Grand Prix Sydney
Grand Prix Sydney

The Evolution of the Arm Chair Athlete

When thousands of people descend upon Sydney Olympic Park each week, they are usually there for a sporting event. In that regard, Saturday 30th of July is no different to any other Saturday: the athletes prepare themselves to compete in the bowels of the cavernous stadium, while the rest of us pack into our seats; perhaps purchase some merchandise and food, and cheer for the Bulldogs, Rabbitohs, Eels or whichever side is calling the former Olympic Stadium home on that given day.

This day is somewhat different. Rather than bronzed Adonises wielding pig skin balls and willow-forged bats, these competitors battle with cards emblazoned with fantasy characters such as Zombies, Vampires and Dragons. There are over 1100 competitors each vying for camera time, glory and a share of hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of prize money. People watching at home in scores of countries across the world might number in their tens of thousands.

This is Magic: The Gathering, Grand Prix Sydney, where expert players of a strategic trading card game are being cheered, scrutinised, supported and dissected online by as dedicated and as voracious a viewer base as we’re accustomed to in the worlds of turf and leather.

 

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The Content

Perhaps not the typical spectator sport, Magic: The Gathering has been around in school yards and hobby stores since 1993. A complex game of deck building (where you draw from an enormous pool of creature cards, impactful spell cards to make your own unique deck) and then use said deck to play against other opponents, the game is often referred to as a cross between poker and chess with a Dungeons and Dragons aesthetic.

The cards are highly collectable, staggeringly expensive on the secondary market (the most expensive of which, Black Lotus, going for $30,000 plus) and incredibly addictive. Sold in 16 card booster packs, the hobby has been referred to as “cardboard crack” for its ability to hook the unsuspecting individual. Sydney alone features more than ten dedicated gaming stores which traffic in Magic and other similar games as a principal revenue stream.

From kitchen tables and school yards to living rooms and mobile phones worldwide, Magic is now big business – with an estimated 20 million active players worldwide taking the game from a Pog-era fad to a potential movie franchise (in development with 21st Century Fox) and a huge multi-platform brand for parent-company, Wizards of the Coast (wholly owned subsidiary of toy manufacturing giant Hasbro).

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The Channel

Almost since its inception, Magic has been an unlikely spectator sport. At one point covered by ESPN, the game’s Pro-Tours (the top competitive tier) and Grand Prix are considered major, must watch events in the community. But it’s the digital revolution that has helped put the product on more peoples’ screens than previously thought imaginable.

One of the conduits for this softly spoken, technically savvy evolution is online video streaming. eSports, despite being a buzzword, is nonetheless becoming an increasingly huge part of many young peoples’ viewing habits. Gone are the days of a cable television connection, or heaven forbid a box score, connecting young fans with their heroes and teams of choice. Millions now turn to Twitch, a gamer-centric mobile and computer driven streaming platform, which has flipped the content production model on its head; allowing anyone with a computer, mic and webcam to become a content producer and anyone with a mobile phone to have unlimited subscription to thousands of games being played in real time.

The line between fan and star of the show has rarely seemed more blurred. Over 100 million unique users populate Twitch’s hundreds of channels monthly. To put this in perspective, if the Twitch community were a country, it would be the 12th most populous nation in the world.

What is perhaps more staggering is that approximately 2% of that 100 million are streamers or content producers themselves – with content production and the idea of being the star of your own stream surely an intoxicating prospect for usually retiring gamers and gaming fans.

However it is the big companies and major games that draw the biggest numbers on Twitch. Online games such as League of Legends (LoL), Hearthstone (a digital competitor to Magic) and DOTA2 attract live crowds in the thousands and viewership numbers in the multiple millions for their major events.

Hasbro clearly wants a piece of this action.

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The Broadcaster

With millions of eyeballs at stake, it’s clear that coverage is a key focus for businesses looking to establish an eSports presence. What strikes you in person about the set up for Grand Prix Sydney is its professionalism. This is no “two men and a camera” budget set up. Elaborate sets, multiple playing areas and a rotating crew of ten commentators call the games with the enthusiasm, intonation and fervour familiar to fans of traditional sports.

Marshall Sutcliffe, one of the professional commentators for Magic: The Gathering, covers 25 Grand Prix each year, along with several other higher level, invitation only tournaments across the globe.

Marshall is your Al Michaels, Bruce McAvaney or Ray Warren of Magic.

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The coverage team at Grand Prix Sydney

“We call it the host and the expert – play-by-play and colour. We try to get a high level player as a colour commentator and I’ll usually be doing the play-by-play.”

Sutcliffe sees coverage as a genuine connection point with fans and believes the increasing professionalism and frequency of eSports coverage is critical to the brand’s success.

“The thinking among most eSports franchises is to let people access your game as much as possible. Wizards of the Coast realises that and wants a situation where if it’s the weekend and you’re free, you can watch the event or become part of that experience.

“People watch events like this to see what the top players are doing.”

He also sees the democratic element, where the fan can become the star attraction, as a huge part of the appeal for events like a Grand Prix.

“One of the really important things about Magic is that it has a lot of breadth to it. You can play many different styles all the way from hard-core tournament players at the Pro Tour all the way down to casual players who play at their kitchen table for fun.”

“At a Grand Prix literally anyone can play who has the money or the inclination. If you come here and do really well you could run it up into a career – who knows. The fact that it’s open to anyone makes it the stepping stone for many people.”

When asked what it will take for Magic to reach the likes of the true behemoths of eSports who attract millions of viewers for large events, Sutcliffe would rather focus on the status of his game as an alternative option; stating that the smaller viewership figures belie a depth of interaction and sophistication rather than a lack of popularity.

“I think that Magic exists in a separate world from those games (DOTA, League of Legends). Magic is a thinking person’s game which has a slower pace and is much more cerebral. Rather than screaming and yelling, it reminds me most of comparing golf to a high speed sport like Rugby. The audience isn’t quite as big but the fans are very dedicated.”

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The Pro

As with all sports, the true elite are not created equal. While the open Grand Prix events are the bread and butter of the scene, the Pro-Tour (also taking place in Sydney) is the big leagues – where stars are made, studied and pondered by the online peanut gallery. This main event series features a decidedly more select group of professional players who are competing for a prize pool of USD$300,000.

One of the few hundred pros traveling to Sydney and competing in this event is Jon Finkel. A former World Champion and Hall of Famer, Finkel splits his time between being a director at a hedge fund in New York City and playing Magic professionally. His nickname is Johnny Magic and he’s considered by most to be one of the top two greatest of all-time (it’s like a Maradona or Pele thing. It’s definitely him or The German Juggernaught Kai Budde).

Finkel is part of one of the game’s professional “super-teams”; Channel Fireball: The Pantheon. Despite being a 20 year veteran, he nonetheless lives the arduous life of a tournament “grinder” when he’s onsite preparing for a pro-tour.

“The first guy from our team has been onsite for a week and a half. We basically spend all of our time playing Magic, eating or sleeping. Getting up at 5 or 6am, having some breakfast and continuing for the rest of the day,” says Finkel.

Twelve hour days of testing, deciding on a final decklist and practising for the unpredictable “limited” rounds where players make decks from un-opened packs are the order of the day. Finkel tells New Albion he has not taken a vacation in years which doesn’t center on this game and testing for Pro-Tour events.

Over the past 20 years Finkel has seen the game he enjoys go from serious hobby to a serious enterprise.

“When it started in 1996 the idea of doing it professionally didn’t make any sense, there was no model for it. Now you have 50-100 people doing this full time through prize money, sponsorship and writing articles (for strategy websites).”

He similarly sees these Pro Tour events and the professionalism of the game’s coverage as a one of the key catalysts for the growth of the game.

“Even if most people aren’t going to play at this level, having a professional scene legitimizes their hobby. People don’t play a lot of sports where there isn’t a high level professional league”, he says.

Like Sutcliffe, Finkel also argues that Magic exists in a similar but separate space to the fast pace, frenetic games online combat games which make up the majority of eSports products.

“If you’re watching a game of DOTA, even if you don’t understand it you can tell whose winning or losing. Magic is closer to the chess side of the continuum. The nuance makes it difficult for casual spectators. But this is part of the beauty of the game.”

He also sees the evolution of commentary and coverage as a critical step toward the game’s growth.

“It’s more polished (compared to when he started). In some respects these events aren’t even taking place in the real world. They’re online, on peoples’ computers or mobiles. It has morphed from a live spectator sport into a broadcast focused event.”

The stakes are high for Finkel this week – who requires a good result at Pro Tour Sydney to qualify for the World Championship taking place in a couple of weeks. This event is the biggest draw of all – an invite online showdown of top pros with a prize pool of $250,000. Not bad for a hobby.

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As the day progresses at Grand Prix Sydney, the tension rises. Each win and loss is ridden and celebrated a little harder and the shuffle from seat-to-seat after each round becomes either more exuberant or moribund. Players are eliminated, while others advance, others’ hopes of glory fade as they trudge out into a Homebush carpark, considering a costly line of play and how it’ll all work out better next year.

Finkel’s voice beams with the love of the game when he talks about his first junior pro tour in 1996 – conjuring images of children huddled around corner stores opening packs and playing cards. As does Sutcliffe’s when he talks about his delight at discovering his aeroplane during his trans-pacific journey had Wi-Fi so he could connect and play Magic Online for the duration of the flight. This love permeates all of the competitors here, who on this Saturday are able to participate in their favourite hobby as part of a major broadcast event – inserting themselves into a meta-narrative of high-level competition and engaging in a level playing field with luminaries of their field. Their sporting heroes.

Watching these many competitors, a comment of Finkel’s rings particularly true.

“This is a place for people to compete who aren’t athletic freaks.”

This is the key to the rise of eSports, gaming, Twitch and all of their by-products. As control over content has broadened and people are able to access and create content as easily as a few keystrokes, the goalposts are changing on what it is to be a sports hero. It can be people like you and your friends. You don’t need to be able to throw, catch and tackle to be part of this narrative.

Just think and react. People are watching.

Magic the Gathering’s Pro-Tour starts August 5th at Sydney Olympic Park and is free to attend. The latest set, Eldritch Moon, is available for purchase at local gaming stores in Sydney such as Good Games and The Games Den.

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James Wright is an editor at New Albion.