In my most recent entry for StarCityGames.com, I mentioned that I would be taking a one-column sabbatical to work on a Magic-related project. To fill the void, I have an exclusive e-mail interview with Helene Bergeot, Director of Organized Play and Trade Marketing for Wizards of the Coast, about Organized Play's Grand Prix circuit.
Grand Prix tournaments, the largest and most prestigious Magic events that don't require an invitation to participate, are a key part of Magic's revamped Organized Play structure. In calendar year 2012, there were 43 Grand Prix events held, compared to 18-20 in the previous few years, and 45 Grand Prix tournaments have been or will be held in calendar year 2013.
February was an eventful month for the Grand Prix circuit. It became the topic of much debate after Brian Kibler's February 7 article on "The State of Pro Play" about the stress the expanded Grand Prix circuit puts on the traveling professional. The same day Brian Kibler's article was published, Helene Bergeot sent out a tweet about the Pro Tour invitations awarded to top Grand Prix finishers, in which she noted that Grand Prix events were never meant to be "super qualifiers" for the Pro Tour. The Helene Bergeot tweet inspired immediate feedback from the community, myself included, and a clarifying tweet that the invitations weren't going anywhere.
A little over two weeks later came the record-breaking attendance at Grand Prix Charlotte, where 2,672 players sat down on February 23 and sorted through six packs of Gatecrash looking for a path to victory. The crush of competitors was a milestone worth celebrating, but it also pushed the existing Grand Prix tournament structure almost to the breaking point.
After a couple of specific questions about the Pro Tour invitations granted at Grand Prix tournaments, this e-mail interview took a more general turn toward the Grand Prix circuit's place in the Organized Play system; in short, "What is a Grand Prix supposed to be?" The answers show a remarkable balancing act between players' divergent wants—Grand Prix attendees are far from a monolithic bloc—and Wizards' business needs, a balance that continues to evolve.
Special thanks go to Helene Bergeot and Tolena Thorburn, Senior Communications Manager for Wizards of the Coast, for making this interview happen.
1) Referencing this tweet about how Grand Prix events weren't meant to be "super Pro Tour Qualifiers":
@joshjmtg GPs were never meant to be super qualifiers, and we should probably have never given PT invites to top finishers— Helene Bergeot (@HeleneBergeot) February 7, 2013
How many Pro Tour invitations could be removed without doing serious damage to the Grand Prix system? People will whine about anything being "taken away," but the plane tickets to the Pro Tour, when they've been handed out, have gone mainly to Gold pros (that I've seen—I could be off in my estimation).
The Grand Prix Top 4 and Top 8 thresholds introduce a lot of uncertainty into the number of new Pro Tour invitees, which I hadn't appreciated beforehand. While the sponsors' invites have provoked their own controversies, it does keep the number of attendees more stable.
Recently [actually February 7, 2013] you followed up with a tweet that said you weren't going to try actually removing the invites, which is reassuring, but now I'm contemplating the possibilities.
Although Grand Prix events were not conceived as super qualifiers, we have embraced the fact that GPs are no longer in line with our original vision, which is why we're not planning to remove the Pro Tour invites. Grand Prix attract a variety of players with very diverse aspirations, and part of their appeal is the opportunity to play against pro players or aspiring pros. Invites are important to these players, thus the importance to maintain them as they are.
At the same time, we want GPs to offer an experience that goes beyond the invites; player surveys have shown us that the primary motivation for most players to attend a GP is not a Pro Tour invite but rather the excitement to attend a large Magic event that feels like a convention. We are mindful about not turning GPs into super qualifiers and to keep our focus on the overall GP experience.
2) One angle I've been considering for pro play is the "Auto-Gold." Pretty simple idea: if you win a Grand Prix or Top 8 a Pro Tour, you are guaranteed Gold for that season and the next. It creates a large incentive for pros to play Grand Prix events (maybe not Hall of Famers like Mr. Kibler), and it makes sure that people who accomplish genuinely remarkable results don't end up falling through the cracks as a result of scheduling quirks. How much would this impact the Organized Play budget, and would "Auto-Gold" be popular enough to justify the impact?
This idea would definitely incentivize pros to participate in Grand Prix events. However, considering the current number of GPs, it would double the number of Gold players and would therefore require us to review (raise) the threshold to reach that level significantly. I would be concerned about the Gold level becoming too difficult to reach through Pro Point accumulation.
3) After Grand Prix Charlotte and its record-setting turnout of over 2,500 players, has Wizards identified a size at which a Grand Prix is too big to satisfy the needs of most attendees? As a corollary, does Wizards have an ideal size in mind for GPs?
I believe that the quality of the organization is more important than the actual size of the Grand Prix.
The main challenge with large Grand Prix events is that when they go over 1,200 players, it potentially translates into a long Day 1 for the attendees, which could negatively impact their experience. However, as organizers and judges become more trained to run such large events, it becomes less of an issue.
With that said, the turnout at Grand Prix Charlotte is a sign for us that it's time to explore alternative ways to run Grand Prix while still keeping intact the spirit of the event. There are a few options we're currently looking at; the next step will be to experiment, learn from there, and refine.
It's very exciting to see the growing popularity of Grand Prix, and we need to make sure we do our best to continue making those events as fun as possible to all.
4) To what extent does Wizards have an incentive to make smaller Grand Prix events? For example, does Wizards pay for tournament halls or does the organizer? (Square footage costs, as do plane tickets.) Naturally, the pros want smaller Grand Prix events in the current system, but I'm having trouble seeing the full range of incentives.
Grand Prix events are contracted to Professional Tournament Organizers who are in charge of renting an adequate tournament hall for the event. Our only incentive to make smaller Grand Prix events is the quality of the players' experience. Attending a 2,000-player tournament can certainly be overwhelming.
5) What are Grand Prix events now?
Grand Prix events offer a great opportunity to play at a (more) competitive level, travel, mingle with pros, make new friends, and get a different Magic experience, especially since they are weekend-long events.
6) What is Wizards' goal for Grand Prix events? What do you want them to be?
The goal is to offer compelling play experience for players to make them fall in love with Magic over and over again!
7) What have players told you they want Grand Prix events to be?
There is not one unified answer, which makes it challenging for us. Players attending a GP can have very diverse motivations, as we've described above.
8) How do we get from 5 to a compromise between 6 and 7?
Continue to listen to player feedback to find the right balance and satisfy as many players as possible while not losing track of our goal to offer an amazing play experience.