When-23-year-old Jess Estephan made history with her team as the first woman to win a Magic: The Gathering Grand Prix last year, press and the Wizards of the Coast mothership were thrilled. Grands Prix are the largest Magic tournaments in the world—over the course of three days, aspiring pros descend upon a convention hall to grind through a grueling Swiss bracket for cash prizes and promo cards. You’d think Estephan would be equally as elated—but that’s not how she described the first few days after her victory.
“After we won, I was not happy,” she wrote in a blog post for Magic community conclave Channel Fireball four months later. “I spent days having panic attacks and feeling terrified whenever a notification popped up on my phone. I turned my phone off to try and concentrate on work. I begged friends to stop showing me the hateful comments. I closed my DMs on Twitter and unfollowed people to revoke messaging privileges…I was called fat and ugly, with many iterations of both. I was told I didn’t deserve the attention and the win because I wasn’t a photogenic physical ideal. In other words, screw the hard work I’d put in—I wasn’t pretty enough to be good at a game I loved.”
The shock and trauma of the championship sent her into a doleful state—not eating or sleeping, and feeling far less confident than usual. What eventually rallied Estephan were the spare messages of encouragement from other women that share her dream. They reminded her that no matter what anyone else says, she’s the one with the Cup.
“It reminded me of why I’d started doing all of this in the first place. If I gave up now, they’d win,” continued Estephan. “On a personal level, I promised myself that I’d take this and become a better person too. At this point, I’d spent a lifetime trying to prove myself. To whom or what? To everyone who told me I couldn’t.”
Today, Estephan is undeterred. She’s inked a sponsorship deal to stream the free-to-play Magic The Gathering: Arena, Wizards of the Coast’s ambitious attempt to buy into the esports industry and supplant Hearthstone as Twitch’s card game du jour. But her fraught rise to fame is an effective symbol of what Wizards finds itself up against as we enter Magic’s 26th year as a commercial product: Estephan remains a stark minority in her field.
Mark Rosewater, head designer for Magic: The Gathering, estimated in 2015 that 38 percent of the game’s playerbase identifies as female. Despite that, Meghan Wolff, a community voice and organizer, ballparked that women constituted between “one and five percent” of the game’s competitive scene. In December, when Wizards of the Coast unveiled the roster for the first season of its ambitious Magic Pro League, each of the 32 invitees were men. There’s a roadblock somewhere in the ecosystem. What happens to the other 32-plus percent?
Simone Aiken, a lifelong Magic player, has a highly specific approach to the problem of increasing women’s participation in Magic tournaments: If more women play, more women will win.
Aiken’s approach has roots in a study the Royal Society published in 2009. Its conclusion is that the lack of female chess grandmasters can be almost entirely blamed on participation rates. If you plot the raw numbers of men and women competing in competitive chess on a bell curve, the stats shake out evenly independent of demographics. “In chess, there’s 16 men for every woman. That’s way better than Magic. We have 50 men for every woman,” she said, over the phone. “You’re not going to see very many women at the top of chess simply because the population is smaller. The study said that 96 percent [of the disparity] was completely explainable by relative numbers, as if you were taking left-handedness, or green eyes.”
It’s a revelation that shouldn’t come as a surprise unless you believe in the questionable phrenology of the superior Male Gamer Brain, but it’s given Aiken a concrete target: Increase the basic participation rates in Magic tournaments, and non-male winners will follow. Simple as that. It’s a reassuringly approachable formula.
So in 2017, she started Play It Forward, which could be reasonably described as a “Magic nonprofit.” Its praxis is simple; at every Grand Prix, Play It Forward offers a supplementary prize for women and nonbinary competitors: Of that group, the player who makes it the farthest takes home a custom-designed playmat and is immortalized on the Play It Forward website.
If the mechanics and metagaming of Magic aren’t keeping women out of the competitive scene, the blame likely falls on issues of social bias. Autumn Burchett, a nonbinary player who won the Mythic Championship 1 in Cleveland back in February, said via email that it’s always going to be an alienating experience to be one of the very few non-male players at a tournament. “This leads to women and non-binary people not going to competitive Magic events, which in turn makes it hard for them to start attending the next set of events when they see that the situation hasn’t improved at all,” they said. Burchett explained that this environment brings out unfortunate cultural deterrents.
“For example, I’ve heard stories of women being unable to find players they trust that they can share hotel rooms with because the men who they’d be sharing with have girlfriends that would be uncomfortable with this,” they continued. “The women players in this scenario can’t room with others as easily as a result and end up having to pay a lot more for accommodation, which presents an economic barrier that affects men less and means that women on average aren’t able to afford to attend as many tournaments. These sorts of barriers are really subtle and hidden until you’re actually in that position or know someone who has been.”
This is what Aiken is trying to change. She wants to counter those negative incentives with something that non-male players can get excited about the next time they’re at a weekend GP.
“Most of us are the best women players in our local communities, and we’re kind of used to being the best woman in the room. You get lazy. It’s a trap of low expectations. Everyone says, ‘Oh yeah, Simone is amazing,’ and there’s this unspoken, ‘for a girl.’ You internalize it,” she said. “[Now] you’re motivated, you want to come out, because you want to get the playmat, or some are trying to get their second. You see huge changes. I hear people saying, ‘Before, I only went to one Grand Prix a year, and now I’m going to three or four.’ Even if we’re not getting new players, the best guys are going to 15 to 20 GPs. So we’re getting a larger population and greater participation.”
Of course those institutional problems shouldn’t distract from some of the more direct prejudices. Talk to any women in Magic, and they can recall a bad attitude, or a lecherous intention, that’s turned them off from the scene. Those experiences add up. It’s hard to fall in love with a game without a sense of solidarity from your practice partners, which can have a chilling effect on the global Magic competitive field.
Where demographics particularly swoon, explains Aiken, is in card games like poker and Magic. Not only is the environment in a card room less inviting than an open range, but a significant part of success in Magic is left up to chance. That opens the door to some uncharitable interpretations regardless of whether a woman wins or loses a match. “You can try your hardest, you can play perfectly, and you can still lose. And when you lose, and you’re the woman, you’re going to have a lot of people saying, ‘It’s not because mana screw happens, it’s because you’re bad at Magic,’” she said. “And when you win… You get people writing you nasty emails about how you totally lucked out.”
Teresa Pho, an aspiring Magic pro in Cincinnati who attended her first Grand Prix in 2017, cut to the root of these issues when I called her to ask if there’s anything specific about the competitive Magic infrastructure she’d like to see improved for women. In short, she’s looking for a role model.
“I think a lack of mentorship is a barrier for women,” said Pho. “I think it’s really hard for us to find other good, competitive players that want to see us grow and succeed and hit that really high-level place. That’s an area that’s really lacking.”
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Demographic barriers keep women from getting started in competitive Magic, which means precious few women orbit to top-of-tournament brackets. When Pho got her start, there wasn’t the same bulwark of pros willing to take her under their wing as there is for male pros. The situation is likely to stay that way until the same traditions and institutions are established for female players—and with it remains the question of what should be done.
Elaine Chase, the vice president of esports at Wizards of the Coast, is aware of all these issues. Representation is a corporate priority, she said in a call, and the company has made a concerted effort to increase the diversity of the on-camera interview and analysis talent of Magic tournament broadcasts. “We saw our numbers go up in those events, more women playing,” she explained. “We looked at our competitive structures themselves, and we put more emphasis on the community gathering [around Grands Prix]. The Grand Prix tournament is still the showcase of the event that happens that weekend, but tons of people show up that don’t even play. They’re there to meet friends, or do side events and things like that. The more that women show up, the more it becomes normalized.”
Wizards has been trying to lay a groundwork for representation for at least the past few years. They even tapped two prominent women from the competitive scene, Jackie Lee and Melissa DeTora, to design and balance new cards. Those hirings were actually met with some mild, good-hearted abrasion from Magic players; two of the best women in the world, who exhibited the best chances for a non-male player to scale the competitive circuit, were plucked from organized play for good. (Chase understands that, but she reiterates how important it is to keep the internal culture of Wizards diverse.)
When I reached out to Estephan for comment over email, she was adamant that she’s been mostly satisfied with how the company has established its ethics.
“[Wizards] really dedicated themselves to increasing both visibility and representation within the community at higher levels of play, which is really important. Seeing women both on coverage and on commentary has been wonderful, and a personal driver in my engagement within the competitive scene,” she wrote. “It would be great to see more women involved in high-level Magic, and to see more women competing. I believe that the aforementioned visibility and representation is a key to increasing these numbers.”
However, that 32 men were invited to the Magic Pro League seemed incongruent with those ideals. For a game that’s been around for so long, it was strange that Wizards didn’t bridge the gender divide in one of their biggest competitive investments ever. Chase told me that this was a question she agonized over.
“It was very serious consideration. We had a lot of different approaches how to build that roster, but at the end of the day we decided to take the top-ranked players from last year. Starting from number one, and going down to 32,” she says. “It was very sad to us that there were no women in that list today. We’re trying to figure out what the MPL looks like next year. I very much want there to be women in next year’s MPL. I want there to be a system that encourages that kind of play. But for the very first time out, as we’re trying to transition from the tabletop world to the esports world, we thought it was important to take the top-ranked players.”
Her sentiment reminded me of what Estephan wrote in her blog post, about how being the center of attention—the first woman on the moon—was for more harrowing than it was rewarding. I brought the quandary to Chase: How worried was she about putting a woman in that same position?
“It was a key part of our decision making. We actually talked to a female Magic player as we were forming the MPL, if we could fit her in. If we could fit others in. How we could make that work,” continues Chase. “And ultimately, her feedback was, if we are going through a system where we’re picking number one to 32, and we have to dip down to number 200 on that list, it would deem her a grave disservice. It would be setting her up to be a target of you’re only here because. And it would derail all the positive things you’re trying to do. So ultimately, we moved away from it. It was tough for us.”
Aiken, who has committed an entire organization to fighting the raw statistical balance in Magic representation, shared the sentiment. As she works tirelessly to bring equity to competitive Magic, the number one thing she’s concerned with is not being cruel.
“It would depend on who they chose. It would vary wildly. I think one [woman player] would be a mistake. If you were going to do it, you’d want at least three,” she says. “It’s like, if I’m the only woman at a thing, and I top-8, that says one thing. If I’m the only woman and I hit the middle, that says another thing. If I’m the only woman and I finish at the bottom, that says another. If you do one, you’re putting intense pressure on her to represent all women. She has no cover. That’s going to degrade her happiness and her performance.”
Given what Estephan went through, it is perhaps unsurprising that she concurred: “It would have been met poorly by the community as a whole and made it only harder for competitive female players to be taken seriously.”
Wizards of the Coast is currently trying to fix the imbalance in other ways. At the forthcoming PAX East in April, the company will host the Mythic Invitational—pitting the MPL roster against a variety of invited streamers and personalities, including seven women. (One of them is Jess Estephan.) The reaction from the community was mixed. Some players were irked that spots in a tournament with a million dollar prize pool were being offered up to Twitch stars and casual players, rather than the people grinding away in the tournament slag mines. There were also some reports that the streamers in question had deactivated their socials to shield themselves from vitriol. Integration in the MPL, if and when it does happen, is going to be an uphill battle.
“The thing is, the vast majority of the Magic community shares the same ideals that Wizards of the Coast does. The vast majority of the community is awesome, and welcoming, and supportive,” says Chase. “When you move things out to the internet, when you have a community as large as Magic, you’re never going to get 100 percent of people that all believe the same thing. The problem with harassment is that it only takes a couple hundred.”
“To me, that’s the question of the human condition.”