Last month, a select group of professional-tier Magic: The Gathering players met in Las Vegas, Nevada for the classic collectible card game’s World Championships. But one attendee, top Magic Pro Tour point earner Gerry Thompson, made the decision to sit the event out. Instead of competing, he posted a scathing report on Reddit of his experience on the Pro Tour. His manifesto calls out Magic’s developer and publisher Wizards of the Coast and demands changes in compensation and in how the pro circuit itself is structured.
To earn a seat in the Magic Pro Tour, players must win consistently throughout the season, earning Pro Tour Points in the process. Once on the Tour, members can expect benefits such as travel, accommodations and appearance fees from Wizards as they compete for large cash prizes. Only those 24 players with the most points at the end of this season were invited to the three-day World Championships in Las Vegas, held Sept. 21 through 23, where they went after their their share of the $300,000 purse.
Thompson put in the effort during the last season to become one of the top point earners in the world, assuring his invitation to the World Championship. After being flown out days ahead of time to turn in his deck list and sit through the player briefing, on the morning of Sept. 21 Thompson informed Wizards staff that he would be sitting out in protest. Shortly thereafter, he posted his grievances online.
Sitting on his hands
“I’m protesting the state of professional Magic by refusing to play in the World Championship,” Thompson wrote before listing out six reasons why.
First, he says that Wizards “does not pay professional players a living wage.” He admits it’s not a requirement that they do so. Pro players aren’t on the payroll, afterall.
“However, if the goal is to sell the dream of playing on the Pro Tour,” he wrote, “there should be something in place to make that worth achieving.”
He went on to catalog what he says are other failings, including poor promotion of the players themselves and lackluster communication by Wizards with those on the Pro Tour. As Magic has grown over the years, Thompson said, the number of seats on the Pro Tour has not expanded enough to meet the demand. When tournaments do happen, he said that the Wizards-produced livestream coverage is of poor quality. His post skyrocketed up Reddit, and has received more than 14,500 upvotes since it was made.
Polygon reached out to Thompson to discuss his decision to protest in detail. He was still in Vegas and, as he picked up the phone, we could hear someone in the background thanking him for what he did. He said it was another player on the Pro Tour in town to play in the World Championships who, while supporting his position, was unwilling to give up the game’s premier event.
“When my announcement went up, him and a few other players read it and they considered walking out, too,” Thompson said. “I was just thanking him for his support and for even considering to do it.”
Why didn’t the other players protest alongside him? Thompson said that those he spoke with were afraid that it wouldn’t change anything.
“They were of the opinion that if they did it, still nothing would probably come of this,” Thompson said. “So there was solidarity, and then the risk of sacrificing your equity in the tournament. [That particular player] ended up finishing in the top four, so he’s walking away with something like $20,000. I don’t disagree with anyone’s decision to stay in the tournament, which is one of the reasons why I did not bring it up to other players and let them know what I was doing ahead of time.”
Nevertheless, this protest is something that Thompson has been planning for some time.
“I’ve been playing basically on and off since 2002 and, over the years, there have been numerous things that have come up and players have had complaints about various things,” Thompson said. “Normally, the conversation has been, ‘We’ll deal with these things as they come up,’ or, ‘This is the system as it exists. How can we thrive in it?’ [...] After the last Pro Tour a couple months ago, I was just like, enough is enough.”
The thrust of Thompson’s argument is that the rewards on the Pro Tour, and the benefits that come with being involved in it, pale in comparison to the time and financial commitment required to perform at the highest level. Wizards’ actions, which include delaying vital information about when and where pros need to show up to play, further complicate Pro Tour member’s efforts to secure outside sponsorships.
“And at the end of the year some of the top 50 players in the world have only made $40,000 before taxes,” Thompson said. “Before travel expenses and all this other stuff. You are spending all of this time to be one of the best at something and not making a living wage.”
“There is no reason why we should expect Wizards to pay us,” he admits, clearly torn on the issue. “We are not employees. We’re not even contractors.”
Nevertheless, he’s begun to question whether he can continue to pour his time into the game. He, like virtually every other member of the Pro Tour, works a full-time job in addition to 20 to 80 hours of Magic play each week.
“Professional Magic players effectively do not exist,” Thompson said.
Shortly after Thompson made his protest known, Wizards of the Coast released a statement on Twitter and elsewhere.
“Gerry Thompson announced his intention to not participate in the Magic: The Gathering World Championship,” Wizards said. “We wish this weren’t the case, but we respect his desire to make his voice heard.”
Reached for comment, Wizards senior communications manager Blake Rasmussen said that the idea of increasing the number of players on the Pro Tour and increasing the payouts overall were directly at odds.
“Smaller Pro Tours mean higher average earnings for our players,” said. “You’re dealing with a finite pool of money.”
Since Wizards pays for the travel and accommodations of every player on the Pro Tour, Rasmussen said that there can only be so much room at the top.
“We believe a better solution is to try to increase the total prize pool while keeping the number of invites the same,” he said, “or maybe even slightly shrinking it.”
Beyond this year’s Pro Tour, Rasmussen said that Wizards is asking for patience from those competing at the highest level. Some changes will be immediate. For instance, next year’s Tour will be expanded from four events to six. Along with that 50 percent increase comes a 50 percent increase in the prize pool.
“We actually agree that pro Magic players should be making more,” he said. “[It’s the] kind of an incremental change we are going to keep making and we need to keep making, but we’ve also got some bigger swings coming in 2019, which is going to be a really big transition year for us.”
Rasmussen would not go into detail about what that transition would look like, but indicated that there would likely be accommodations made for the inclusion of Magic: The Gathering Arena in some way. The digital version of the hit tabletop card game recently entered open beta and is expected to compete with other digital CCGs such as Blizzard’s HearthStone and Valve’s Artifact.
“Conversations around here are certainly optimistic that Arena’s going to play a role in the future of pro Magic,” Rasmussen said. “What that role looks like, we don’t know. There’s still a lot of ideas being tossed around.”
“We are rethinking everything about pro Magic right now,” Rasmussen continued. “I can tell you that pro Magic in 2020 is going to look very different from the Pro Tour in 2019, which is already looking very different from the Pro Tour of 2018.”
An international field
Gerry Thompson’s Reddit post contains a lot of detail about what it’s like to be a member of the Pro Tour. But one part that was abundantly clear involved the issue of access for players outside the United States.
“Latin America and Asia Pacific are two regions who have been constantly neglected over the entire last two decades of Wizards organized play,” Thompson told Polygon. “The storylines of people who actually come from somewhere in South America and work hard to become one of the best players? Everyone who is in the know, who deeply enfranchised in the competitive Magic, understands how difficult it for them to actually make that transition because they’re starting super far behind.”
Willy Edel and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, who both live in Brazil, have played on the Pro Tour and are members of the Magic: The Gathering Hall of Fame. Both told Polygon they were dissatisfied with the number of opportunities for high-level play in their part of the world. There simply aren’t enough qualifying events, they said, and those that are held are sometimes absurdly far away.
As mentioned above, players who have earned enough points to be on the Magic Pro Tour will are subsidized with appearance fees, travel and accommodations. But, in order to earn enough points to get onto the Tour, Edel and da Rosa say they must sometimes spend an extraordinary amount of time and money on travel.
“We have to travel to keep this lifestyle,” da Rosa told Polygon. “I am not going to be a professional Magic player if I don’t travel to tournaments. If I just play the four big ones [here in Latin America] I’m not going to have enough [Pro Tour] Points to get any of the benefits. And for us, that is much, much harder, both from a monetary and from a logistical point of view because. A flight to a Grand Prix event often costs me $1500, and that is more than the fourth place finish for those tournaments.”
Wizards told Polygon that there were no easy answers for regions like Latin America.
“South America and the Asia Pacific region, they’re both growth markets for us,” Rasmussen said. “The United States and Europe are fairly mature markets, which means they have most of the infrastructure that they’re going to get. Of course, we’ll continue to grow the game and grow the opportunities, but those growths are incremental in the United States and in Europe.
“Our goal is always to find ways for people to play the game and play at the highest levels if they so choose, and in those growth markets, every year, we’re doing more and more. So we grow by more in South America and Asia Pacific than we do in other places, and we don’t believe we’ve reached a saturation point in those markets. We’re barely close to a saturation point in more mature markets. We’re going to keep doing more in those markets as they grow but they’re still relatively young.”
Back in Vegas, Thompson said that his decision to make a stand had a personal cost for him as well. The situation remains complicated.
“I completely understand people not agreeing with my take,” Thompson said. “I heard from one of my [three] roommates. She did not really give me her full support. I’ll just put it that way. That was pretty disappointing to me.
“It hurt a lot and it made the situation all that much more stressful. I didn’t know when I was going to go home. I thought maybe I would go home the next day or the day after or something. But at that point, I wasn’t even sure if I went home, if I would be welcomed home.”
However things change from here, Thompson’s protest appears to be a turning point. It will be up to Wizards to prove out their model for the Magic Pro Tour in 2019 and beyond.