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Elaine Chase Interview: Magic Arena Jumps Into Esports

Vice President, Esports for Magic: The Gathering Elaine Chase is ready for Magic to kick the door down and enter the world of esports in a big way. After over twenty years spent working for Wizards of the Coast, Chase is a veteran of the gaming industry and has been integral in Magic's growth into the dominant tabletop presence it is today. Now, her and the rest of the company have their eyes set on an even bigger prize: the lucrative and burgeoning esports scene, which was tagged to make upwards of $900 million in revenue in 2018 alone. That's why Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro are launching Magic esports, an esports program that will infuse Magic: The Gathering Arena and paper Magic with an extra $10 million in prizes in 2019.

We spoke with Chase about the launch of Magic esports and the company's lofty goals regarding Magic's place within the online scene, and she revealed some exciting details about how the new program will dramatically alter the landscape of Magic - both in its digital and paper forms. With the esports industry growing at a rapid pace, Chase and Wizards of the Coast are finally ready to launch Magic: The Gathering into the future of competitive gaming.

Related: Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast Announce Magic esports

Obviously this announcement is a lot to unpack, so the first thing I wanted to ask was just, how long has the decision to launch Magic esports been in the works?

Elaine Chase: So, as you know Magic has been around for 25 years, we’re in our 25th anniversary, and we’ve been pioneers in a lot of different spaces over those 25 years right - we’re the first, and I think the best, TCG in the world, we were the first digital TCG when Magic Online released in 2002, we were the first competitive gaming with the Pro Tour when it launched in 1996 - but for us, coming out with MTG Arena as a new, modern digital platform, to be able to play the awesome game of Magic, is a perfect opportunity for us to expand on our legacy in competitive gaming and with Magic and really make a big splash and a big push into esports proper.

So it’s something that you’ve been planning for a number of years at this point?

Elaine Chase: Yeah, it’s really been baked into the entire strategy of MTG Arena. MTG Arena was built from the ground up to be just as much fun to stream and watch it as it is to play it, and it is going to  be that entry into esports for us.

How much of Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast’s stance on Magic: The Gathering and esports, and how much it is going to impact the future of Magic, has changed with the reception of Magic Arena?

Elaine Chase: We’re very much building a system that in 2019 has ten million dollars in prizes on the line across both MTG Arena and tabletop. We’re building the system to leverage our legacy that we have in tabletop competitive gaming and even amplify that as we build it side by side with the MTG Arena Esports program, so the two of them kind of intertwine and compliment each other.

Was it always the plan to split the prize pools for this evenly between paper and Arena, or did that change because Arena has become so popular so quickly?

Elaine Chase: It’s always been the plan for us to kind of look at both MTG Arena and tabletop as key pillars of the business. To be honest, one isn’t more important than the other, we want players to be able to play Magic when and where they want to play Magic, and we want to be able to support their choice either way.

Magic esports is described as allowing “all Magic players the opportunity to compete.” Are you referring to both casual and competitive players, and how will you get both those groups to compete?

Elaine Chase: Our program has two main pillars to it. One pillar is the formation of the Magic Pro League, which is us creating a new level of professional play, with a league that’s comprised of 32 of the highest ranked players from around the world. So those players are going to be kind of the core of what you see stories built around as the events unfold over the course of 2019. But those MPL players will be playing against challengers from the community who have a chance to qualify both in tabletop and in MTG Arena and to be able to play in those Mythic Championships and challenge those MPL players.

The 32 players are going to be a major part of this program. Is this a new step in player branding for Wizards?

Elaine Chase: Certainly! We want to be able to take our players who have proven themselves as the world’s greatest Magic players throughout our tabletop competitive scene and kind of help them with the transition into MTG Arena esports.

Quick question on the 32 as well - is there already a system built into place on how you’re going to determine the 32 initially

Elaine Chase: We’ll be talking about the player roster over the next couple of weeks.

Now with Arena being a major point of focus - and I know this has been asked several times before but maybe not in the context of Magic esports - where does Hasbro and Wizards see Magic: The Gathering Online fitting into this?

Elaine Chase: Magic Online offers a fundamentally different experience than MTG Arena. Magic Online continues to offer all of the cards throughout Magic’s robust history and lots of different formats in play that MTG Arena doesn’t focus on. MTG Arena is really focusing on the best fun way to play front list Magic and all the new cards that are coming out. So Magic Online will continue to exist and to support that kind of extended card list and format play.

That being said, Modern continues to be one of the most popular formats in Magic. Is there any kind of inclination or planning that might see that implemented in Magic Arena in the future?

Elaine Chase: Right now we’re focusing on getting the game through open beta and leading up to our wide launch and we’ll consider other kinds of formats and card sets and things like that in the future.

I know that there’s been a lot of discussion within the pro player community about how Magic can help its players out, how it can push esports further, and Magic kind of responded to that recently with the introduction of Pro Player Consultants. How much input did they have in the way Magic Pro League is being structured?

Elaine Chase: Significant. We’ve been working very closely with them, they’ve been giving us blunt and brutal and honest feedback as we’ve built the program, which has been wonderful. It’s really given us a pipeline into the players’ thoughts and minds and wishes and desires.

Is there any information yet on how Magic esports is going to affect things like the Pro Player Club?

Elaine Chase: Players in the MPL, and other players who are the challengers who are able to rise through the ranks and have good finishes in those Mythic Championships, will end up getting ranked based on their performances in those Mythic events, and the Pro Club itself will end up phasing out over 2019.

So the pros and challengers will be ranked by Mythic events - is there going to be a ranking system for the vast majority of Arena players [who might not play these events] as well?

Elaine Chase: Over the next couple weeks we’ll be talking more about MTG Arena ranking systems.

Arena is eventually going to have to deal with Standard rotation and players having cards that aren’t useable anymore. Are there any plans in place already on how Wizards is going to handle that?

Elaine Chase: Our intent for sure is to have Arena’s Standard plus format. We don’t have any details to share on exactly what that looks like but don’t worry, players will still be able to use all their cards that rotate out.

You said that there were a lot of changes coming for the Pro Players club. Does that mean there are a lot of changes coming for Grand Prix and Pro Tours as well?

Elaine Chase: The Grand Prix schedule for 2019 is going to remain exactly how it has been announced. It’s still a very critical part of our program and rewards 2 and a half million dollars in prizes alone by itself in its dozens of events that it has throughout the world. The Pro Tours themselves are actually going to be transitioning into Mythic Championships themselves. We’re making it different because we really want to separate out the professional Magic players in the MPL from the tournaments that are open to the public that can come in and challenge them. So we’re unifying all our flagship championship events under the banner of Mythic Championships whether they’re in tabletop or MTG Arena.

Will the World Championships still be separate from that banner?

Elaine Chase: The end of 2019, the capstone event is going to be a spectacular World Championship event, and we’ll have more to talk about [regarding] that as the year starts up.

Does this mean we’ll see less of the top professional players playing paper Magic?

Elaine Chase: All of the players in the MPL are also invited to all of the tabletop Mythic Championships so you’ll see them playing in both platforms.

Will the Mythic Championships that are online and the paper ones coincide in any way or are they separate from each other?

Elaine Chase: They’re separate events.

We’ve got this big outline for 2019 for Magic Arena, obviously there’s a lot that’s going on and that hasn’t been announced yet, but what does the next year look like? Where do we see Arena in five years?

Elaine Chase: MTG Arena is really going to move forward as becoming the best digital experience of the Magic trading card game as it can possibly be and that means figuring out what are the features and experiences and formats that players want that we can respond to most effectively. In terms of esports, our restructuring here of our entire program is really a long-term commitment to a comprehensive esports program - but I will say the one thing I know for sure is that we don’t know everything. Because with such a massive undertaking, and the introduction of something as big as MTG Arena esports, I’m sure there are things we’re going to learn this year and we’re going to want to adapt and be flexible as we move into 2020 and the future.

Are there any sponsorships lined up for the esports program? Is it entirely Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro?

Elaine Chase: We don’t have any sponsorships to announce at this time.

How much internal discussion and work is going into MTG Arena on mobile and Mac? Especially with the esports announcement, being accessible to be a big priority now.

Elaine Chase: Being accessible certainly is. As I said before though, we’re really focused on getting the PC version of MTG Arena up and running and the best it possibly can be to go to a wide launch and then we’ll start talking about other platforms after that.

Do you have any target windows for wide launch on MTG Arena yet?

Elaine Chase: Nothing to talk about at this time.

Are there any concerns right now that the overlap of Arena, Magic Online, and paper Magic is going to burn players out and maybe cause a bit of cannibalization in any of those areas?

Elaine Chase: Actually it’s the exact opposite. We find that when players can choose when and where to play Magic on their own schedule and in the way that makes the most sense to them they actually get more engaged and we see players who pick up Magic in a digital form start going into picking up physical cards and moving into Friday Night Magic and vice versa.

With the introduction of Magic esports, will we see Magic Arena at other online venues, things like Dreamhack - I know Magic’s already had a presence at some of those, are you looking to get Arena as a major competitor there too?

Elaine Chase: We don’t have anything to announce at this time, but I will say that both this and the sponsor question that you had before, we’ve definitely built our esports program to be something that’s attractive and lucrative for everyone from the pros to players and to partners, so nothing to announce now but we’ll see what happens.

Ok, so at the very least, player sponsorships are on the table.

Elaine Chase: Yep, correct.

Do you anticipate there being more Arena and paper Magic crossover the way we had Guilds of Ravnica prerelease kits give out digital codes for Magic: The Gathering Arena?

Elaine Chase: The digital codes in the prerelease kits were very popular and were very successful. So we’re going to be looking for ways to make sure that players are able to sample both platforms and figure out what makes the most sense for them.

Who does Wizards see, if anybody, as their competitors in esports right now?

Elaine Chase: Well, there’s a lot of competitors in esports. Esports has really grown over the last couple years especially, but we wanted to make sure that when we came into this space, we were able to come in in a very big and bold way and kind of reassert our dominance in the TCG space. Like I said before, we were the first, and I still believe the best, TCG out there and I expect nothing less from our esports presence.

Are there any plans to reach out to some of the pros who have kind of lapsed into other games but are still an online presence for Magic as well? Guys like Brian Kibler, Stan Cifka?

Elaine Chase: The first big kick-off event that we have at PAX East in March is going to be a million dollar prize pool invitational. The 32 players in the MPL are going to be participating in that, and then we’ll be talking about who else is invited to that elusive tournament as we get into January.

We’ve been talking about the formats a little bit on Magic Arena and what’s going on there. I know that the Streamer Events got introduced recently - what’s been the feedback from players so far on that?

Elaine Chase: The Streamer Events have been received super positively both from the streamers themselves and the players who get to participate in these cool, unique formats. We are really fully embracing our streamer community and trying to do everything we can to help amplify them and their love for MTG Arena.

Do you think in the future there’s a possibility we’re going to see events that are not necessarily streamers but are the pro players themselves as well?

Elaine Chase: It could be a possibility.

I was just curious - how much of the esports league and the Magic Pro League was influenced by the very vocal players over the past year in professional Magic, thinking specifically of Gerry Thompson’s protest of Worlds?

Elaine Chase: To be honest, we’ve been working on this esports program ever since we started working on MTG Arena. So this has been in the works for a very long time.

So no real influence there, just kind of business as usual?

Elaine Chase: Well, I mean we’re always trying to be responsive and listen to our players, and kind of understand where there friction points are and how we can make things better.

With these new Magic Pro League standings, or the 32 players involved, will there be more opportunities for these players to kind of jump into streaming with partnerships with Wizards?

Elaine Chase: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, the players in the MPL have been offered contracts that are both a combination of play and streaming contracts that are worth $75,000. So you’ll be able to follow all of your favourite pros and watch them stream.

Is that $75,000 annually for the contract?

Elaine Chase: For 2019.

Do you know how rotation of those 32 players is going to be handled, or is that something that’s going to come up later?

Elaine Chase: That’s something that’s going to come up later. As I said, we want to make sure that we’re being very flexible and ready to adapt as we learn, as we go through this year.

With the introduction of player contracts, is this kind of Wizards finally saying, being a professional Magic player is something you can do full time on your own?

Elaine Chase: Well this is us creating a new level of professional play and a way to give players a platform and a model to kind of build their own brand, build their own skills, to let them comfortably play Magic and build up their streaming presence at the same time.

Are there any plans in those contracts to have these players produce written content for Wizards as well?

Elaine Chase: Not at this time, although many of them on their own already have contracts with some of our biggest Magic strategy sites.

Are there any plans to introduce something like the Holiday Cube drafts that we see on Magic Online into Arena?

Elaine Chase: I don’t have any information to share on that.

How do you envision this Magic esports 2019 season impacting the future of Magic as a brand?

Elaine Chase: I very much see Magic esports being a thing that can help us introduce Magic, especially via MTG Arena, to a whole host of new players. Especially players who might play TCGs today but have never really tried Magic. Being able to have the content and the events that are broadcast out on Twitch and have our players out there streaming, I really see it as a way to get Magic in front of a whole new audience of potential players.

Will ChannelFireball be involved in these Mythic Championship events as well?

Elaine Chase: ChannelFireball is responsible for all the Grand Prix events, and as we’ve previously announced those tabletop Mythic Championships will be held at the MagicFests that they host.

So online is going to be handled separately then?

Elaine Chase: Yes, MTG Arena events will be handled separately.

Anything else you’d like to say?

Elaine Chase: We’re really looking forward to that $1 million dollar prize pool Invitational kick-off at PAX East, and the biggest thing I would say to people out there who want to get involved is to download MTG Arena and to start building up your skills and your reputation today and get ready. I hope to see you in game!

Thank you!

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