William Jensen will always remember what it was like to learn that he was finally going to be a professional Magic: The Gathering player. It was a message from Elaine Chase, the Vice President of Magic Esports. The offer was to be one of the 32 players rostered for the first season of the Magic Pro League, which was formally announced at the Games Awards last week. Jensen's bona fides were never in doubt: He's finished in the top eight of five different Magic pro tours, he was inaugurated into Magic Hall of Fame in 2013, and he won a World Championship in 2017. But this was different. At 36 years old, this was deliverance.
"Honestly, I don't want to be too corny when it comes to my emotional reaction but I've been playing Magic for over 20 years. I have considered myself to be a 'Professional Magic Player' for most of those 20 years," he says. "Being an actual professional Magic player is something that I've dreamed about for as long as I can remember, and that dream becoming a reality is something that means the world to me."
The math speaks for itself. Wizards of the Coast is pouring in $10 million into the Magic Pro League between payroll and prize pools. The tournament framework will be two-pronged between players in both Magic's tabletop format, and the insurrectionary new Magic: The Gathering Arena, which is currently in open beta, and is expected to be fully released next year. The professionals are offered two contracts; one for competitive play, and one for streaming and content creation, which together are valued at $75,000. Those numbers are comparable to the baseline contracts of the Overwatch League, ($50,000) though not as lucrative as the LCS, which averaged around $320,000 per player in 2018, according to Riot Games.
However, this is a first-time investment, and it immediately positions Magic as one of the most sustainable, lucrative communities in esports, which is music to the ears for someone like Jensen, who toiled for years on the fringes, hoping for an opportunity just like this. "The money is great," he says. "It's a level of pay that's been frankly unheard of in the CCG space up to this point."
The reasons for this are clear. Magic: The Gathering Arena is an effective PC interpretation of the tabletop experience, and it's also entering a part of the industry that's getting hotter by the day. Blizzard's Hearthstone proved that it was possible to conquer the world with a free-to-play card game; Bethesda followed suit with The Elder Scrolls: Legends. Valve threw their gauntlet last month with the deeply hyped, highly controversial Artifact last month. All of these games were essentially aping the same formula Magic established back in 1993, (Artifact even shares the same designer in Richard Garfield,) but they had still beaten Wizards of the Coast to computers. The way Elaine Chase describes it, the company is returning home, eager to defend home court.
"We see our esports program as a way to establish MTG Arena as a leader in digital gaming in the same way Magic is a leader in the tabletop space," she says. "We're excited to share the joy of Magic with a whole new audience of digital gamers who have never picked up a card before and introduce them to the existing community of 35 million players to date in over 70 countries around the world who already love Magic."
Chase continued, mentioning that Arena was designed from the ground-up to be a game with esports in mind. "Just as much fun to stream and watch as it is to play," she explains, clearly taking cues from Hearthstone's miraculously ubiquitous presence on the front page of Twitch. She also notes that the fundamental policies of the MPL were negotiated tooth-and-nail with some of the most prominent members of the Magic community. Their demands included a greater sense of stability for players at the top, with fewer travel gridlocks and, in Chase's words, "a way forward as pro gamers in the world of streaming."
In essence, Chase believes in the infrastructure. No other company has gone to the lengths of guaranteeing contracts or uniting their players under a centralized league for their card game, but by and large, it's hard to think of another publisher with a pedigree like Wizards of the Coast. They can afford to take this risk, because they've been running Magic tournaments for most of the game's lifespan. "[We're] in a very unique space within esports," she says. "We have a game that has a built-in fan base, proven gameplay mechanics that can hold the weight of competition over time, players who have risen to the very top echelon of professional gamers, and a team of professionals who have been running competitive events for more than 20 years."
It's an argument that works for William Jensen, and anyone else who has lived and breathed Magic for the majority of their adulthood. At 36, he'll be one of the oldest rookies in the history of esports, but in some ways, he looks at his future in the Magic Pro League as a way to campaign for the game that changed his life.
"I share [Wizards'] vision," he says. "I think Arena is a tremendous product. It is an absolute gift to people who are interested in playing digital Magic. Like in the tabletop space, I think after Arena hits its full stride in the digital space, Magic will be the clear and dominant leader there too."
Esports is a famously volatile industry. Nothing is ever a safe bet. But there is something wonderful about watching these grizzled old Magic players finally earning their professional keep, after endless booster packs, and bad beats, and transcontinental flights to musty, convention-hall Round Robins. This is just another chapter for someone like Jensen, but right now he's talking like a man who's already won.
"There have been a few truly defining moments in my career of playing Magic to this point, ... [But] being a part of this League, and having the opportunity to compete at this level for the world to see will give me a chance to add to that list," he finishes. "I truly can't wait."
The Magic Pro League kicks off in March at PAX East with the Mythic Invitational and a $1 million prize pool. Check out the full list of competitors below.
Alexander Hayne - Canada
Andrea Mengucci - Italy
Andrew Cuneo - United States
Ben Stark - United States
Brad Nelson - United States
Brian Braun-Duin - United States
Carlos Romao - Brazil
Christian Hauck - Germany
Eric Froehlich - United States
Gerry Thompson - United States
Grzegorz Kowalski - Poland
Javier Dominguez - Spain
Jean-Emmanuel Depraz - France
John Rolf - United States
Ken Yukuhiro - Japan
Lee Shi Tian - Hong Kong
Lucas Esper Berthoud - Brazil
Luis Salvatto - Argentina
Marcio Carvalho - Portugal
Martin Juza - Czech Republic
Matthew Nass - United States
Mike Sigrist - United States
Owen Turtenwald - United States
Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa - Brazil
Piotr Glogowski - Poland
Rei Sato - Japan
Reid Duke - United States
Seth Manfield - United States
Shahar Shenhar - Israel
Shota Yasooka - Japan
William Jensen - United States
Yuuya Watanabe - Japan