Acquisition and retention. It is a long lost topic. It is unfortunate that many writers have neglected this once staple of conversation. For those new to this concept, acquisition and retention was once ingrained into the culture of Magic. This wasn’t just a community thing. Wizards of the Coast heavily pushed for Magic players to recruit fresh blood. Mark Rosewater even wrote a few articles on the topic. Without acquiring new players, Magic wouldn’t grow.
The inspiration for this article actually comes from The Girlfriend Bracket podcast. It finally struck me the other day that many of the conversations about getting more women into Magic during that podcast is very similar to the conversations had by the Magic community many, many years ago.
The biggest change has been Duels of the Planeswalkers. It has been so instrumental and effective in growing the player base that the word acquisition has been dropped from our lexicon. This only makes sense. Magic players acting as recruiters was marginally effective. Not that players were necessarily bad at it, but Duels is justly vastly more effective and efficient at reaching a wider audience than any Magic player could. For an institution, dropping acquisition and focusing on Duels is a no brainer.
However, I think this is wrong. I don’t mean Duels. It’s great. What I mean is the lack of conversation about acquisition and retention. While Duels of the Planeswalkers gets players in the door, it is still our job to make the hard sell. I relate this to comic book movies. Movies like The Avengers do bring more customers through those doors of the comic book store, but it doesn’t always translates to actual new comic book fans. The reasons for this is more complicated than I am letting on. My point is that it is still our job to keep them there or coming back for more.
One thing I truly believe is that forums and tournaments do not represent the true fan-base. It is only a segment of the player populace. There are times it may appear that way, but it is because the hardcore gamers are very loud and visible. A stat I recently saw was that 30% of the fan-base was female. Yet, we don’t see that percentage at the tournament level. Casual players for the longest time were called the “invisibles”. I include new players in this category. I believe there are many, many more players out there who are flirting with the idea of playing Magic. We just don’t realize it because they are invisible.
Why don’t they just come and play?
That is easier said than done. I realize hardcore players may have a hard time understanding this. While hardcore gamers may have the confidence or determination to go and play no matter what, others aren’t so lucky. It’s intimidating for about anyone to go someplace new.
Let me relate this to myself. I am very social. Maybe, even to a fault. During peak season for our family business, I may talk to hundreds of people each week. I have no problem going up to strangers and engaging in conversation. Yet, I am intimidated every time I go to the game store. Well, I don’t have a regular store. My attendance at game stores is sporadic at best during the year. I’ve moved a lot in my history. When I do get a chance to play, sometimes it is at a different store. I am forever the eternal “new guy”. This means every time I go play Magic that I am starting the process of meeting new people over and over again.
If I find it intimidating, a player since Invasion and with great social skills, what does this say for new players or people with less determination?
Let’s talk mechanics first. Magic has many levels of complexity. There are rules, game play, formats and etc. During a recent conversation with a friend about this topic, he related a story of a new player literally shaking during a draft. Yes, a draft. For a new player, this can be very intimidating, complex and confusing. If you think about it, there is a lot to process. There are signals and multiple strategies to consider. I always think of complexity in written form. Imagine if you had to write the entire workings of a draft out so anyone could pick it up and do it. I guarantee that it would be a very long book and that is just the art of drafting. It doesn’t include building a deck afterwards and then playing that deck.
I am guessing many have never thought of it, but it may be the reason why sealed is the format of choice for pre releases and game days. Think about it. Playing sealed removes an entire level of complexity. This can be enticing for many inexperienced players. There’s shame in drafting a bad pool. However, there is no stigma for a bad sealed pool. It’s just bad luck. Sealed is probably the lowest level of play for new players. Since many new players, casuals, and the sporadic players tend to play at prereleases at high levels, it only makes sense for these events to be sealed.
The problem then becomes the low level of sealed events available. Sealed is maybe played the first couple of weeks of any new set. Draft quickly takes over as format of choice by veterans and the hardcore players of the game. Unfortunately, this is bad news for retaining those new players. As I said earlier, draft can be intimidating. I am not saying to get rid of draft. What I am saying is there should be more sealed events in order retain new players. Maybe not every week, but at least biweekly. It’s about keeping those players engaged. Waiting every three months till the next new set is not the best way to retain those players. It is about creating healthy consumer habits.
Another change I would highly contemplate is shortening rounds to one game or manipulating the tournament structure of prereleases to increase the number of opponents each player plays against. I say this to decrease downtime and increase a player’s exposure to more players. If there is downtime, it only creates awkward moments for new players and gives them an opportunity/excuse to leave. Also, the more players a person is exposed to will only increase the odds of them meeting someone they can connect with. Think speed dating.
A great thing about tournaments that gets overlooked is that they are great icebreakers. An opponent destroys social norms. It is a great excuse to talk to a person. I don’t have to create a pretext to go up to someone to initiate a conversation. I have one because I am paired against somebody else. Imagine a scenario where I am at a Grand Prix and I see someone famous. Maybe a member of R&D or a popular Pro. If I just go walk up to them and ask them to play, it is weird. However, if I am suddenly paired against them in a tournament, it’s not. I find it humorous, but it’s the reality of the situation.
One thing we can do to lower the barrier to new players is streaming. I realize most players watch Magic twitch streams for new tech, but it is a great learning tool. New players don’t just learn tech, but how people sequence plays, hold their cards, arrange their cards and etc. Also, it is a safe place to learn. Unlike real life, it can be awkward overlooking another player’s game. In the safety of people’s home, they can watch safely and not be judged.
If I worked at Wizards of the Coast, I would push to have the Magic channel on twitch.tv to run 24 hours a day. At any moment, a new player can go to twitch to watch Magic and learn. Eventually, I believe this will be the future. It is the next step in growing Magic. My main point that I would try to get across is that the channel just isn’t for entertaining our loyal fan-base. It is also a powerful acquisition tool.
I realize it won’t be possible at first to have entirely new content. I don’t think this matters too much. There are lots of interesting videos from the past to be aired. There are past Pro Tours, famous matches, and Grand Prix’s. There can be weeks dedicated to Modern or Standard. There are also spoilers and other things to be played. Another option is to bring in popular streamers. These streamers could be used to show off formats like drafting and sealed. It may take some effort, but I believe the energy would be worth it as it would equate into new players and growth.
This necessitates that we look at Twitch.tv at more than just a thing that is used to broadcast tournaments. It is a very powerful medium that is underutilized at acquisitioning players. As such, this means looking at it differently. What I mean is that we need celebrities. I realize the hardcore players want only the most knowledgeable of players at the broadcast booth. I think this is a mistake. Sure, the people behind the camera need to have a rudimentary understanding of the game. However, this isn’t the most important metric. Hardcore gamers want only Pros. The invisibles want a celebrity. Someone we like. Someone we can identify with. I think of Rachael Ray as I write this. She isn’t the best of the best when it comes to cooking. However, she has built an empire due to her likability.
Creating Something, Something
Why the vague title?
I’ve been around a while to know this subject is complicated. Partly, the progress of expanding Magic is sometimes marred by over enthusiasm and optimism. Let me explain. Some shops have a great culture and people who do a great job being champions for the game. When some wrote about this subject in the past, they would imply it was as easy and this or that. Those suggestions often assumed that every shop had a good owner or people in the community would be great representatives of the game. It assumes that people in every store are welcoming. There are a lot of assumptions. I’m sorry, but that is just not the reality of the situation. I’ve been around the Midwest enough to say this just isn’t the case.
I’m definitely not trying to poo poo everything. I’m simply trying to be realistic. I’m simply trying to say that most environments I have walked into are not welcoming at all. This thing. This very thing is a problem if we want to recruit players. Instead of ignoring it and brushing it under the rug, we need to be asking ourselves on how to fix these things. We need to be having an active conversation about it. We need to figure out why new players or other players are not showing up to FNM or other activities. We need to be asking questions?
Is the structure of the shop not welcoming?
Are owners and TO’s the problem?
Do we need educational activities for TO’s and shop owners?
Are certain playgroups toxic?
Do we need to be offering different formats?
Would monthly Game Days improve recruitment?
After we find actual answers to these problems, we need to find solutions. I understand this conversation itself can become toxic. I don’t like that. What we need after that is to come up with solutions. This part is harder. Even harder is for someone in the community to take the initiative. Talk is great and all, but somebody needs to drive the vehicle for acquisition. Not to mention, it can be even harder to retain these players. I probably will follow-up this article in the future and elaborate further on certain points. Today, I simply want to plant the seed of acquisition and retention. I want to let this thought mull in a few minds for a while. Let it soak in. Baby steps.
Thanks for reading.
Trackback from your site.