Anyone who has ever heard about the Pro Tour has thought, at least once, about how cool it would be to get there. What on earth could be cooler than traveling to play your favorite game, and making a living out of it? Is becoming a professional Magic player a realistic goal for any tournament player, or is it just a dream he’ll chase for as long as he’ll keep playing?
What is a Pro?
The term “Magic Pro Player” is not used correctly. It should expressly denote any player who can make a living out of the game, but more and more often it is being used to discuss players who have played, or are still playing, on the Pro Tour. However, these things are very different.
About five years ago, there were about twice as many Grand Prix tournaments, and one more Pro Tour, each season. Alongside this, money was give to Top 8 competitors in Nationals tournaments. Also, there used to be about 20% fewer players actually attending the Pro Tour, and about 40% fewer competitors at Grand Prix level. Most importantly, the dollar was about 50% higher that it is right now, which is bad for American players (whose money is not worth much when they travel abroad), and a disaster for other players around the globe. Back then, I believe, it was golden age of the Magic Pro Tour. About 30 people could make a living out of playing Magic, while there are less than 10 such players now.
I’m not blaming Wizards of the Coast in any way for this. The financial crisis is nothing they could take responsibility for. As their strategy to focus less on making the Pro Lifestyle dream a reality, instead concentrating more on the new players, seems the right decision, considering how well Magic has been selling in 2009.
The fact that it is extremely hard to make a living out of Magic doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll lose money from it. Even if you don’t make much money, or even if you don’t make any, simply “not losing money” allows you to travel to amazing places you’d probably never have visited without the game. Bear in mind that this is what you should aim for at first: not at “making money,” but at “not losing money.” Only then, if you are doing well, will you maybe be able to aim higher.
I’m obviously not saying it’s not worth trying, but you have to be aware of what you’re risking by setting off down the long path of turning pro.
We all started Magic as a hobby. A hobby is something which we should do in our free time, but it should never take up all of it. Otherwise, it would have a negative impact on self-fulfillment, and on our social life. However, you won’t get to a very high level without making sacrifices. You have to get past the point at which Magic is simply a passion, and make it your main free-time activity. By playing more, you will enjoy the game less, as there will be more and more times when you will have to play whether you want to or not. The act of becoming a better player should compensate for that, though. Also, your social life will be more oriented towards your Magic pals. There’s nothing wrong there, but it generally isn’t the best environment to meet girls. And trust me, I’ve been there before!
The last (but not the least) of the sacrifices you’ll have to make? Money. I’m not talking here about buying booster packs and single cards; at least, not entirely. After all, it may cost money, but which hobby doesn’t? Going to see a movie is still more expensive than buying a Zendikar booster pack. What I’m talking about here is traveling. Let’s take two different examples to illustrate the problem.
Last year I went to Grand Prix: Barcelona, where I placed 39th out of 1495 players. With so many players in attendance, my result is not bad, and I made $200 from that finish. However, I still lost money on that weekend. Here’s the approximate expense I had over the four days I’ve spent in Spain:
Plane ticket: 200 Euro
Hotel for four days: 80 Euro
Food + public transportation: 80 Euro
Registration to the event: 18 Euro
This gives us a total of 378 Euro – about $570 – meaning I finished 39th and lost $370! I would actually have needed to finish in the Top 12 to avoid losing money, and in Top 8 to make money on the trip. Also, I didn’t receive the money for another two months, which meant I needed to have the money available before I set off on the trip.
A second example would be John Smith, from Missouri, trying to qualify for San Juan. He has one PTQ in his own state, then one in Illinois, one in Nebraska, one in Arkansas, and one in Kentucky. Please pardon me if my math is wrong (because of my approximate American culture knowledge), but let’s check how much money it’d cost him, approximately, to hit those PTQs.
If he really wants to qualify, John has to play in the 5 events.
Let’s say the local PTQ is next door to his place, so we won’t count any gas charge for it. Any of the other trips is about 250 miles (500 both ways), so that’s about $100 for gas, which we can divide between the number of passengers (let’s say four here). This means gasoline will cost John about $100 bucks for the four trips, to which he can add around $25 for every registration. This is a minimum of $225 dollars he’ll have to spend to try and qualify, assuming he won’t need a hotel. $225, to which he’ll add some food, interstate tolls (assuming there are some), sleeves, and last-minute card purchases, which should make the bill between 250 and 300 bucks.
And this is only for one Pro Tour…
The Reality of the Pro Tour Lifestyle
Of course, if it is hard to qualify for professional events, and if it’s even harder to actually turn pro, it is a sure fact that there is much to gain. I’m not talking about money here (even though a Pro Tour Top 8 never hurts), but about all the things you will pick up through the game that you would have never managed in any other way. In my case, I’ve met a lot of great people from all over the world, some of which became close friends. I have learned English, a language I could barely speak when I attended my first Pro Tour. I don’t know if I can remember them all, but here is a list of country I’ve visited thanks to my favorite game:
I would obviously never have seen half of them in a lifetime without the tournaments.
I also gained self confidence through becoming good at the game.
There are many paths I could have followed in my life thus far, but I chose to go for a very unique one. I don’t mind what it has cost me or what I have left behind, because I’m fully aware of what Magic has brought to me, and I am grateful to the game for these boons. However, in order to be sure to avoid having any regrets, it is necessary not only to have a Plan B… but for Magic to be that Plan B.
The Necessity to Make Money Outside of Magic
There is nothing wrong in trying to make it to the pro level if, and only if, you don’t make it your main career plan. If you skip your classes in order to playtest, and you end up missing exams because of it, then it’s just not worth it. I’ve seen many people who have abandoned things in order to turn pro at Magic, and I’m talking about players who have a pretty good skillset. Once they realized they couldn’t make serious money (or when they fell off the train after one year), they decided to turn to poker. And when they discovered poker wasn’t that easy, they started looking for a more classic job. I don’t need to tell you that their jobs are not necessarily what they would have dreamed of, as they chased the Pro Player dream instead of graduating.
Both Magic and poker players have the problem of irregular wages, and while this may be okay as long as you live with your parents, the moment you become a grown-up and have to pay the bills, you realize the first thing you need is stability. And that stability usually comes from a check for a predictable amount landing in your mail-box at the end of each month.
The fact that Magic hardly gives you this (although you do have some guarantees if you’re a Level 8 mage) doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aim at making it to the Pro Tour… It only means that you should remember Magic is not a lifetime career plan. The best way, besides intensive practicing, to give your Pro Tour dream a shot is to follow a parallel road in the meantime, a road which will lead to the world of work (high school/university/work).
The Importance of Having No Regrets
If making it to the Pro Tour is a great and reasonable expectation, you should bear in mind that making a living out of Magic is extremely difficult. By trying to get there, you will have to make many sacrifices, as far as money, time, and social intercourse are concerned.
However, the benefits are absolutely worth it, and you won’t regret it if you make it… as long as you remember there is a world of difference between our favorite hobby and the perfect job. Of course, trying to focus both on studying/working and on becoming better at Magic takes a lot of time, but in the end, not neglecting either goal is the only way avoid having regrets.
My goal in writing this article is not to discourage anyone from trying to become pro… only to offer a realistic view of what that implies.