In part 2 of my interview with TCG veteran and now a caster and analyst Robert “RobAJG” Gonzales, we talk about Artifact esports production and Wizards of the Coast’s attempt to make Magic: The Gathering an esport.
* * *
You cast WePlay Agility with Slacks, SUNSfan and other big names in the scene. What did you take away from this tournament in terms of Artifact’s future and your own professional development?
The thing I’ve always taken from SUNS and Slacks is that they’re really open. Geography-wise, they are very close to me. I live in New Mexico, Slacks is in Colorado, SUNSfan is in Arizona. I really just pick their brains a lot about personality, how to get it out on camera, how to give people space and make things work.
Slacks and SUNSfan are talents, and not your average Joe on the street giving you advice. They’ve done it and successfully. I talked to Slacks every day in the van and he’d tell me little things about what’s going well or what he doesn’t like. Once we got to day 3, at the end of the day, he’d just give me a breakdown of everything.
It’s really hard to just present an Artifact tournament as just that. You have to delve deeper
On my side, I was doing some behind the scenes directing of certain activities and adding it to the production, so it was a team effort. From my professional experience, there’s nothing better than being able to spend a week with some of the best people in the industry. How do you replicate that experience?
It’s the same thing with WePlay’s Valentine Madness. How do you replicate spending a week with some of the best analysts in Dota? You can’t. There’s no class you can take. It’s beautiful. If I ever get another opportunity to host another event, I would be so much farther ahead of the game and I’ll have more time to play and work on getting coached by these guys.
What do future Artifact tournaments need to do, production and talent-wise, and what’s still missing from them?
It’s really hard to just present an Artifact tournament as just that. You have to delve deeper, talk more about the personalities and where people’s minds are. You have to do your research and know what this player likes to do in their games.
That’s really more apparent in draft, because there’s always a feel about people’s draft. They just do things in certain way, avoid certain things. And when they play, some people are very conservative and others aren’t. It’s important to let the audience know who they’re dealing with, but also to root for someone.
You know how in Dota there’s the standard analytics and it’s kind of very data driven, everybody wears suits… If you did that in Artifact, you’d fall asleep.
For me, in every game of Artifact, you have to root for someone to enjoy it. In a game of Dota 2, you can just enjoy the beauty of the plays and regardless of who wins you can be happy with how it went down. Whereas in Artifact, rooting for one person and their story and journey to the tournament makes things so much better. When it came to WePlay Agility, everyone had their favorites and they got excited as they played. That’s where production companies need to be focusing on — these personal stories, how important it is to win, why they’re stressed, what are they trying to do.
You also can’t take yourselves seriously in terms of Artifact tournaments, because the game is already so intense.
You need to lighten up, basically.
Yeah, you have to. You know how in Dota there’s the standard analytics and it’s kind of very data driven, everybody wears suits… If you did that in Artifact, you’d fall asleep. Your brain is already stressed from watching the game and if you listen to people who take it super serious all the time, it’s not that enjoyable, it’s too much.
There are some Artifact tournaments down the road, which I think I’ll be working, and that would be the idea for most tournaments moving forward because of the success of WePlay’s format.
I want to drag you back to some MTG talk. Wizards are determined to turn the game into an esport through Magic Arena. What do you think of the plans they’ve announced so far: the Magic Pro League, the contracts, the circuit, etc.?
I love Magic but for me, there’s still pieces missing for this to be an esport. I don’t think the in-game spectating client exists, and that makes it very difficult being an esport.
It’s hard to be an esport when the only people who are professionals are sponsored by the company. There’s no people who are part of big esports orgs. There are Channel Fireball and all these teams, who are normal TCG teams, but nobody takes Magic seriously as an esport except Magic players. That’s it. There are people on Liquid, who play Magic, but there’s no Liquid Magic team. Savjz and some of the other guys play it, but they’re just streamers who happen to play Magic.
I love Magic but for me, there’s still pieces missing for this to be an esport.
I need to see what it looks like. I need to see if they’re ready to take it to the next level. They want the production of Magic tournaments to also be very serious and if you have a game that’s very serious and content that’s very serious… I really like what Dota does when it comes to in-game stuff, where you have people excited about stuff, getting hyped or explaining things. You have this nice ebb and flow of, “Things are going slow, let me explain someth— OH MY GOD, something’s happening.”
I like that and I wish Magic did more of that, but as an esport, you have to build an audience outside of Magic. I don’t know if that does this. In fact, a lot of people who are pros aren’t very happy with the format. This Mythic Invitational at PAX East is very small, they didn’t invite all the pros, but a bunch of streamers who may or may not even be good.
And that kind of money changes your life. And there’s a lot of player spending day in and day out travelling the world, playing Magic, and they didn’t get an invited and they’re Platinum Pros. That just blows my mind. [The interview was conducted prior to Wizards’ announcement of the 2019 circuit details — Ed.]
But this is their first iteration. I am happy to see that they want to go that road and see what they can do there, but I also think that giving pro contracts is whatever. I’d rather have 32 people signed with esports teams and have Wizards pay the contract. How cool it would’ve been if there were 32 Magic players, all spread among Team Liquid, Cloud9, 100 Thieves… Then that brings in a bunch of other players who may play like Dota or CS:GO but support the team, and have probably played Magic in their life.
Because even with the big tournaments, Magic streaming numbers weren’t that good. I don’t know if that fixes it, but I’m willing to give Wizards a chance to see if there’s going to be a bigger push and bigger numbers.
I think they never got what Hearthstone actually achieved in terms of casting and production. It took HS a couple of years to reach a good level, but they actually figured out what you mentioned about Dota: you can’t really have the same tone of narrative throughout the tournament, you have to have high and low moments.
In HS, you can’t really get excited about a play, because it’s still a card game, but you can switch between banter and serious analysis. And when I remember watching the Pro Tours back in the day, they’d commentate the game as if its a chess game, then they’d go back to the desk and discuss sideboarding and all the same things, just in a different segment.
And since we’re on the HS topic, do you think it’s a good strategy to copy what HS did in terms of format and set-up? Because it’s not just this streamer-focused invitationals that they’re doing, which was very much a HS thing in the early days, but also including this Duo Standard format, which is also more like HS and less like Magic.
The difference is Magic is very profitable. The physical card game just makes so much money, but I don’t know if Wizards has the in-house experience to create an online environment that could be drastically different than Hearthstone. I think their worry is they end up like Artifact if they do things their own way.
I imagine Wizards are sitting in a room going like, “Hey, how do we become an esport. Let’s look at other esports and see what they did.”
In Dota 2, they have Majors and Minors and points and we’ve done this for the last 20 years with the Pro Tour. It’s part of their culture, but they’ve also taken it away because there’s not as many tournaments like that anymore.
I’m fine with them doing this HS model. I’d rather they test and see if it works than not do anything. But it doesn’t appeal to me.
They also tried a ladder where you have accrue points when you win at physical Magic and if you are in the top X, you get invited to the Pro Tour. Well, they don’t do that anymore, because people stopped playing once they were at certain level.
They’ve done these other ideas, so the next step is to look at Hearthstone and go, “OK, how do we do this?”
The issue is that Magic players are so used to Wizards doing whatever they want. When you tell them the rules, very rarely people will go crazy. There’s some chatter about it at first, but eventually people are just more concerned about qualifying than anything else. “Oh, there’s just eight Mythic spots fir this tournament? Guess I better make top 8 out of the trillion people who play Magic.”
I’m fine with them doing this HS model. I’d rather they test and see if it works than not do anything. But it doesn’t appeal to me. There’s no part of me that wants to spend eight hours a day every day, trying to get top 8 of Mythic, and then miss.