How To Improve Magic Coverage: Part One

In four parts, John Butler will analyze Magic coverage as if he were a consulting team brought in to increase the value of the Pro Tour to Wizards. Check out Part One!

I first started playing Magic during high school with Revised. My first deck had ten copies of Wall of Stone and twelve copies of Craw Wurm. My favorite deck from way back then had the “unbeatable” combo of Sleight of Mind and Northern Paladin. This deck was undefeated until I ran into someone playing Fissure. I started getting serious about Magic during Ice Age, playing on the now-defunct Hitmen team in New Hampshire at Hammer’s Comics with Jamie Wakefield and the Guevins among others.

Life interfered, and I stopped playing during Tempest. I returned to the game recently with Innistrad. I was not shocked to find that Magic had evolved in a ton of areas: planeswalkers are here, damage is off the stack, the colors do different things, etc. Spells have been neutered, and creatures have been put on steroids. In fact, the only place where Magic is literally exactly the same as 1995 is in Organized Play and coverage.

The Grand Prix/Pro Tour Qualifier/Pro Tour system featuring rotating, amateur commentators is exactly the same. The production value for deck techs is higher, but that’s pretty much the only difference. I was stunned to find out that while virtually everything in the game has evolved a great deal since I left nearly twenty years ago, coverage and Organized Play is virtually identical to the way it was done in 1995. I had expected Magic coverage and Organized Play, given the much bigger player base, to routinely draw hundreds of thousands of viewers to its Pro Tours after nearly twenty years to work on it.

Like most that played during high school and college, I developed a career, and Magic faded away. I’m an attorney. I specialize in tax and intellectual property, and more specifically I was involved in several projects for media entities and individual sport/game tours. I’m now semi-retired, but during the heyday I would contribute to and read consulting reports in connection with our projects, recommending to our clients how to improve numbers and boost the value of their intellectual property, which often included broadcast rights to sports tours and gaming events.

In four parts, I will analyze Magic coverage[1] as if I were a consulting team brought in to increase the value of the Pro Tour to Wizards. To be fair, I wasn’t a media consultant; my job was analyzing the tax and intellectual property ramifications of proposed changes to the tour broadcasts and structures. That said, I read the work of those consultants often for five or six years. I believe that the easiest way to break this down is in four parts:

[1] I attempted to bring some of this up in the Twitch chat during a Grand Prix. My exact comment in response to one of the commentators gushing about how Magic coverage had evolved: “How can you be happy with the coverage when less than .05% of Magic players watch it?” After sending this—which I thought was reasonable criticism—I was immediately banned in the Twitch chat.

Part One: Analyze current coverage from a statistical standpoint to see if there is even a problem to be fixed.

Part Two: Analyze long-term perspective shifts that need to occur at Wizards of the Coast to fix Organized Play and coverage.

Part Three: Without any additional monetary investment from Wizards of the Coast, I will describe what I would recommend to improve Organized Play and coverage in 2014.

Part Four: I will present a series of “quick-hit” fixes that would drastically improve coverage in the short term even without the structural and perspective changes I’m calling for in the first three parts of the article.

My goal with this series is twofold. First, to totally change the perspective on Magic coverage; second, to get discussion in terms of coverage evaluation focused on numbers rather than intangible goals. Please note that this entire approach will be how we approached it during a consultancy—by the numbers. The viewership statistics and related other data will tell us what needs to change if we listen to what those statistics have to say. As the old saying goes:

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.

Part One: Analyzing the current state of Magic coverage to determine if there is a problem that needs to be fixed.

It’s strange that Magic players—who are typically very good at math and critical reasoning—usually write their articles analyzing Magic coverage from an intangible point of view—what they are doing right and wrong—and never mention the viewership statistics or the hard numbers associated with Magic coverage. Everyone in the Magic community seems to have this feeling that coverage is underachieving, but nobody has actually attempted to quantify and analyze if coverage is attracting an acceptable level of viewers. In all consulting projects, this is where you start: the viewership statistics.

Generally speaking, consumer numbers (and the potential therefor) set the value of any piece of intellectual property, including the value of broadcast rights. For some reason, Magic coverage is never analyzed in this way—by the numbers. The main obstacle to this analysis is the risk of comparing apples and oranges; you can’t look at Magic coverage’s viewership and the viewership of something like League of Legends and compare them directly. There are too many variables such as promotion, expense of production, interest base, etc.

Similarly, we can’t compare Magic coverage to, for example, coverage of the Super Bowl and conclude Magic coverage is lacking since the Super Bowl beats it by roughly 66 million viewers. We need a technique, known in our industry as a metric, that isolates the quality of the coverage from these other variables.There is a metric that already exists to perform exactly this type of analysis for game and sport broadcasts such as the Pro Tour.[2] Without the proper metrics, we cannot make reasonable conclusions from the statistics.

[2] The metric discussed is generally used for both sporting event coverage and commentary shows on particular topics. It is not used for broad-appeal shows such as sitcoms, talk, or varieties.

Media for coverage of sporting events (such as Magic tournaments) and related programming (such as highlight shows) are evaluated primarily by what percentage of the interest group—the people who are interested in the sport or game—tune into the content.

For example, I’m producing the World Championship of Darts. It would be foolish to expect the same audience as the Super Bowl because darts has such a smaller interest group; you can’t compare viewership directly as a way to measure the quality of an individual broadcast. So let’s say there are one million people who are fans of darts. The general rule is that approximately 30% of “interested people” should watch the marquee event in a game/sport and approximately 10% should watch a “routine” event in the game/sport.[3]

[3] To be fair, these are for an event broadcast on television. We probably need to adjust way down for Twitch, but even so Magic doesn’t even come close to acceptable numbers.

People who are interested in the subject matter tune in when the production is of sufficient quality—the underlying sport is irrelevant. Given those metrics, “good coverage” for darts should result in viewership around 300,000 (30% of the million-large interest base) for the marquee event and 100,000 (10% of the interest base) at any given time for a regular event.[4]

[4] You also need to allow for the time variable since programs that have been on longer will tend to out-draw those who have been on a short period of time. Coverage started in 1999, so I think we can conclude Wizards of the Coast has had ample time to work out kinks and do promotion. We will not include the time variable in our analysis, but typically it would be included in a report of this type. You would not expect 30% as reasonable for an event’s first telecast, for example.

Using this method, we see that a program that acquires a significantly higher percentage of its interest base (for example, 90% of interested people watch the program) is demonstrably attracting more viewers than average and a program that acquires a significantly lower percentage of its interest base is demonstrably attracting less viewers than average. Since we expect about 30%, a marquee event that draws more than 30% of the interest base, such as the Super Bowl, is generally of above-average quality. A marquee event that draws less than 30% of the interest base is generally below-average quality. In this way, we can evaluate the quality of the program without including the popularity of the subject matter in the equation.

Inside the NBA, a TNT studio show featuring Charles Barkley, has the honorable distinction of being the only studio show to ever consistently outdraw the game it’s introducing or following. Because our average metric for these studio shows is about 60% of those who tune in for the game immediately following the studio show and this show did much higher than that (over 100%), we can conclude that Inside the NBA was of a particularly high quality—it drew more viewers than the benchmark. This is a common metric in media to describe the quality of the coverage of a sporting or gaming event, such as football, golf, darts, NASCAR or Magic: compare the number of viewers as a percentage of the interest base.

Further, Magic, just like most other sports, already follows these patterns within a reasonable margin for error. Using these general guidelines, we can extrapolate Grand Prix viewership from Pro Tour viewership and vice-versa. In the fall of 2012, average Grand Prix viewership fluctuated between 3,000 on the low end and 6,500 on the high end. Pro Tours generally fluctuate between 12,000 on the low end and 20,000 on the high end at any given time. In other words, marquee event viewership is almost exactly three times larger than weekly viewership—which is exactly what the industry metric would predict.

Given a game (golf, racing, Magic, etc.) with regular events and marquee events, we see an average viewer tune into the marquee event three-times more often than the regular, weekly events. Over time in almost all televised professional sport, these metrics hold true on average. As viewership expands, it does so generally right in line with this ratio; for every one person you attract to a “routine event” (Grand Prix), you attract three to a marquee event (Pro Tour). Looking at the viewership statistics for the fall of 2012, we can see that Magic coverage generally follows the one to three rule.

Therefore, the correct comparison to evaluate the quality of the production of Magic coverage is not Magic coverage to any other type of coverage but those who watch Magic coverage as a percentage of those who are interested in Magic in general. If the viewership percentage of Magic-interested persons is above a certain percentage benchmark of those interested in Magic, the coverage is average to very good. If the viewership percentage of Magic-interested persons is less than the metric, the coverage is below average to poor.

For example, when ESPN took fishing coverage mainstream, they did so because of the huge interest base—a production of relatively decent quality will attract a certain percentage of fishermen regardless of how boring or not-TV ready the underlying sport is. Fishing coverage isn’t exciting, but it is a ratings success because the production is excellent and the interest base is huge. There are many televised events that an average, non-interested person doesn’t think should be televised (such as fishing, darts, spelling bees, etc.) but because of the large interest base married with sufficient production quality they are commercial successes. Those two things together—average production quality and a broad interest base—are the magic ingredients for a large viewer base at a sporting event.

With these ideas as our backdrop, Magic coverage is and has been a fairly spectacular failure since about 2005. Prior to 2005, the numbers were generally decent given the size of the player base. However, post-2005 while Magic has exploded in popularity,the coverage numbers have remained relatively flat. This conclusion is not an indictment of the coverage team—it is a statistical fact. There are by conservative estimates approximately ten million[5] Magic: The Gathering players. Given those numbers, as an outside evaluating party, a consultant would reasonably expect a viewership model around 2,500,000 viewers for a broadcast of average quality of Magic’s marquee event on television after a sufficient period of notice.

[5] Wizards of the Coast itself puts this number at eleven million, but I’ve dropped to ten million to (1) make our conclusions as safe as possible by underestimating the player base and (2) make the numbers more round for ease of explanation.

The Pro Tour, Magic’s marquee event on average draws about 14,000 viewers—or less than an eighth of a percent of the outstanding Magic players. Since it occurs three times per year, if Magic coverage performed in line with industry expectations, we would expect an average audience per Pro Tour broadcast of roughly 710,000 viewers (or 2.5 million, one-third of the player base, over a single year).

As an example, we didn’t even have a category in consulting for less than 5% because we considered it impossible for an event to draw that poorly.[6] I’m going to repeat this so it sinks in:

[6] The lowest viewership percentage I ever saw in my career for a premier event broadcast was 8%. Magic coverage draws approximately .09%, or eight-hundred times worse than the worst numbers I saw in my career.

Out of ten million Magic players, we get on average 14,000[7] who tune into our premier events. Even if we triple this number (since there are three Pro Tours a year compared to most sports having one marquee event), we get to 42,000 viewers for a yearly marquee event,[8] which is still awful given Magic’s huge interest base of potential viewers. If these numbers were turned in at any other media outlet in the world (14k viewers on a 10m interest base), it would be a disaster / crisis of epic proportions. The inevitable conclusion is that the product is poor. We don’t need to argue if Magic coverage is good or bad—viewership statistics give us the answer.

[7] The viewership numbers typically peak at the start and end of the coverage. Since Twitch does not provide viewing statistics by timestamp, this is not an actual average. This is my eyeball average. However, even if we assume the average is the top, it’s still drawing only 21,000 people.

[8] This actually drastically overstates the viewers, as clearly it isn’t 14,000 different people watching the Pro Tour every broadcast—there is significant overlap. However, in this analysis, we are giving the coverage the benefit of every doubt and assuming that it is 14,000 unique viewers per Pro Tour, giving us about 42,000 for the year.

To those who defend the current state of Magic coverage, you are correct that viewership is not necessarily a dispositive indicator. If your restaurant at a busy intersection in Times Square is totally empty every day for ten years, it doesn’t necessarily mean your food is lousy, but it’s a pretty good bet something is wrong. Likewise, the fact that Magic coverage draws less than .1% of the interest base doesn’t necessarily mean the coverage is awful, but it’s a very strong indication something is terribly wrong. Arrested Development, hailed by critics as one of the best sitcoms of all time, was a ratings disaster despite having The Simpsons as a lead-in. It certainly is possible for a top-quality broadcast to inexplicably flop on the numbers, but it’s very rare.

The number of viewers should be determinable from the interest base within a reasonable margin for error unless the broadcast is of unusually good or unusually poor quality. Magic coverage is underachieving in a way I’ve never actually seen before; typically, having a million plus market guarantees at least 50,000 viewers for a marquee event.[9] We have ten million and struggle to break 20,000 viewers. Right now, Magic is attracting between .03% and .08% of its interest base to the Pro Tour coverage depending on the time of day. There is no argument—the coverage draws horrendously when compared to what would be expected in a game with a professional tour and a potential audience of ten million non-professional players.

[9] Typically, when setting the budget for an event’s production, you look at the interest base, which sets your expectations for viewership.

Given our conclusion that the current state of Magic coverage is extreme underachievement, how do we fix it? How do we get to the point where the viewership numbers match what Magic “should” draw given our models for game-based sporting events and the player base as a whole?

Most blame the producers or the commentators or call for higher production value. To do this is to think too small. As I will discuss later, there are issues there, but commentator annoyances, a couple grand in production improvements, and fixing small errors doesn’t move a 100,000+ blocks of viewers. I think solid commentary (more on this later) could easily get us to fifty or sixty thousand viewers, but to get where we want to go (and what a ten million player base should lead us to expect) will require huge perspective shifts in how the Pro Tour is viewed by the Magic community, current professional players, and Wizards of the Coast itself.