In the past week there were two massive announcements in the world of eSports involving the purchase of teams. First, Team Dignitas and Apex Gaming were purchased by the Philadelphia 76ers. That’s not like some kind of joke company name but the actual NBA franchise known as the 76ers who play basketball, a decisively non-electronic sporting activity (or so Matt Jones tells me). Next up came the purchase of Team Liquid by a partnership that includes Peter Guber (part-owner of the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Los Angeles FC) and Ted Leonsis (majority owner of the Washington Capitals, Washington Wizards, Washington Mystics, and Washington Valor). All of this begs the following question:

Why the hell are the owners of major competitive sports franchises buying up eSports teams?!

One thing is very clear, there is significant money funneling into competitive gaming and there has been for some time now. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO for short), League of Legends (LoL for short), and Hearthstone (HS) for short, are just three of the many, many games that have substantial competitive tournament circuits built around teams of players.

Team Liquid has team members who compete regularly in StarCraft II, League of Legends, Hearthstone, CS:GO, Defense of the Ancients 2 (DotA 2), Heroes of the Storm, Super Smash Bros., Street Fighter, Halo, and Overwatch. That covers the genres of Real-Time Strategy, Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, Card Games, Fighter Games, and First-Person Shooters. That’s a lot of gaming at the highest levels of competition.

Bringing in new ownership that has significant financial power will only help legitimize competitive gaming. Team Liquid was already one of the premier teams in the eSports landscape but with this backing they could start to become household names. ESPN covers competitive gaming. The mainstream media is not shy to talk about the massive tournaments that go on at events like DreamHack, Blizzcon and the Evo Championship Series.

So, what about Magic the Gathering?

Let’s face it, Magic simply doesn’t have the same kind of competitive gaming credentials that these other games have, and Wizards of the Coast is painfully aware of it. There’s a job listing over at the Wizards site that went up at the end of September for Director, Competitive Gaming and eSports. They’re looking for a “seasoned marketing professional” to manage both the “strategic and operational aspects of all Premier Play and e-Sports programs, including business planning, event coverage content development and distribution management.”

It’s clear that Wizards wants in on this scene. Who wouldn’t when the owners of NBA franchises are throwing down money to get a piece of the pie. The future of competitive gaming is being defined by teams like Liquid and the ownership groups and sponsors who are getting in now. Wizards is right to want to shift themselves into that space.

At the same time though I get the impression from the job listing that Wizards of the Coast doesn’t quite have a full plan in place. Here is a sampling of the bullet-point items that Wizards wants to see delivered by their new Director of Competitive Gaming and e-Sports with some emphasis provided by me:

  • Provides strategic vision and tactical direction for Premier Play and e-Sports events, including locations, play formats, tournament structure and platforms (physical and digital)
  • Evolve and develop Premier Play and e-Sports offerings to maintain and expand Magic’s category leadership
  • Provides strategic vision and leads execution of marketing approach to grow the audience of players participating in high-level competitive physical and digital events
  • Provides strategic vision for event content development and distribution including flagship events (Pro Tour), mid-tier (Grand Prix), and other subsidized or crowd-sourced streaming content
  • Constantly improves the quality of Magic’s event coverage and enhance the entertainment value of our programming
  • Provides strategic vision to develop the Premier Play and e-Sports ecosystem of business partners to grow the presence and leadership of Magic in both physical premier and digital e-Sports events.
  • Provides strategic vision and business management leadership to scale up the Magic Grand Prix program globally.

Now, let’s not ignore the very obvious fact that this job listing went up immediately after three NBA owners put up money to buy competitive gaming teams. Things are moving fast and Wizards of the Coast is falling behind. For a very long time, Magic: the Gathering was the gold standard of competitive gaming. The Pro Tour was the king of the hill when it came to pro gaming, especially in North America (pro gaming in Asia has been a very active scene for much longer than in North America).

But look at what Wizards is asking for in this job listing. There’s an incredible amount of work Wizards needs to make-up just to play catch-up and build a presence in competitive gaming, let alone becoming a leader in the industry. Is it even possible for Magic to ever be king of the hill again when it comes to pro gaming? It’s clear that Wizards thinks it’s possible.

Two changes made in the past few months might set the course for the future. The first was the creation of a team competition for the Pro Tour. There’s no denying that team competition is more exciting than individual competition even when the game itself is played in an individual setting, like Hearthstone or Street Fighter. The second was the recent changes to Magic Online that involved reducing the fees for limited and adding bonus rewards for constructed.

Those two changes are in-line with Wizards desires to become a competitive e-Sports leader but I don’t think we’re getting close to the day when major sponsorship money is going to flow into Magic the Gathering. Coverage needs to improve. The digital platform needs to improve. More people need to be playing at the amateur level.

Money is flowing rapidly into competitive gaming which is great news. Magic is getting left behind games like Hearthstone and that’s bad news. I expect we’re going to continue to see big changes from Wizards of the Coast as they work to play catch-up with the rest of the industry. The recent changes to Magic Online are only the beginning.

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