A couple things: First, I read pieces by Tzu Ching Kuo and The Ferret in the early hours of the controversy that I thought were very good and I recommend you check those out. They are certainly better than the truckload of word-chum that I’ve dumped here. Second, amid much hue and cry, WOTC has now done a takesies-backsies on the Pro Players Club changes. I started writing this before they undid the changes and finished it a couple of weeks later, so I jump between those contexts a little bit.
It’s disappointing that an all-time great Pro Tour (hearty congrats to Steve Rubin) was overshadowed by WOTC’s announcement of changes to their Pro Players Club. To summarize the issue, the upper echelon of professional Magic players – about 3 dozen people worldwide, classified as “Platinum Pros” – have historically received appearance fees for attending major events. For an active Platinum Pro, these new changes result in a loss of about $11,000 that they expected to receive in the coming year. While $11,000 certainly isn’t a living wage in itself, the reliable appearance fees do make it possible for many of the top players to justify travelling the globe along with the Pro Tour in addition to leading their normal lives.
See, here’s the thing: while I certainly have some favorite pros who I enjoy following, I love playing Magic myself far more than watching others play. As a matter of fact, I love it so much that I regularly pay money for the opportunity to play. I’m not trying to be a smartass, but let me specifically point out that paying to play is the exact opposite of being paid to play. Pros are distraught that they are no longer going to be paid to do something that I and many others routinely pay to do.
To the degree that WOTC is breaking promises to these people, yes, I agree that is unacceptable and they ought to honor those commitments. These players invested significant effort into achieving Platinum status specifically because the promised benefits made doing so worth their while. That’s a matter of simple decency, regardless of whether the fine print technically allows WOTC to change the arrangements at will.
However, the pros also need to have some self-awareness in all of this. I’ve long been interested in the “butthurt donks can’t hang” phenomenon, about which I plan to eventually write a sure to be famous and important thinkpiece. Please note that it’s not about deriding the donks; I myself am a donk – but I am a self-aware donk, an important distinction! Some of the pros are displaying donkesque levels of obliviousness here, which makes me wonder if they have actually just been donks of a different sort all along. Obliviousness is the defining measure of donkitude and we typically don’t ascribe that characteristic to Platinum Pros, who should be the cleverest folks around. Yet here some of them are, being hella oblivious and kind of up their own asses.
A lot of the pro reactions (here is a compilation of pro tweets) boil down to “Due to these cuts, I will not be playing anymore.”
“Wrote my last article, did my last podcast, participated in my last stream until this gets fixed. Hope to return to promoting Magic shortly.” – Hall of Famer Paul Rietzl
“Before these changes I was happy to say that I wanted to be a Magic professional for the foreseeable future, but this new model looks like it may be unsustainable and I do not know if playing Magic at the highest level will be something I want to do 2 years from now. We’ll have to wait and see.” – Owen Turtenwald
I like Paul Rietzl. I like Owen Turtenwald. They are great pros. I mean, have you read this? That is greatness. We want those people around. On the other hand, the “not gonna play anymore” reactions call to mind one of the greatest scenes in all of cinema:
Other players have proposed switching to competing games:
“GG Pro magic. Lets go next game, #mtg” – Yuuya Watanabe
Watanabe is a master, I have great respect for him. But, what, you’re gonna go play Hearthstone instead? Sure, I know that Hearthstone is wildly successful and is growing in popularity and WOTC absolutely should be paying attention to it. That said, Hearthstone looks like a couple of Fraggles puking into each other’s mouths. Everyone seems to agree that HS is inferior as a game but it’s “a better spectator experience on Twitch” because the little cartoon dwarves sparkle when they punch each other or whatever.
I give due respect, of course, to Hearthstone’s esports coverage production. Even I must admit it is a bit better than Magic’s.
Cedric Phillips & Pat Sullivan from the Star City Games tournament circuit discuss the topic at some length in this podcast, it’s definitely worth a listen. They generally come down on the side of agreeing that WOTC should be taking a longer view and investing in the pros. But they also, if only very briefly, consider the question: “What is a Platinum Pro really worth?” I don’t think people are giving nearly enough thought to that question.
I do think it’s some non-zero amount, but I also think it varies from pro to pro. Some of them are big draws that people love to watch, while others are functionally unknown. And still others have sort of a “heel” thing going on that might serve to depress sales for all I know.
I theorize that WOTC concluded (and probably correctly) that the Platinum Pro is expendable and replaceable. Of course, Helene Bergeot can’t come right out and say, “Sorry Joel Larsson, your hair might be great but you’re just not that important after all.” You could say something like “Owen Turtenwald is the LeBron James of Magic.” to describe how dominant a player Turtenwald is. But, crucially, unlike the actual Lebron James of basketball, nobody is paying money specifically to see Owen Turtenwald play.
I think various types of contemporary “Magic Personalities” are likely more valuable than Platinum Pros at this point. Those goofballs from Loading Ready Run surely sell more product to donks than Pascal Maynard does, right? Popular streamers such as Kenji “NumotTheNummy” Egashira are better brand advertisers than many of the Platinum Pros.
Anecdotally, when I think of the people I see cracking packs and boxes for funsies – that is, actually spending money on WOTC’s product – those people don’t care much about the Pro Tour. Flipped around, and also anecdotally, the people I know who do care about the Pro Tour, who would love to spike a PTQ – those people are definitely not buying packs and cracking them just for fun. They are spending much less on WOTC’s retail products. They borrow cards, they hustle up the chase rares they need for a given day’s tourney. They are not buying Fat Packs. They are not buying 2 or 3 boosters on a whim at Target. They are certainly not pre-ordering a set of all 5 new Commander pre-cons from the LGS.
I do care quite a lot about Magic’s continued success as a legitimate competitive endeavor, and a healthy pro circuit of some kind is surely an important part of that. I suppose that the myriad different groups (casual donks, competitive locals, pros & aspiring pros) all contribute to a vibrant Magic scene that is robust and long-lived precisely because it does function on all these different axes. When I start saying “actually, I don’t think group X is that important…” I am probably setting myself up to be wrong. I want to be cognizant of that as I say all of this.
Still, as a married dude in his mid-30’s with small children and all of the associated life responsibilities, who also dearly loves playing Magic with the free time and money that I do get to myself, I’ve found the plight of these Platinum Pros to be utterly unrelatable.