It's 2017. The SCG Tour is in full swing, and its top players are household names. With few exceptions, the SCG Tour's top performers are generally less skilled at Magic than the top performers on the Pro Tour, but less than one percent of players are capable of arriving at that conclusion on their own (myself included).
Wizards of the Coast pumps more money into their tournament series, but the personalities on the SCG Tour are more recognizable. This is widely observed, from Twitter to tournament halls.
Nevada governor Brian Sandoval passes a law that allows for betting on "nontraditional sporting events," including esports. Cedric Phillips' blog from five years before detailing the stark difference in atmosphere between the Magic Players Championship 2012 and League of Legends' 2012 North American Regionals still rings in the ears of the segment of the Magic community that participates on Twitter, whether they know it or not.
The blog centered on Cedric's dissonant experiences with the two tournaments and the production values around them. His takeaway was that while Magic doesn't need to pull in identical numbers to League of Legends, Magic as a spectator sport has lots of room to grow and should be growing (it holds up as a perfectly reasonable take).
At the tail end of 2018, Elaine Chase announced the formation of the Magic Pro League, a radical shift in Organized Play, and with it came the end of the Pro Tour. Elite levels of play still existed, but continued qualification for premier events was only consistently handed down to the members of the MPL—the implicit intention being that because the MPL was low-turnover, those players getting repeated exposure would make them household names. What WotC failed to account for is that players liked the Pro Tour.
The Pro Tour was simple enough to aspire to—ostensibly you could qualify for one, spike a finish there, and stay on the gravy train as long as you were able. Appearance fees (paid out according to Pro Points earned) would help justify all the travel and time spent preparing for these tournaments. Because the MPL was engineered to have a high retention rate, and because the tournaments feeding it were complex, poorly marketed, and had no prior precedent, the top 33-10,000 players in the world suddenly felt barred from competing meaningfully in the game that had tantalized them for so long.
The conceit behind the MPL was that elite players playing on MTG Arena would attract new players and engage current ones, but again, what WotC couldn't account for was that a big part of the thrill of seeing Seth Manfield crush a Grand Prix or a Pro Tour is that viewers could see him on-screen, have a general frame of reference for his experience, and project themselves onto him. The MPL was far too exclusionary to ever be able to satisfy that. These qualities of the MPL were also widely observed and commented on.
Yesterday, Wizards of the Coast's esports division published a blog signaling WotC's commitment to tabletop play as the CDC begins to lift covid restrictions. Nestled in bullet points in the bottom half of the post, the conclusion of The MPL Experiment is mentioned in passing, like an afterthought.
Listening to your consumers is noble. Even more noble still is having your own ideas about what consumers like about your product and using them to shape the future of that product.
Messaging so poor it borders on hubristic aside, post-Pro Tour WotC is still plainly trying to find its way. It's tempting to cite covid as a reason for this bizarre two-year stretch, but anyone paying close attention could see War of the Spark, which hit in 2019, and the three subsequent expansions (culminating with Throne of Eldraine—for my money, the most destructive set of the last ten years) as a marker that things were heading off the rails.
A lack of coherent vision makes finding your way much harder. The cycle of building brands only to abandon them years later will keep happening until Wizards of the Coast figures out what enfranchised competitive players actually like about Magic.