In the mid-1990’s, Wizards of the Coast had a big hit with Magic: the Gathering. Within a few years it had grown into a giant force. But they wanted to make it more mainstream and to get a wider audience. Wizards decided to go more of a sports angle, because in the late 90’s, internet streaming was barely a thing and the only way to reach the masses was TV.
So in 1997, they went all out in sports. While there were some successes, such as getting a big piece in Sports Illustrated. But the biggest coup was grabbing ESPN. ESPN had that audience, with ESPN 2 always going into the offbeat, from Jai Alai to Mini Golf tournaments. And, again, with poor internet video, this was the place that made the most sense. ESPN was somehow sold on it, as they saw it as comparable to the back and fourth-ness of sports like tennis.
So from 1997 to 2000, major Magic tournaments found a home on national cable.
The are out there to see.
Besides the bleached hair and trying to be like MTV, there were numerous problems. Many hosts, used to other sports, had no idea what was going on or how to play. Footage only came on late at night, usually around two in the morning. And then there was the camera issues - There were a limited amount of angles, so you couldn’t even see the cards or know what was happening half the time. Later tournaments corrected this somewhat, but they also decided to make it like the Olympics and focus on the players themselves as a sort of “story”. And that isn’t even mentioning the low attendance of the tournaments.
Where the 1997 tournament had full ads and lots of press before hand, the 1998 tournaments were delegated a small press release.
By 2000, ESPN scrapped MTG tournaments. TV viewership was embarrassingly low, even by 2 AM on ESPN 2 standards. Even Mark Rosewater confirmed as much in his podcast.
Today, tournaments are all over Youtube, Twitch, and even back with limited national and international coverage. And while today it’s no longer considered a sport per-se, for a brief moment in the late 90s, you could honestly say it was.