Should Independent Tournament Organisers Run MTG Events For Competitive Magic Players? – Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge
“Time is Money, Friend!” – Gazlowe, Overseer of Ratchet
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of years, you’ll likely be aware that politics in America and Europe have been pretty tempestuous lately. The reason I’m opening with this statement – which I’m going to move on from swiftly – is because of the impact that it has on the economy of these regions, and what that means for Hasbro, Wizards of the Coast, games stores and players.
I’m not an economist or a business analyst, so I’ll steer clear of the numbers because I don’t really understand them beyond a vague notion that Magic: the Gathering is still doing fine, but broader instability poses problems all the way down the line. My background is in sociology, and correspondingly I am well positioned to discuss the social groups, the dynamics within those groups and particular areas of conflict.
Casual players spend more money on Magic, as you’ve no doubt heard. I’m sure you’ll have heard it because at any point in which the various agendas of players – both conflicting and otherwise – are discussed this remark is bleated out by various people, to other people who already know it, even if it’s been said innumerable times already, and adds nothing to the conversation. People love facts because facts offer save haven from the perils of being wrong. In my experience, it troubles people not a jot that this particular remark is well understood to be true by virtually everyone.
It’s the same in every area of gaming that I can think of. Ignore for the moment the particular spending habits of individuals, and think about the ratio of people who play games casually compared to those who play them very seriously. Assuming they all spent an equal amount, then the total spending of casual players would eclipse the total spending of competitive players by miles.
On an individual level, competitive players tend to spend less for various reasons which we’ll have a more in-depth look at later, but for the moment let’s assume it’s largely because they want to pay for flights to GPs, not local drafts, and they’re borrowing the singles they need for their decks because they need that money to pay for tournament entry to 6 PPTQs a season. Their interests are in a broader definition of the game, in which their local game store is only peripheral, while the local game store is – for many casual players – what Magic is, outside of their house (which is fine – each to their own…).
It’s a fact that competitive players spend less, but of course it is also a component of an argument made by individuals, which is in turn loaded by their preconceptions, agendas and perspectives. It’s rare, then, that you’ll see a competitive player endlessly offering up this contribution to a discussion. While it is a fact, in stating it you’re not “merely stating a fact” because the conversations in which this remark is relevant are ones in which this remark is antagonistic.
So it is that competitive players become a problem to be solved for the store owner who wants customers to come into his shop and buy stuff. The majority of players in the locality will come in and spend money on singles, on boosters, on various bits and pieces of paraphernalia without problems, but there exists a subset of the market which doesn’t really buy anything. They also moan about the prices of various things and want events run differently. When there is an event in the store which they deign to attend, they’re rude to the people who spend money, and then they complain about stupid, niggly little things like the lighting, or that it’s too crowded, or that the event was run inefficiently and, because of this, slowly.
In respect to game shops and events there are three groups of principal importance, excluding Wizards. These are tournament organizers (often also game store owners), judges and players, each of whom have objectives. I’m writing in the good faith that everyone wants things like the other people involved to have a good time, people to be safe, and for people to feel that attending Magic: the Gathering events, particularly in the location in question, is something which they would want to do in again.
Beyond this, the tournament organizer (TO) wants what’s best for his business – protecting long term customers, acquisition of new customers, effective use of space to ensure maximum players, minimal costs on staff, minimal prize support and maximum price are all in the interests of the TO.
The Judge(s) want to be paid as well as possible, minimal travel time to the event, appropriate support from both other judges and the TO’s staff, and for the actual practice of judging the event to enrich them as a judge.
Players want a far more varied set of things, of course, but largely they’re interested in minimal travel time, reliable judges, smoothly run events, a comfortable environment in which to play, good prize support and a low entry fee.
Needless to say, this results in a fair amount of conflict, as these agendas are competing over practically every point in some way. TOs and judges are one site of conflict, as are players and judges, but for our purposes it’s TOs and player conflicts that are of interest. Once again, the competitive player is much more problematic insomuch as they complain about loads of things, have the highest demands in respect to the other players, the judges and the prices and product delivered. For the most part, the casual players just pay and get on with it, and because very often the event they’ve played is in their local store, loyalty to that store means they won’t really bother complaining even if they do care.
Store owners are human beings and as business owners they have bills to pay both in respect to their stores and to put food on the table. It’s easy to think that if someone owns a shop they must be loaded, but that’s often not really the case at all. It’s no wonder then that many come to question why they should run events for a minority which doesn’t spend money in their store and is problematic for various other reasons.
Maybe they shouldn’t run them. It’s hard to tell without looking at whether or not they’re profitable, but ultimately if it doesn’t make sense from a business point of view, then of course there is no reason to run them unless you’re feeling generous. It seems to me, though, that there are a fair number of these events run in the country, which would indicate either that they can be run profitably, or that game store owners are very generous, or (hint: this one makes much more sense…) it’s a bit of both.
I have discussed the discourse around competitive players within the store-store run tournament scene in terms of a problematic group of parasitic players who are, in many ways, toxic to all other parties. Let’s look now at what makes competitive players the problematic “other” in Magic: the Gathering.
What makes competitive players different from casual players, in terms of the demographic they represent in society?
The central narrative of this difference is one of responsibilities and age. As a player gets older, more stuff happens in their life which detracts from the amount of time which they can spend playing Magic – having kids, getting a job, buying a house, looking after the house they bought, and the car, and the pets, and the kids. As time passes perhaps they get promoted, but with that comes more responsibility and they get less and less time to play Magic at all, let alone travel to events that are miles away. Thank goodness for the local game store.
Naturally these players have good reason to be very loyal to the stores they play in, and that’s one difference between them and many of the people I’ve played with. Another is that they’ve been quite successful in their jobs. A third is that they have jobs at all.
Loads of players take up the game before and during university, finish their degree, get a job, and maybe don’t play again. Others keep playing casually. Then there are a number of players who keep plugging away at the game at the same rate as before. Those players are often cash poor and time rich.
For me, and for a number of people I know, and have known in the past, buying cards from UK MTG stores, playing in local events and the various other ways a person might support their local store is simply not an option. It would be a choice between buying the cards we need to play the events we want to play, and going to the event. It’s not “EV”, it’s not “gaming it”, and it’s not any of the stuff with which competitive players are associated. It’s just being broke, even if people try to pass it off as some sort of principled stance on buying things cheap and being savvy. There is a fair bit of stigma attached to being skint all the time, which is naturally something which people avoid.
I basically live on handouts – my fiancé has been supporting me for years. I end up with a bit more money than that because I’ve been selling my childhood stuff for the last few years, sold my MODO (Magic Online) account for just short of a grand, and won about £1500 in Magic tournaments over the last few years. That £1500 in 4 years really loosened things up for me – it was a big deal.
Amongst my friends I’ve generally been one of the more financially stable ones. They’ve often come to me because they were short for things – important things. I don’t think I’m a particularly small minority either, based on the people I know from a 20 year involvement with the community.
When I refer to competitive players I have in my mind’s eye players aged between 20 and 30 with higher than average educational levels and corresponding employment prospects. Of course there are competitive players who deviate from that, and so there are competitive players with jobs (this isn’t exactly a massive revelation, I realise…). How many of them have paid their student loan off? How many have outstanding credit card debts? What about owning their own car? Or house? How many still live at home? How many are thinking of getting married, or having children, and the financial costs involved are a major issue in such an important choice? How many own their own business?
These are things which are broadly aspired to, and it’s worth taking them into consideration when considering one’s expectations. The examples of debt above are a no brainer and it would be a misrepresentation to suggest that there is any pressure to buy a playset of The Scarab God at £25 a pop when a customer has a credit card they need to pay off. Owning a car, or a house, or moving out of the family home by contrast is less clear cut. These are choices that are made from a position of relative stability; in general, it’s something along the lines of “ok, I’m doing ok and managing to save some money, maybe I can cut a little more spending, and next year I can afford to do it…” that brings these events to fruition. Without knowing about the particular circumstances of the individuals involved, it would be easy to think “they’re not broke, but they don’t buy much, so they’re being cheap”.
Now as I said before, I understand that games shops are businesses, and I don’t dispute that… so I expect them to act like businesses. It’s perfectly reasonable for a game store to try and get any potential customer to buy things. The unreasonable thing (as in irrational, not immortal) is to expect them to buy things regardless of their own interests. It’s not like taxes, it’s like sales. You know, because “it’s a business”.
Should stores run events which are suitable for competitive players despite the fact that those players don’t directly contribute cash to the business to any great extent?
Maybe, maybe not, I’m not sure what the answer to this question is, but failure to recognize that competitive players are people too is not just a conceptual error, but a personal failure. I’m confident that there will not be a shortage of appropriate tournaments for me to play, though, until the point where the game starts to wither and die, should that point come.
If competitive players want more events that suit them – cash tournaments, win a box tournaments, tournaments with high end eternal cards for prizes – to be run by local games stores, then obviously they’ll need to find ways to support those stores. If you’re constantly badgering your local store to run 8 man flights where the winner gets a black lotus at £5 entry with a judge for every table but never buy anything from the store in question, then don’t be surprised when you not only fail to persuade the owner to run the tournament you want, but also that they’re not super keen on you full stop.
It’s worth mentioning is the idea of “whales” in business. As I said, I’m not a business expert by any stretch, so this analogy likely stuck with me because it involved an animal. Many aspects of the gambling industry are supported by a small number of big spenders (big fish, whales…) in a local context. I’ve mentioned how my general practitioner would regularly come into the Highlander Games when I worked there, and spend a load of money. Because I worked in the shop and saw that often less than my wage would go through the till on a given day, I knew that if it wasn’t for Andrew Cowie Highlander Games would probably not have made it. I also knew that he was buying stuff he didn’t really care about owning – often the conversation would start with “Hey! Sell me something!” – his custom was an act of charity, even if he got a product, which supported the local games store he cared about. There is no doubt in my mind that I would offer a similar level of support if had the money to spend, and it’s not unlikely that I will at some point relatively soon. No doubt I’ll have less time to play then, though…
…to me it seems like this sort of cyclical relationship is the functional aspect of community in a nutshell. People helping each other, people passing it on, the good stuff. The reason I’m as involved as I am with the game and the UK Magic community as I am after two decades. This mindset – it seems to me – is important in trying to find ways to meet the needs of everyone involved. Instead of viewing competitive players as problematic, dysfunctional, deviant versions of “normal” customers, looking at them as customers with a more limited range of interests is both more likely to be productive, and a nicer way to treat members of the community you’re an important part of. From the player’s point of view it’s a good idea to be as helpful as possible while you’re in the store. Try to be nice to the other customers, especially new ones, don’t complain about the prices or tell the owner that the singles are cheaper on eBay (they know that…) and if you’re trying to get more events run which would be suitable for you, listen to what the store owner is telling you about the money side of it. They’re not going to be able to run high payout events for nothing, but maybe you can use those problem solving skills you’ve honed in the game in another context, and help to find something that suits you both.
Finally, it’s worth thinking about how much time you actually spend talking to each other. I used to work in a games shop, and I spend time talking to both judges and store owners because I’m interested in how they experience the game and community. Even if you don’t find it especially useful, there is utility to be gained from a greater understanding in this respect. Similarly because of a lot of the stuff discussed in this article, store owners spend much more time with casual players, and it would be easy to either lose or never fully form an accurate perspective of what competitive players are *really* about.
That’s it for this week! I’ve got a few articles planned, so hopefully you’ll be hearing from me again soon.
Thanks for reading,