Magic as an eSport – An Exercise in Brand Positioning

Inspired by a recent podcast between The Professor and Amanda Stevens, I wanted to explore Magic: the Gathering’s unique value proposition and Arena’s positioning within the larger eSports sphere. 

If you look at Magic Arena’s direct competitors, you would not say that Magic is going toe-to-toe with League of Legends, DOTA or even Fortnite, instead being more likely to compare Arena to Hearthstone, Legends of Runeterra (LoR), Eternal or even Gwent. In the gauntlet of Trading Card Games (TCGs), Magic reigns. The only other relevant competitors you could even consider when it comes to playing in paper are Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokèmon, and they pale in comparison to the level of acclaim, prize support, and complexity that you’ll find in MtG. 

When you shift your focus to the world of Digital CCGs, Magic’s complexity – a feature for entrenched players – becomes a drawback. Magic’s complex board states and slower pace of play make it uninviting to new players – and while that was also true in paper, a spotlight is shined on this drawback when comparing Arena to Hearthstone or LoR. Exacerbating this issue is the requirement that Arena’s play experience is also replicable in paper. This means that while other Digital CCGs have the flexibility to explore digital-only design space, Magic is handcuffed by the very thing that made it great 20 years ago. Additionally, Magic’s complexity makes it a poor, if not impossible, mobile experience – a place where other Digital CCGs excel. However, this is a two-way street as other CCGs are limited to the digital sphere, with mechanics that are unfeasible to replicate in paper, making it improbable, if not impossible for them to compete with Magic on it’s home turf. 

But what does this mean for Magic’s unique value proposition? For those not immersed in Marketing vernacular, a brand or product’s unique value proposition (UVP) is what they bring to the table that no other product does. The UVP lies at the intersection of what their customers want and need, and what the company does really well. It also sits opposite from what their competitors do really well. In the case of Magic then, it becomes clear that their paper cards with the ability to appeal to a wide range of audiences (Hello Timmy, Jenny and Spike) are where they carve out their UVP, and their competitors have a leg up in the digital realm. Tabletop players are looking to play with friends, which is not where Arena shines, and competitive players are often left frustrated at Arena’s attempts to simplify complex game mechanics and board intricacies, and the poor in-game economy that limits deck variety (not to mention the variety of issues with execution that Arena has seen that cause players to lose games because of bugs or connectivity issues.) 

But Chantelle, you ask, what if Magic’s customers really want a digital product? In my mind, Arena lives as part of a more holistic suite of products to offer to users. There’s a reason that every person interviewed for the recent Online Magic Fest said the thing they were looking to most when paper play returned was The Gathering – the sense of community fostered by this game is not one I have seen in any eSport. I believe that positioning Arena as a support for the other spokes in Magic’s marketing wheel after widespread vaccine implementation would serve them much better than the current push for Arena play at the highest level (using current to refer to the shift we witnessed Pre-COVID). 

If we continue to see Arena used for premier level tournaments, with no focus on paper play, I anticipate that Magic will continue to slowly lose both its highest level pros and it’s larger competitive player base (this is in addition to other exacerbating factors that I won’t dive into here.) As other Digital CCGs continue to broaden their eSports presence, backed by parent companies like Blizzard and Riot, I also expect to also see prize support grow in a way that WotC (who has a parent company in Hasbro that is quite blatantly driven by short-term profit) might not be able to compete with. WotC has made it clear that they view professional play as a Marketing expense (so much that people had joked in the past that the pro in ‘Pro Tour’ stood for promotional) and if they continue attempting to fight in the eSports sphere, this expense will only get more expensive, with decreased return on investment because they are competing in a much more crowded market. 

To be successful, I anticipate that WotC will need to design a competitive play ecosystem that has clearly defined avenues to professional play through both Paper and Digital, and highlights paper play in a way that they were shifting away from previously, where paper events are run in tandem with, or supported by Arena, not taking a back seat to Magic eSports. This would also need to include an easy-to-understand path to making it as a professional Magic player, as opposed to the current confusing system beleaguered by constantly moving goalposts.

In summary, it feels like WotC is hunting for a smaller piece of a bigger pie by shifting their focus to ‘eSports’, where they have entered the market at a disadvantage, with no plans to shore up their shortcomings. If WotC instead focuses on what has made Magic one of the most successful games in history up until this point, they would be able to leverage their unique value proposition while supplementing it with Arena, which is a great product in that it reflects the paper experience and can be an introductory avenue for newer players, if the in-game economy is shifted to accommodate them. 

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