players shuffle. Shuffling is boring. As a judge who has had to watch players shuffle up tens of thousands of times, I would claim that lack of shuffling is the best part of online play.
 
Wizards always struggled with the size of Pro Tours leading up to 2019.  Pro Tours had often ended up with 400 to 500 players. This is too many.  It's too many rounds, but unless the event has that many rounds, you don't get a clean cut to top 8.  Logistically, 500 players is a mess. I know.  I’ve helped set up, tear-down and run dozens of very large events. Anything over 500 players is not a celebratory event; it's a grueling marathon. That's true for players, for spectators and for everyone else involved.
 
Moving to Arena imposed additional size restrictions on Pro Play – at least at in person events.  In the pre-streaming days, Arena tournaments were run on computers and over a LAN all provided by Wizards. That’s expensive. It’s not just the cabling, the servers and the high end PC's for an event; all that also requires enough IT staff to set it up (in a very short period of time) and keep it running. The first big Arena event – Mythic Invitational Boston in 2019 - had just 64 players. Providing the infrastructure to make it happen was one reason for that limited number.
 
Sixty-four players is not a lot. That is especially true when you have many more players with strong claims to be invited. Back in the day, Hall of Fame members had automatic invites. So did the several dozen Platinum pros, while Pro Club members at lower levels had one free invite a year. And that does not include the winners of previous PTs, GPs and other qualifiers, all of who were supposed to be invited to the Pro Tour. I'll talk more about that in another article, but it was also a driver.
 
Whatever the reasons, Wizards created the Magic Pro League, and paid the pros. This was not insignificant.  In its initial incarnation, Wizards paid each of the 32 members of the League an annual salary of $75,000.  That’s $2.4 million per year.  That is significant.
 
Wizards has never released data on the cost of Pro Tours and the Pro Players’ Club, but we can make some estimates.  On average, four dozen pros reached Platinum status each year.  With airfare, appearance fees and end of year payments, the Platinum pros may have cost Wizards up to $1,000,000 per year.  However, the lower level members received significantly fewer benefits. It seems unlikely that those costs would have been more than half a million per year. (It would be fun to see the actual data, but we won’t. That's not how business works in this country.)
 
Clearly, paying the Magic Pro League members real salaries consumed a much larger portion of the money available to support professional play than the Pro Player’s Club did.  Wizards couldn't just pull that money out of nowhere – other expenses were reduced. Paying the pros, and dramatically increasing the prize payout for the first mythic championship, meant that Wizards had less money to spend on support for other players, other events (like GPs), other forms of qualification, and so forth. It also meant that Wizards couldn't afford to present large Pro Tour events in addition to Mythic events.
 
Again, this was not all about paying the pros. A lot of factors came together to get us to where we are. Promoting Arena as an e-sport was important to Wizards and to the Magic brand. At the same time, everyone recognized that the previous system had serious flaws. And, of course, then the pandemic threw a huge wrench into everything.  Even without Arena, #PaythePros and everything else that came together to cause this shift, we clearly would not have had 400 player in person Pro Tour events in the last year.
 
The result was that Wizards invested a ton of money into 32 players. This was supposed to result in a lot of support for Wizards, for Magic, and for Arena. At first, it did. People were really excited about the Mythic Championship in Boston. They liked the pyrotechnics, they liked the show. Most importantly, they watched the event.
 
However, they didn't continue to watch. Viewer numbers for subsequent large Arena events dropped.  Viewership for the various other events involving League players were never very good. At the same time Wizards was having serious issues figuring out exactly how to make Mythic events work.  They had 32 players – 32 really good players – who were representing the face of Magic.  Wizards also had hundreds of other Magic players who were famous, sometimes for decades, who were not in the League.  Those people were on the outside looking in, and the system didn't include any real method for those players to get involved again.
 
Wizards tried fixes. Wizards created complex and arcane ways to play your way into the League, which players didn’t understand. Wizards played around with relegation, which players could not pronounce. Wizards created Rivals, which did not really solve anything. No one, inside or outside of Wizards, was really happy with what Wizards had prior to last month’s announcement.  Wizards had to do something.  And they did.
 
Wizards announced that there will no longer be “professional magic.”  What they actually said, in various articles, announcements, Tweets, responses, blog posts and videos, is that players won't be able to earn a professional wage solely by playing magic.  They did not announce the end “professional magic” or of high-level play.  Wizards just said that the company is not going to be paying professional level salaries to individual players anymore.
 
That's all they said.
 
Wizards didn't say professional magic is gone. They didn't say the Pro Tour (as a concept) is gone. They didn't say that there won't be high level play.  In fact, Wizards clearly said those things will continue.
 
Can we have high level play – including things like Pro Tours, Grand Prixs, regional championships and so forth – without professional level salaries?  Of course we can.  We had all those things for two decades before the Magic Pro League came into being.  It obviously can be done, because it has been done.  
 
The names and details might change, but high level play is here to stay.
 
I'll look at what that might mean in another article.
 
PRJ