Magic: The Gathering is going through some serious growing pains during its attempt to legitimize itself as an esports product. While some of these come as a result of a game that is simply becoming more popular and appealing to a broader demographic — that sort of expansion generally causes logistical issues for even the most prepared companies — others have come from more troubling examples of neglect or ignorance. For a microcosm of the issues facing professional Magic as the game moves forward into a future where that term is less a joke and more a viable career, fans don't need to look further than the thing that should've been a shining example of Wizards of the Coast's commitment to its most dedicated players, the Mythic Pro League.
For those unfamiliar, the Mythic Pro League (MPL) is a 32 player league that invites the best players in the world to compete in different tabletop and Magic Arena events. More importantly, it also represents Wizards' decision to embrace Magic: The Gathering as both esport and career path — the Mythic Pro League pays its players $75,000 USD annually, although details of the contracts and what is expected of the players remains muddied. It requires its players to stream a certain amount of hours a week, but the company also reportedly gave its MPL members seminars on streaming and social media etiquette, and the net result has been a number of personalities becoming more visible and popular.
In essence, that's really what the MPL should be. It's a low-risk investment from Wizards that helps further the game for both professionals and the casual viewers who can now go on to look up to them for their skill and charm (and, if Wizards is particularly lucky, both).
MPL Controversies, Explained
Unfortunately, the MPL's inaugural season has been anything but charmed or easy. First, it was the subject of scrutiny for how it chose players, which seemed like a difficult-to-explain mix of the world's best players and some personalities who helped better represent specific demographics of fans. Then, it faced its first major hurdle in the disqualification of player Rei Sato, a Japanese MPL member who was caught cheating at a tabletop Magic tournament. Things truly came off the rails then: he wasn't replaced, but the next two members of the MPL would be in Owen Turtenwald and Yuuya Watanabe, two of Magic's most iconic players.
For Turtenwald, an alleged history of sexual misconduct became a focal point that was never addressed by Wizards but would preempt his sudden disappearance from both the MPL and professional Magic altogether. For Watanabe, perhaps the most shocking tournament disqualification in recent memory saw him accused and subsequently convicted of using marked sleeves to cheat his opponents. Both players have been removed from the MPL, and Watanabe has been removed from Magic's Hall of Fame while also being banned for two-and-a-half years.
Wizards of the Coast can't be held at fault for not knowing about the players' tendencies — they'd never been caught for infractions of that magnitude before. What the company can be blamed for, however, is the fallout from the players who have replaced several members of the MPL. Autumn Burchett, a non-binary Mythic Championship winner made sense when Turtenwald was removed from the league. They were the most recent champion, a streamer with an already devoted following, and exactly the type of person who strengthens a collection of players meant to be representative of Magic's diverse community.
The next replacements, however, have been more questionable. Gerry Thompson, noted for protesting Magic Worlds last year to try to improve the state of the game, stepped down from his position in the MPL earlier today, and released a statement criticizing the lack of communication from Wizards, which has hamstrung the players' ability to understand how to re-qualify for their position, what's expected of them, and more. That meant his position, and Watanabe's, still needed to be filled.
Wizards chose to fill them with Mythic Invitational competitor Jessica Estephan and popular strategy game streamer Janne "Savjz" Mikkonen. For Savjz, his recent Top 4 finish at the Mythic Invitational is the only notable result on his Magic-playing resume. Estephan has an even bigger claim to fame, having won a Grand Prix last year in Sydney. Both of them deserve their position, and neither of them should be criticized for accepting them. They're worthy additions to the MPL, but unfortunately also representative of one of its major issues in communication and consistency.
Eli Loveman, the most recent Mythic Championship winner, wasn't invited to the MPL. The precedent set by Autumn's inclusion made many believe he was the logical addition. Beyond that, Ondrej Strasky, a Magic pro with multiple Grand Prix victories and Pro Tour Top 8s, also finished in the Top 4 of the Mythic Invitational alongside Savjz. If Savjz's claim to a spot was that finish, then Strasky would have been the obvious other choice.
Instead, Wizards has proven that the MPL currently has no clear direction. There's no consistency in the way the company decides to address the league's various issues, and it's left many pros with a bitter taste in their mouth, especially with the latest two inclusions. Even Magic: The Gathering legend and all-around nice guy Reid Duke couldn't hide his disappointment in Wizard's selection process:
Of all my work in MTG, the most thankless has been the long hours of studying alone, and the 100s of events I’ve played to disappointing results. I hope it will always be a priority to reward people who devote themselves to Magic purely for self-improvement and love of the game.— Reid Duke (@ReidDuke) May 13, 2019
The State of Magic: The Gathering Professional Play
Magic: The Gathering's MPL is a promotional tool, and Wizards hasn't been shy about hiding that fact. Unfortunately, though, it appears the company is either unable or unwilling to balance that marketing process with a system that rewards Magic's most enfranchised players — its professional community, through whom many fans were introduced to the game. According to Thompson's statement after he stepped down from the MPL, the league also had various shortcomings that players weren't able to address publicly:
"Our contract 'negotiations' involved WotC officials purposefully not answering our questions and telling us to either sign or walk...
We also gave feedback on contractual issues (ever wonder why none of the MPL players have been picked up by esports orgs?), structural issues for the MPL (nobody knows how to qualify for 2020 or what it's going to look like), and Duo Standard with seemingly all of it being ignored."
It's not a good look for Magic: The Gathering. The approach to esports by Wizards of the Coast, at least when it comes to MPL, is reminiscent of the way other organizations struggled with tournaments, player retention, integrity, and more back in the early days of esports. That time has long since passed, though. There are still a lot of issues present within the scene, but a major company failing to identify exactly what's required of players to maintain their livelihood, and not communicating with its professional players, are not among them.
Magic: The Gathering's pro scene is a complete mess right now. Players aren't aware of what's expected of them to maintain their status, while hundreds of others who benefited from the previous Professional Players' Club statuses are now left in the dark about whether they can expect any support at all in their pursuit of only a handful of spots in the MPL. Other cost cuts, like the travel that was previously awarded to those who qualified for the Mythic Championships, have seen the community have to crowdfund players' plane tickets so that they can actually make it to the tournament they worked so hard to earn an invitation for. Magic: The Gathering Online's Championship Series (MOCS) concludes this weekend with the best players from its past year of play, but you'd be hard pressed to find a mention of it by Wizards of the Coast. That valuable spotlight and the potential sponsorship deals that come with it will be sorely missed by the players who accomplished something truly noteworthy by qualifying for the MOCS.
Make no mistake — Magic's future is very much tied intrinsically to the MPL, an idea that should support its professional and casual growth thanks to how far it reaches across demographics. It'll also likely go the way the MPL goes, though, and given its current state, that should be enough to give Magic players, especially the professionals, cause for concern moving into the latter half of a 2019 that has been full of mostly unfulfilled promise up until this point. If Magic: The Gathering is changing, then so be it. But it's time for Wizards to let everyone, including the pro players whose livelihoods are tied to it, know for certain.