Grand Changes for the Grand Prix Circuit
Today, Wizards of the Coast announced a change in structure for Grand Prix in 2018. You can find the post from WotC here. The TL;DR version is that a conglomerate of Channel Fireball and Siteline Productions will run every Grand Prix in the 2018 calendar year. Channel Fireball is a large MTG store based out of California and has gotten more involved with the Grand Prix circuit in the last few years by becoming more involved in live coverage and are hosting 12 Grand Prix this current season. Sightline Productions is the company responsible for a lot of the staging and production done for past Pro Tour coverage. This marriage makes a lot of sense for the two parties but whether this change to a single tournament organizer structure is good for Magic will be seen.
What do the players get out of this?
The upside of this change is consistency in the customer experience at Grand Prix. Between different Tournament Organizers, there were often huge differences in the quality of Grand Prix. Tournaments cost different amounts; the procedure of signing up and submitting decklists was different; the tournament themselves ran differently. These inconsistencies in price and quality took their toll on the players. The honest truth about Grand Prix is that they are difficult to organize. There are thousands of moving parts that TO’s have to account for and something as simple as a broken printer can bring a tournament to a halt. A Grand Prix is a huge undertaking for the company in charge but companies that run a large scale event every weekend have a huge advantage and that has always come across in results. Star City Games runs their SCG Tour events almost every weekend across the country. Their Grand Prix are always well attended and well-reviewed. Channel Fireball has been organizing Grand Prix for several years and often get some of the marquee events of the year, like the 3 GP weekend happening at GP Las Vegas this summer. Having seasoned TO’s running tournaments is better for the player experience.
The other upside of this change is the continuity in live coverage of tournaments. Channel Fireball has increased the number of tournaments they cover and have put together a star-studded lineup of commentators. Their cohesive vision for all GP coverage in 2018 should make for a better viewer experience and get more people watching Magic coverage. This is the upside that WotC sees in this deal. They want to give a true face to Magic coverage and this deal puts that in place. Coverage has become a priority for Wizards in the last few years and they have struggled putting together good coverage. By embracing Channel Fireball’s coverage group, they have something they know that works, with Luis Scott-Vargas attached to it. The coverage should also improve, as they should be given more assets as revenue for Channel Fireball increase. This deal makes a lot of sense for coverage and it will give the GP circuit the consistent professional branding they have been lacking.
What does this mean for the Industry?
There is a lot of risk in this move though. In 2017, there were 14 tournament organizers. In 2018, there will be 1. In 2017, Channel Fireball is running 12 GPs. In 2018, they will be running around 50, sometimes multiple in the same weekend on different continents. That is a seismic shift in the landscape. This is a huge change to make just for the sake of better coverage.
The loss of these 13 tournament organizers isn’t good for the MTG industry. By consolidating from 14 tournament organizers to one, there is a lot more risk if Channel Fireball fails. GPs are very risky for a tournament organizer. They are massive upfront investments that could go very wrong if the tournament isn’t well attended. This potential risk was mitigated for the circuit by having 14 different companies take on these risks. These weekly risks of hundreds of thousands of dollars now fall onto one company’s shoulders. I don’t think Channel Fireball is going to go out of business but what happens if they have 5 stinker GPs in a row? This a new issue for the circuit.
Without GPs, I assume the TO’s left out in the cold will not be as profitable and those without a store front could potentially close. That isn’t good for the industry. First off, not all of these organizers are US based companies. There are specific TO’s for specific regions. A tournament organizer named Legacy is running two Italian GP’s this season. Chain Links are organizing all of the GP in Australia, the Philippines and Hong Kong. Bazar de Bagdá is organizing the Brazilian GP. These regional TO’s are important for these GPs because they have connections to the local judge community and know what players in those regions want. They also give those countries an identity and those domestic GPs are more important for that country and their citizens. A Brazilian playing in a Brazilian Grand Prix being put on by a Brazilian store has to feel more pride than if a foreign company organizes the GP. Having large companies heavily invested in MTG in these areas is good for the game. These TO’s can support their budding communities and help grow the game in these areas. What is stopping the potential of a Brazilian or Australian SCG Tour-esque circuit? These regional footholds are important for WotC with the advent of Nationals coming later this summer. In every country, there needs to be a TO that can step up and run these tournaments and encourage growth. By taking away GPs from these regional powers, their ability to keep growing is stunted.
The other issue is the formation of a potential monopoly. Before this change, TO’s had to compete with each other. If every TO is charging $80 for entry, one can’t go off the deep end and charge $150 without blowback from the player base. This consolidation removes that. Now, do I think that Channel Fireball will price gouge the players? Of course not; they still have to answer to WotC. They can hide these price increases though. The increased prices may come with added playmats or water bottles or whatever swag they include. The customer may get more stuff, but not things that they want. This is dangerous for the more price sensitive audiences. Entry fee for GPs have been rising and have been an issue of concern over the last few months. Some of these increases make sense though; I assume the TO’s costs have increased just as much. These tactics of selling more products and including them in the entry fee of the GP are bad for players and need to be watched. With the new model, any increases in price will be blamed on Channel Fireball’s greed as opposed to market trends. This blame was more evenly dispersed when there were 14 TO’s. The pitchforks may be coming for Channel Fireball now.
Time will tell if this is a good change for Magic. Our fate lies pretty squarely in Channel Fireball’s hands. Their performance could raise Magic to new highs or cripple the GP circuit. WotC consolidated a lot of power into Channel Fireball and this was a risky move but I’m optimistic. Channel Fireball has not failed yet and I doubt they will now. They just have a monumental task ahead of them.
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