The Gathering’s New Pro Players Prove To Be Controversial Picks

Today, Magic: The Gathering publisher Wizards of the Coast announced that it had signed two new players to its fledgling Pro League, including the league’s first woman. While it has been a galvanizing decision for many players, especially female ones, some fans worry that the process for joining the professionalized ranks of Magic has become too subjective, or didn’t make sense in the first place.

When it established the Magic Pro League in late 2018, Wizards of the Coast initially selected the players with what seemed to be a simple process: It chose the top 32 players on its official rankings, paying each a $107,515 contract to compete at tournaments and stream the game for fans. Those players had earned the most “Pro Points,” Wizards of the Coast’s system for awarding points to players who do well at certain tournaments, during the 2017-2018 season. Two of the players in the top 32 did not join the league, and were replaced with other players from the top 40.

At the time, Wizards was not specific about its selection criteria, just noting that the league “features 32 of the top players in the world showcasing Magic at the highest level.” This, plus the structure for top competitive Magic prior to the league, led players to believe that Pro Point ranking would be the single factor that determined which players would be added to the League.

But this was apparently not always going to be the case. Earlier this year, Wizards of the Coast vice president of esports Elaine Chase told Kotaku that while the company “had a lot of different approaches how to build that roster,” it eventually decided to “take the top-ranked players from last year” even though it made them “very sad” that that methodology would mean that no women made it onto the list. “I very much want there to be women in next year’s MPL,” Chase said at that time.

After players Owen Turtenwald, Yuuya Watanabe, and Gerry Thompson exited the league this year, Wizards’ replacement picks made it clear that it was not simply going to continue to elevate the top point earners to status.

The league’s new players are Autumn Burchett, Janne “Savjz” Mikkonen, and Jessica Estephan, the first woman to join the league after its initial roster of 32 men. All three have distinguished themselves in one way or another. Burchett, who is gender nonbinary, won February’s Mythic Championship. Mikkonen is a well-loved Twitch streamer often of Hearthstone or Dota Auto-Chess who performed well at the Mythic Invitational. Estephan won 2018’s Magic Grand Prix. In the 2017-2018 season, Burchett was ranked 134, Estephan was 520 (the highest of any woman), and Mikkonen did not have a ranking. Burchett has the top standing in the league currently.

In an interview with The Esports Observer, Chase explained its reasoning for signing Estephan. “We’re doing this very purposefully. It’s because we know that there’s an issue with barriers for women and other marginalized groups in esports overall, and in Magic competitive gaming,” she said. “We want to take a first step and take a stand, and say that we’re going to remove those barriers and make a space and make an opportunity for women. Jess is our first step in doing that.”

Chase reiterated that stance in a blog post today, in which she made it clear that a major priority of Wizards’ is representation. “We want to state in no uncertain terms that we know the pool of talent is broad, and that we think it should be represented in a concrete way to the viewers and fans of competitive Magic,” she wrote. (Wizards did not immediately respond to Kotaku’s request for comment for this story.)

After Wizards announced the addition of Mikkonen and Estephan today, there was an overwhelming negative reaction from players on Reddit, Twitter, and elsewhere concerning what they felt were the League’s uneven standards for players’ inclusion. Players were upset that Wizards was promoting diversity or Twitch fame over pure numerical standings.

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“No disrespect to @Savjz or @jesstephan, but in particular using results from the Invitational as a basis for MPL promotion here seems suspect considering it was explicitly said to be independent from other organised systems,” said Magic commentator Brian Kibler on Twitter. “I feel like my perception would be different if the system were set up this way in the first place, in the vein of the old World Championship (Top x per region or whatever other category you choose). I feel @jesstephan is a great inclusion by that metric.”

The former Magic Pro League players that Estephan, Burchett, and Mikkonen are replacing left the League for different reasons. Two were removed for alleged misconduct. Owen Turtenwald, a well-established pro player, was removed from the league last month after allegations of sexual misconduct. Last week, Wizards removed pro Yuuya Watanabe after allegations of cheating.

Today, pro Gerry Thompson announced his exit from the league, citing concerns about contract negotiation and communication from Wizards. Last year, Thompson had boycotted the World Championships in protest of Wizards’ treatment of pro players, citing concerns about payment and transparency.

In an article explaining why he left the league today, Thompson gave six reasons, one of which appeared to refer to the pros who were removed and the league’s new inclusions.

“At this point, it should be very clear that the players selected to represent Magic at its highest level were not thoroughly vetted,” he wrote. “Now, you could argue that I’m in that camp. However, I’d like to think that if things were progressing rather than regressing, I would have held onto my position. Following my Worlds protest, I’ve tried to go through the ‘proper channels,’ but all that got me was a string of unanswered messages. I don’t think my decision to leave is unjustified.”

Wizards’ lack of transparency in its decisions to add (or remove) players has proven immensely frustrating to other players, too. Much of the backlash against the new Pro League members cites how confusing the ladder to pro now appears. That ladder, to many current players grinding out tournaments, previously seemed comprehensible and maybe even climbable. But, goes the line of thinking, if these new inclusions are being judged by different standards, how could that be fair?

Perhaps esports should be a meritocracy, but in reality, it is not. It is more difficult for some players to scale the rungs of the Magic ladder than others. After her success at the Grand Prix, Estephan wrote an article describing the barriers she’d faced to going pro in the first place from comments at hobby shops to being told she couldn’t ever succeed because of her gender. She wrote:

“After we won, I was not happy. I spent days having panic attacks and feeling terrified whenever a notification popped up on my phone. I turned my phone off to try and concentrate on work. I begged to stop showing me the hateful comments. I closed my DMs on Twitter and unfollowed people to revoke messaging privileges. We received some mainstream media, but the comments attached were not worth it. I was called fat and ugly, with many iterations of both. I was told I didn’t deserve the attention and the win because I wasn’t a photogenic physical ideal. In other words, screw the hard work I’d put in I wasn’t pretty enough to be good at a game I loved.”

Esports pros are both top players and role models. Wizards’ move proactively inserted a top female player into the League may have the effect of inspiring other women to give Magic their all.

Yet if Magic’s pro league isn’t the “meritocracy” players initially believed it would be, some pros say that could harm its credibility. Whether these new additions harm its credibility more than top-ranked pros accused of harassing women or cheating is apparently an open question.

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