At the end of May, 350 professional card players descended upon San Diego to try to capture the Pro Tour championship, a coveted tournament title on the professional card-playing circuit.
Matches spread out across three days of play, with players moving tables and facing constantly shifting competition. Top players—even international titans of the game—were eliminated every day during the tournament, until at last a winner was crowned: Craig Wescoe, a 17-year veteran of the pro game who had never before managed to win a title.
Wescoe capped off his run by taking home the trophy and earning the lion’s share of the $250,000 prize, as well as a standing spot on the world tournament circuit.
It was the same Cinderella story that has been telecast over and over on ESPN: A long-time rounder who’s spent hours and hours training steps up to the big table, lays all his chips on the line and knocks out the pros on his way to taking home the big prize.
The twist? This wasn’t a professional poker tournament. These card players came to San Diego to play Magic: The Gathering.
First introduced twenty years ago, Magic: the Gathering enjoyed runaway success when it hit store shelves in the mid-1990s. At its peak, the game made major news, selling out print runs and getting banned from America’s high schools faster than Catcher in the Rye.
In time, however, the popularity of Magic ebbed, and the game was dismissed by many as a one-shot fad to be relegated to the back closets of suburban homes alongside baseball card books and POG collections.
But, very quietly, something happened—something nobody could have expected.
The game didn’t disappear. The game came back.
As with any other game, Magic: the Gathering lives on only because people play it. Like poker, there was also a period of time when Magic was looked askance upon, as though those people involved in propagating the game were up to something disreputable.
But though the ranks of Magic players dipped in the late '90s, the game has seen a huge resurgence in popularity that began late in the past decade and hasn’t shown signs of slowing.
According to Helene Bergeot, Director of Organized Play and Trade Marketing for Wizards of the Coast (the company that makes Magic: the Gathering), some 350,000 people played in Magic: the Gathering tournaments in 2011.
As impressive a figure as that may seem, it was just a baseline: by mid-2013, the number of regular tournament players had doubled, swelling to over 700,000. That means participation in Magic: the Gathering is growing faster than any other card game on the planet.
“And that’s just the number of people who are playing in formal tournaments,” says Bergeot. As with any other game—including poker—there are untold additional numbers of casual players who play in dens, kitchens and rec rooms all around the world.
What’s most interesting is that, as with poker, which is dominated by home games, there are nonetheless professionals out there—folks who make a living out of playing Magic: the Gathering. Yes, that’s right: There are folks who play Magic: the Gathering for money.
“Not many,” admits Tom Martell, who won Pro Tour Montreal earlier this year, taking home $40,000 for his tournament victory. “There are maybe only twenty or thirty people who play Magic full-time...and the most a person could make in a year is probably about $100,000,” a figure that takes into account endorsements and supplemental sources of income, like writing articles about the game, producing videos or streaming live feeds of gameplay on such sites as twitch.tv, a YouTube-like service that lets fans watch their favorite players engage in competition while paying content providers via streaming ads.
It may not be an easy way to scrape out a living, but those players are out there—and their numbers are growing. Plus, as Martell adds, “There’s making a living, and then there’s making a living. There are people who are kind of making a living [at Magic], like students—not working through school, doing this as their income source.” That makes the true ranks of Magic: the Gathering moneymakers even larger. Furthermore, much of this semi-pro play, Martell noted, also takes place online—again, much like poker.
The air inside the San Diego Convention Center is not unlike that at Binion’s during the World Series. Just before the event begins, hordes of participants—mostly men, many driven by that same, killer obsession of proving oneself the world’s best at some esoteric pursuit—surround the registration booths. This more-than-casual overlap between the two games even spreads to the players.
“There’s David Williams,” notes Bergeot on a stroll around the competition floor. Williams, who holds a WSOP bracelet won in 2004, plays both poker and Magic: the Gathering full-time.
What’s more, Williams is hardly alone in crossing over. As ESPN noted a few years ago, a number of other bracelet-holding champion poker players—including Alex Borteh, Eric Froehlich, Eric Kesselman, and Brock Parker among them—play money-stakes Magic: the Gathering as well.
The similarities don’t end there—the rules of Magic: the Gathering are even a bit like poker. There are no bidding rounds, but players do take turns making actions, while their adversaries attempt to intuit what cards their opponents hold in their hands and what their feints and parries mean.
Brian Kibler, a two-time Pro Tour champion, analogizes Magic to a game of poker in which players choose the cards shuffled into the deck before each hand is dealt. “You have your deck of cards, like in poker, that you draw random hands from, but you choose what cards are in it. So it’s very much about individual strategic and tactical decisions.”
Interestingly, while Magic play borrows heavily from poker’s skill sets of intellect, analysis and bluff, the professional tournament structure is actually far more like that of other, more traditional sports like tennis and golf. Just as with those two sports, there is a pro circuit—known in Magic parlance as the Gran Prix—offering weekly or semi-weekly competitions throughout the course of the year, and there are four major tournaments as well.
Players earn ranking points, seeding and invitations to events—as well as appearance fees—by performing well in these competitions and tournaments. Similarly, for those who are not quite ready to go pro, there are contests akin to the USTA or PGA satellite tours, in which players can play their way into the top tiers of the sport..
All told, the total number of sanctioned events worldwide adds up to something in the neighborhood of 500,000—that’s half a million Magic: the Gathering tournaments each year that lead up to the big money.
Star power alone isn’t enough to win a title. Martell, Williams and Kibler all exit just before the final table in San Diego, and first-time champion Craig Wescoe takes the gold. But what’s next for Magic?
Well, with 500,000 tournaments per year and widespread online play, Magic: the Gathering is certainly out there. Its popularity abroad, too, is only on the rise.
And given the game’s surprising similarities to poker and the widespread rise in popularity both games have seen at all levels in the past few years, perhaps the next decade will see Magic: the Gathering join Texas Hold’ Em on ESPN.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.