I’ve been to PAX West eight out of the past nine years, venturing specifically for Magic: The Gathering (the only one I’ve missed when my daughter had surgery). I feel like I have some expertise when I say this: This year was by far the worst effort put forth by Wizards of the Coast to do anything Magic related at PAX West. The only major event they produced was one panel about the worldbuilding of Ixalan for an hour. And that was it. How you found it was a blurb in the main schedule, not even a mention on DailyMTG.com.
It was embarrassing.
Let me amend that:
I was embarrassed for Wizards of the Coast.
When I’ve written these After PAX pieces, I was trying to give you a little bit of the atmosphere of Magic-related PAX. They aren’t really reviews as it’s not something that one can experience again. I tried to examine what was WotC doing to promote their latest set and their actions at the convention itself.
For years the draw was the Magic Party where they would debut cards with music, food, drinks and a bunch of people including WotC employees. Over the past few years the party was toned down but the increased presence of Magic was there. Two years ago there was a huge Eldrazi arm crushing a police car on the street. Last year, they took over a whole theater for Kaladesh and the huge street wide banner hanging on the skybridge displaying Saheeli Rai for all of the PAX attendees to see.
This year, an hour long panel with two preview cards.
And as much as it would be easy to blame WotC for this, it’s not their fault.
There’s one clear reason for this complete drop off, but I have a feeling that there were to other factors that contributed to this choice that made it a bit easier. The elephant in the room:
Hasbro, the toy company that owns Wizards of the Coast, is starting their own convention. Following in the footsteps of Disney and Blizzard, Hasbro has many well known IPs they believe they can put together a convention including Transformers, My Little Pony, Nerf, Monopoly, D&D and Magic: The Gathering. Hascon is happening September 8-10, 2017.
Also known as the week after PAX.
Look, I get it, you have several profitable brands you want to lump into one place and get them to intermingle and earn more money from them. I’m not faulting Hasbro one fault. This is how I imagine the conversation went 8 months ago.
“Hello Wizards of the Coast, what’s happening? This is you parent company, Hasbro.”
“Hey Hasbro, what’s going on?”
“We hear you guys are pretty good at throwing parties and having pretty cool presentations that show passion for your product.”
“Thank you, I appreciate that.”
“We’re starting our own convention for Hasbro brands and would love to replicate what you do at this,” [Pauses, reads printed out email] “‘Penny Arcade Expo’ for us.”
“Well, that would mean twice the work for us but we have a good team and we can come up with something. When is it?”
[Pause] “The weekend after Labor Day?”
“Sure, you can promote your Fall set, we’ve got our My Little Pony movie coming out in October and we’ll be coming off the heels of a hot summer where the new Transformers dominated the box office.”
“That’s the weekend after PAX.”
“Penny Arcade Expo.”
“Oh, is it? Well, since we do own your company, ummm, I’m gonna need you to go ahead and come in on that date. ”
[Pause, sigh] “We’ll throw something together.”
“Yeah, that would be great.”
WotC employees were so proud last year with all of the work they put into it to make it the best event they could.
Magic at PAX 2016:
Magic World Championship
Kaladesh Mechanics Panel
Drive to Work Live
Creative Q&A Panel
PAX Invents the Card Panel
Improv Show Live
Kaladesh with the Pros Panel
Deck Building 101 Panel
Inventors’ Spellslinging Showdown
They even flew in various content creators from around the globe from various social medias to cover the event in their own way. I figured that was going to the be the new baseline moving forward.
Now I know it will never be topped.
This year at PAX:
A roving few WotC employees handing out swag
Artist Steven Belledin sitting at a table by himself (At least Saturday)
Here’s what’s going on at Hascon:
25th Anniversary Show
Iconic Masters Draft/Release
Spellslinging with WotC employees (3 days)
Playing M:TG Arena (Magic Next)
Here’s the thing: I know it seems like I’m being selfish. “They’re taking away cool Magic event from where I live and taking them somewhere else. I’m really salty about this.” But this is not about me here. Yes, they do some really cool things here in Seattle, but I didn’t attend every panel last year and I barely watched the World Championships. This is more about the audience you’re trying to capture.
The worldbuilding panel asked how long the packed house audience had been playing Magic. A few were under a year. Most were over three years. These people were your long term “willing to spend money on a product-not just trying it out” customers. The viewers on Twitch and following along on Twitter (which was quite a few personalities tweeting this along with me) were the same audience. This weren’t new players because there was no place for them at PAX this year. (Quick aside that must be said, the panel itself wasn’t bad, it was great. My issue is that it was the only such production).
I’m sure there’s market research done about how much money was put into PAX and how much that earned vs spent. Was this a worth while investment of their advertising money? Honestly, that’s what Cons are, they’re huge advertising opportunities for your brand. It’s about brand recognition, player acquisition and player retention. Someone up at Hasbro decided that the money and effort put into PAX would benefit them better at Hascon.
And this is where we get into the Disney/Blizzard comparison. You have a rabid fanbase who will throw money at an IP and so collecting the IPs you control and host it at one event makes sense. Only Hasbro deals with toys, and WotC. They have Star Wars at Hascon, but only for the toys and for some reason Chewbacca Mom. Marvel, with Stan Lee, Guardian of the Galaxy Director James Gunn which facilitate, you guessed it, the toys. There’s also a Sesame Street Show and Photo Opportunity for 2 hours on Friday (Twice as long as the presentation of Magic at PAX). The only heavy non-WotC/non-toys media there is Transformers movie with Mark “Say hi to your mother for me” Wahlberg and rapper Flo Rida.
Wait, Flo Rida?
I don’t know. Hasbro is calling this con “The Premier Hasbro FANmily Event.” And that makes sense with their demographics of people who love toys (so, kids and almost the entire PAX demo). Maybe this is a way to introduce the My Little Pony loving girl to a Dinosaur/Pirate world based on Mesoamerica and to try roleplaying D&D. Maybe this is player acquisition.
But now Magic has almost no presence at any other Con. We’re ignoring places that draft because all you need is some tables and product (and that’s all Cascade Games did here at PAX. Hey, a prize wall! How thoughtful. But sure, go ahead and shove the Magic players in the Annex which is underground and the furthest point away from the main hall (I know that Magic has been in the Annex before but usually it wasn’t JUST the bottom floor where this year seemed like a token location)). Magic has no presence at GenCon, DragonCon (which made sense because it was the same weekend at PAX), E3, PAX West/East/South/Australia, and the New York Comic Con. The only major other one left is San Diego Comic Con where there’s exclusive Planeswalker card swag and a Maro panel.
Wizards of the Coast didn’t even get a booth at PAX West. You know, where they work 20 minutes away and represent Seattle gaming? No both to buy swag or to tempt attendees walking by with the 30 card intro decks they give away for free. Those used to be in the swag bags for people to play with while they’re waiting in line. That’s advertisement. I had to buy a Magic tie at the ThinkGeek booth, and I’ve wanted one of those things forever. Why no booth for WotC? I’m sure they had to get everyone ready for next weekend: Hascon.
But why should WotC advertise Magic and D&D at all? They are both known at the top of their genres as the game to play. Mainstream media has already classified these two brands as THE geeky hobbies. Why should they even care about spending money at geeky conventions where people already know about them? Simple, buyer’s remorse.
What if you threw down some money for a game, but don’t see it played anywhere? Nobody talks about it and you don’t see it displayed at your local large convention. Surely the game must be a bust, right? Why did you spend all that hard earned money on cardboard that you can’t play? Even though WotC is trying to push players to go to their LGS, for the kid who bought a precon at Walmart then heading to GenCon to see nothing from WotC, why should they spend more time and money to this game if it’s not at THE gaming convention?
As I said, these booths and panels are not just for people like me. I will spend money on the game for quite a while since I love it and I have that brand loyalty. Letting people ask questions to the makers of the game is a huge bonding moment for that player. You’ve got the emotional connection locked up. In the past I’ve walked around PAX watching people play those 30 card intro decks picking up Magic for the first time in a few years or showing their friends how to tap mana for the first time. This is how Loading Ready Run got back into Magic and now they’re one of the largest content creators of the brand. To help grow and firmly root players in the game, there has to be presence at conventions. Otherwise, they will go somewhere else. Why should you support a game when it feel like it’s abandoned you?
While I certainly place a huge amount of blame on Hascon, there are two other factors that might have played into this (but no where near the impact). First, I feel that the leaks earlier this year wiped away the possibility of previewing more cards. I fully support WotC going after the person who stole the sheet and people like that should be punished. Since it was so far in advance, it allowed them to pivot, show off the cards, and possibly do away with some of the low effort ideas they had going at PAX.
This other factor is what I believe is the final nail in the coffin in WotC leaving their former PAX structure in the rear view mirror. Even if Hascon is a flop there has been a major shift in Magic to get rid of the need of any huge production at PAX:
The shift to the 3-1 model.
By making each set a large set and quite possibly on a new plane three times a year, the effort to go through celebrating one plane at the beginning of the fall after the Core Set doesn’t make much sense. In past years WotC wanted to introduce the new plane we, the players, were going to spend an entire year with. Then two years ago we shifted to the Big-Small model and there were two planes a year we were visiting. I believed that the natural outlet would then be PAX West go with the Fall set and PAX East go with the Spring set. That plan fell apart after two years and now we’re shifting to the 3-1 model. It would take a huge amount of effort and time to do this at every PAX (Timed pretty closely with each new set coming out). I could see the money people and Hasbro going, “Do we really need this?”
No, you most likely do not.
So, where does that leave us?
It all depends on how Hascon performs. Hasbro is going to give this experiment more than one year, but this is the best shot they have of it succeeding. As I mentioned before, they’re coming off the coattails of a Transformers movie a few months ago and a My Little Pony movie coming this October. Magic is releasing its big set of its final block in a few weeks and a new Star Wars movie comes out in December (Hasbro controls the Star Wars toys). If there ever was a year to try this out, this would be the year. If Hasbro can show at least any amount of success with this sales-wise for the next few months they try and run this out a few years. Should there be a lack of interest, next year might be the last year.
I’m not trying to wish Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast any ill-will with this. But to pull out of almost every con that you’ve done in the past or continue not to show up is a bit silly. Yes, there’s a bunch of people who know what Magic is, but you still see Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo still getting booths at PAX so they’re in the public eye. I’m not looking for anything that has resembled years past, but to backtrack this much for last year points squarely at Hascon. And it’s disheartening. And confusing.
I know that WotC employees were hugely psyched and proud of their work last year with the Kaladesh effort at PAX (and every year). They should be. This is in their own backyard and to get your company to go and celebrate their new product to show how proud they are, that has to boost company morale and get more involvement from the community.
This is all a guess, a very educated guess. If I’m way off the base here, I’m only saying that this is how it’s perceived. So this is a plea to Hasbro. You know that Magic: The Gathering is one of your most successful brands, you’ve said it as much in your quarterly reports:
*Hasbro’s total gaming category, including all gaming revenue, most notably MAGIC: THE GATHERING and MONOPOLY, which are included in Franchise Brands in the table above, totaled $273.3 million for the second quarter 2017, up 20%, versus $227.7 million in the second quarter 2016 and up 15% to $526.6 million for the six months 2017 versus $458.8
million for the six months 2016. Hasbro believes its gaming portfolio is a competitive differentiator and views it in its entirety.
Second quarter 2017 Franchise Brand revenues increased 21% to $545.7 million driven by revenue growth in TRANSFORMERS, MAGIC: THE GATHERING, NERF and MONOPOLY.
Look, I get it that the cost/benefit analysis plays heavily into this, but examine at how you’re trying, yet again, to head into the digital market with Arena trying to catch up with Blizzard’s Hearthstone. People can be loyal to more than one brand so you need to fight for attention. You have a money making machine with Magic, and the people at Wizards of the Coast do great work. Let them be proud of their product besides at a convention of your own. Take back Gen Con, reclaim PAX, give them an opportunity to shine at NYCC and storm at SDCC. Don’t expect them to throw a party at each one, but have a booth, give a few panels, show off your talent, have some exclusives (Just don’t go overboard with the prices). How hard is it to produce a T-shirt, or a limited print poster, or a pin, or plush toy to sell at a booth to drive traffic there?
Two years ago, WotC had a huge Eldrazi arm crushing a police car right next to the entrance of the convention. It was the talk of the event. Last year WotC had something going all 32 hours of PAX, hosting thew Wold Championship of Magic and took over an entire theater. This year, all that was at PAX was an hour long panel with PowerPoint and letting some third party hold drafts in the basement of the convention center. The video game ARK: Survival Evolved had two life size dinosaurs you could ride and take pictures of. That sounds like a cool promotion that could go viral. In fact, I know that WotC has a new set with dinosaurs releasing in a few weeks.
I heard that from an hour long panel that was barely advertised. I sure as hell couldn’t find it any other information in the convention. How can you be the world’s leading card game if you don’t even show up?
RIP Magic Events at PAX: 2009-2016