Is MTG Esports in 2021 Dead? Pros Seem to Think So
It’s looking really grim for MTG Esports in 2021. Let me be perfectly clear though: I love MTG and MTG Arena, esports or otherwise. I’ve been an active player since the mid-90s and often harbored dreams of working towards the pro scene. Money, time, and other things conspired against me, and that’s just how it is. Wizards of the Coast made some announcements this week concerning MTG Esports for 2021 and beyond, and the pros aren’t exactly happy about it. Casual players who like watching pros are also upset. Year after year, things have been taken away from the pro players. The MPL was essentially what they had after the Pro Tour stopped happening. The final Pro Tour took place in 2019, paving the way for the MPL, which was, let’s be honest, an unmitigated disaster.
It’s harder and harder to make a living as a pro in the MTG scene, and that final nail may have been put in the coffin. Can WOTC turn this around and make things better somehow? It’s possible. But that requires a lot of faith and goodwill that many pro players simply don’t seem to have anymore. Getting on the pro tour was a dream for many players, much like myself. The way this reads to me, is that Wizards doesn’t feel like pros are important anymore. The bottom line is more important – the casual players and whales sinking thousands into the product regardless.
The general consensus seems to be mixed. On one hand, the MPL is gone, and so is the major form of competitive Magic. On the other hand, we had a system that worked for years (The Pro Tour), and now that’s gone. There’s nothing wrong with putting a focus on MTG Arena either. At the end of the day, Magic players just want to understand what’s going on.
Where Do We Go From Here?
And they’re right, in a way. The casual players are where all the money is. There have been record profits coming into WOTC for Magic, but it isn’t coming from the pro players. For 20 years, the Pro Tour stood the test of time. It was beloved by players and fans throughout the Magic community. No matter what your skill level, you could watch, appreciate, and learn from the best in the world. Players made their living this way, competing at small events, building towards the Pro Tour. Perhaps we could just get that back?
Magic Epsorts on Twitter said very specifically the following:
“OP will not be explicitly designed to support competitive Magic as a career path. However, there will be Grand Prix, and Pro Tour-like events. Our focus will be the amount of play and the prize money, and less focus on the lifestyle or it being economically self-sustaining.”
It feels like it is essentially gatekeeping. Now, “Pro Players” are going to need sufficient financial income to be a viable pro. If you aren’t already a big, successful streamer, or have a job that will work with you on this path, it sounds like it’s not even worth the time. What exactly is changing though? The Set Championship structure will continue going forward. They will be increasing the prize pool and the prize structure, compared to the Strixhaven Championship.
This means there will be 450,000 per event, over three events for Set Championships. That is big money, potentially. League Weekends and the Gauntlet will not happen for the 2021-2022 season. Perhaps most disappointing of all, this is the final season for the MPL (Magic Pro League) and Rivals Leagues. Instead of competing fo another League season, players will be competing for a place at the World Championships, and its 250,000 prize pool.
There are still more details to come, but the ending of the MPL has players rightly upset. Magic Esports may very well be dead as of 2021. The MPL is at the very least. I still remember collecting cards in Time Spiral that featured pro-player stats. I remember fondly the World Tournament decks, and their gold-bordered, autographed cards.
So yes, there will still be money in MTG esports going into 2021 and 2022, but not what it used to be. The idea that it will not be financially viable to be a pro player as a career is genuinely upsetting. The truly disappointing thing is if all the pro players quit, it wouldn’t even harm the bottom line. There will always be people who find it enjoyable or will compete anyway. At least many of the pro players already have successful livestream/content communities that they can work with.
The Less Than Pleased Reaction
My personal reaction is less angry than it initially was. I’ve known far too many people who went broke trying to make it to the MPL. It’s so expensive to keep up with all of the current, most powerful deck builds. I had a few friends who got lucky enough to qualify for Pro Tours, but it seldom went farther. One sentiment I certainly agree with is that it’s overwhelmingly difficult to make it to that level. Perhaps this will allow for a greater amount of new/up-and-coming players to make a name for themselves.
It used to be about the Pro Tours, where people would grind and hustle to make their way to the bigger events. As Jim Davis stated, now it’s about “a very very subset of players, 30 players, 64 players in the two leagues. And getting into the leagues, I don’t even know how you do it, I’m a professional, I do Magic for a living.”
Jim Davis points out that Wizards cannot communicate honestly nor openly. Wizards put the blame on the failure of the MPL on COVID, instead of it just being a bad system. One of the other major problems is that Wizards doesn’t talk to the players like people. It’s all a bunch of corporate doublespeak and nonsense. It’s not what the players want. We want honesty, for the company to be open with us. Admit that the MPL wasn’t good. There’s nothing wrong with admitting the MPL was a failure.
Martin Juza, a member of the MPL, Hall of Fame Class of 2017 spoke about it on Twitter:
“Its insane to me that Magic is thriving and having record sales after existing for 27 years, DESPITE the organized play teams best efforts to kill it. Year after year they feel the need to change every system, make it incomprehensible, rename everything to the point where even the people playing in these tournaments have no idea what they are actually playing or how the structure works. They managed to kill the pro tour, along with the pro tour dream for the every day magic player, the hall of fame, play the game, see the world, everything.”
This was literally my dream in the late 90s, early 2000s, I spent so much money trying to build the right decks and compete, but it just wasn’t viable. I accepted that. I was upset, but that’s just life sometimes. So many Magic players had that dream, but the MPL snatched that away. Juza agrees that the MPL wasn’t the right call, and suggested that the Pro Tour perhaps come back. It was a system that is easy to understand.
People loved the Pro Tour. Nobody really understands how the MPL worked in the first place. Right now, it’s just about impossible to make it to the MPL (before it died). A lot of people got incredibly lucky to get where they are, and I’m not knocking it. I loved watching the PTs, Worlds, stuff like that. It was engaging, exciting. We had a pretty clear idea of how people got to those. MPL was just a confusing mess. We’ve had three years of the MPL, and players are just as confused now as when it began. Back in the day, you won a PTQ, and you got onto the Pro Tour. That’s not to say it’s easy.
It was still incredibly expensive to keep up with, and it was mentally taxing. The problem with the MPL isn’t that they tried it. Nothing wrong with that. It’s how it was put together, and that nobody really understood it. It didn’t feel like anything made sense. You got really lucky to get in, with a few other people, and that was it. There wasn’t much room for growth.
A former Magic World Champion, William Jensen also talked about the news:
“After years of bad decisions, lack of coherent vision and leadership, and inability or unwillingness to improve on failing systems and projects, Pro Magic is coming to an end. Thanks to all who supported us over the years.”
Now is it truly the end of Magic esports in 2021? It’s not really certain. Wizards haven’t given any clear indication of what’s really next. Luis Scott-Vargas, a Professional Magic Player and co-founder of Channel Fireball spoke about his conflicted thoughts:
“My feelings on this are complicated. Overall, I’m obviously really sad that something so important to me and many of my closest friends is drawing to a close. Pro Magic was an awesome experience and career, and I treasure everything it gave me. On the other hand, I feel like it already ended for anyone not in the MPL three years ago. If you weren’t in the top 32, you were effectively cut out of Pro Magic. This announcement doesn’t take anything away from the vast majority of aspiring players.”
There’s always a chance that Wizards could make a new pro system that’s viable. It’s not likely, given they made it clear they did not wish for the system to be viable for economic self-sustenance. It’s looking grim, but I haven’t given up hope. At first, I was excited for the MPL, but it did not wind up being a success. It’s time to accept that and find another way. Esports for Magic is possible, it’s certainly possible. The worst part about all of this is that Magic had a system that worked, and did work for two decades. Instead, it was scrapped for something that failed. There was no reason to look at a wheel and say, “Hey, there’s a whole lot of reinventing we can do with that wheel.”
I’m hopeful, I truly am. I don’t want this to be the ultimate end of Magic Esports in 2021 or beyond. I want to see the scene thrive, where lots of players can find a way to prove their worth. There’s a chance that Wizards just doesn’t see the need for pro players anymore. With nothing to strive for, it could kill the love of the game for a lot of players. I’m already seeing people say as much. Let’s hope WOTC figures out what they want, and does something to bring the hunger for competition back.