A Parched Prize?

Surveying the Prize Structure in the Cash Era of Regional Tournaments

We’ve had a busy week on SixPrizes, prepping for Collinsville and seeing Brent publish his latest on the Juniors world earlier today. I kicked the week off with a look at what went down in Oceania this past weekend, and it’s been interesting to see where my fellow writers have been at on decks for Collinsville as we head that way now—a short 36 hours, or so, away!

Personally, while Xander’s “Cloverfield” makes me slightly ill, Espeon/Garbodor seems to be something a lot of players are taking very seriously headed into this event. I’m going to be sure whatever I play for the tournament isn’t taking that as a hard loss. Brit had a few different ideas to consider in terms of Collinsville, and for those whose next tournament is Costa Mesa, offered an interesting look back at the list he and a few others took to Dallas. Earlier today, Travis had a look at another trio of options for this weekend.

It’ll be interesting to see what comes out on top in Collinsville, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being the old format’s champions that make Ultra Prism look embarrassingly mediocre.

But, that’s not why I’m really here today! It’s been an interesting day of editing and programming for the actual-life requirements, and I’m headed toward the St. Louis region on what seems to be a dizzyingly-quick timeline, so this probably won’t be especially lengthy, but I wanted to take a look at the prizing situation in the game over the last few years.

The motivation for this survey is twofold:

  1. If you haven’t heard, this past weekend, ESL Australia, operator of the Oceania’s International Championships was permitted by TPCi to cut 240 boxes from TCG prize support listed on Pokémon.com. This included eliminating Prizing for 33rd-64th, halving it for Top 32 and Top 16, and reducing it for Top 8.I strongly suspect this decision was pretty much simple numbers: by far, this event brings in the least capital of any of the Internationals. It’s simply the hardest to get to.

    Cutting somewhere around $20k USD wholesale in prizing isn’t insubstantial to the event’s operation, and given the venue was—by most accounts—an upgrade over last year, it seems choices were made. I’m disappointed that TPCi allowed this as a point of negotiability, but I’m certainly not saying it was outside their rights: that is clearly invalidated by the broad “subject to change” disclaimer.

    While this doesn’t directly involve what I’m going to look at today, it did spark my interest in the state of Prizing this year, compared to the past.

  2. Collinsville is quickly approaching Dallas-esque numbers. While it remains to be seen whether it manages to actually beat Texas in terms of players that show up, it’ll be another example of X-2 exceeding Top 32. With this, we’ll see some unfortunate players make Day 2 and leave with 18 packs—a cruel disparity to those that make Top 32, taking home a box and $250.

Compared to last year, the big change in cash prizing is the loss of Top 64 prizes, which would’ve insured somewhat against this X-2 phenomena. Today, I want to look at how TPCi’s prize payout per-Regional has varied in the era of cash payouts—as we’ve seen small Regionals, mega-Regionals, and a few different cash structures. I’m not sure whether I intend to make any specific assertions today about what “should” be—I don’t fancy myself an Organized Play manager—but hopefully the data presented can be illuminating and inform some of the community discourse on the subject. Inevitably, it’ll be a subject of discussion once more after this weekend.

The Data: Framework

I set out with a pretty simple goal: tabulate the total cash, scholarships, AMEX travel, and Visa gift cards awarded to top finishers at North American Regionals last season. I kept this to North America for a few simple reasons:

  1. I can easily get attendance data for those tournaments. labs.pokegym.net has a wealth of past attendance data, and this situation is no exception.
  2. Some international events have VGC, some do not—it would be more of a headache than worthwhile, for this illustrative exercise, to figure out which is which. Furthermore, some international events have been previously authorized to run with less booster support than “mandated.” Therefore, for this survey, I’m running with North America.

This required pretty simple data: attendance for each event and the payout structure for each event. I assembled that into a file, which you can view in its entirety here. A few interesting notes off the top:

  • Not a single event has ever reached the $50,000 of prizing advertised. As a legal entity, the advertisement is mildly ambiguous, with an “up to” thrown in once in awhile over time, an occasional “depending on attendance,” etc.—nevertheless, it’s not a number that’s proven realistic at any point. Even the biggest event of the year, whose anniversary we’ll hit this weekend, did not eclipse the stated $50k.
  • Last season, there was a substantial difference between the biggest events and the smaller ones. In a way, there was a disincentive to attend small events like Portland and Seattle that wouldn’t be in a position to offer the Top 64 prizing. The Standard Deviation on prizing last year? A bit over $10,000, on an average of $31,719. For those without a stats background: basically, it was pretty wildly variable.

Let’s a take a look at that second bit a bit: for TCG events last year, see the table below for percentage of the players that left with payouts (unfortunately, VGC is too variable to get meaningful information from it). The coloring is across all 3 columns, with the highest percentages in green, and the sad tournaments where only 3% of people walk out with money in red. (A version that you can zoom in on, for mobile users, can be found here.)

Now, a few trends are generally readily-noticeable here. Last season, it was actually “easier,” on a numeric basis, to get a payout as a Master at a majority of the circuit’s tournaments. This season, that script has flipped completely—now, not only is it universally harder to get a payout as a Master, but it’s never been better to be a Junior/Senior! With 9.1%, for the Vancouver Seniors, being the “worst” straight-odds a North American youngster has had all year, it’s a good year to be riding that train.

On the other hand, outside of the outlier in Vancouver, it’s been an ugly year to be a Master. Here’s another version of the same chart, only the colors are now limited to their own columns—the highest in Juniors has no effect on what color the Masters seem now. (Similarly to before, a link for your convenience.)

It’s clearly visible here that this seasons’ changes made it better to be a Junior or Senior and worse to be a Master. Part of this is because Masters has simply exploded in size. But, even with that in mind, the removal of Top 64 prizes was a serious dent to the Masters’ payout rate.

At left, you’ll find a table that pretends we kept the exact same Prize Structure for this year as last year, with appropriate coloring. As you may notice, while this season is still generally worse for Masters compared to last season, it’s more in line with what we saw last year: the fact that less players are getting money isn’t merely a function of attendance going through the roof, but also the structure itself.

Why would TPCi make a change like this? There are two reasons. The first, and in my mind, most important: Last season’s structure discouraged attending smaller events. If I hadn’t just used a lot of bold, I’d bold that line. In fact, I’ll do it anyway: Last season’s structure discouraged attending smaller events. This season’s, by comparison, achieves nothing if not relative parity.

Here’s a chart comparing attendance to the number of players that prized into cash. In green, what actually happened. In blue, what would’ve happened with last seasons’s attendance numbers if we had this season’s structure then.

The discontinuity in last year’s data, of course, comes from the fact that it jumped from 16 players to 64 at 500 people. By eliminating Top 64 prizing, TPCi eliminated something that was probably of serious concern to both it and its TOs. Reaching a point where an event’s implied small nature would lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy where the event’s attendance was negatively impacted would be a serious concern for TOs.

This year’s structure is often criticized for removing the Top 64 prizing. In reality, it does make for a worse event experience for Masters players at the largest of events, especially with Day 2 exceeding 32 people. At left, there’s a table listing each event and its prizing payout since the inception of the modern cash prize era. You’ll notice that this year’s structure made prizing more consistent across events—and, in actuality, it increased the average payout per event by about $9,000. TPCi is providing more money per Regional this year—as it happens, that money just isn’t going where the loudest group might wish it to go. The average so far this year: $40,714, with a standard deviation around $6,600.


To me, this season’s prize structure change was part of a move to standardize the event experience across Regionals less than it was about TCG’s Top 64. With the vast number of stakeholders (players of all ages, parents, TOs, staff) involved in a Regional, I think there’s a persuasive argument that TPCi has very defensible reason for its actions in reallocating the funds, and they’re at least to be lauded for increasing the overall payout per event closer to that $50,000 mark this year.

One more bit about that $50,000: when you account for booster packs at a (low) wholesale estimate of $75/box, only 7 events still fail to meet the threshold. It’s not actually clear to me whether the intent of the line is to include packs—if it is, considering they probably could account them at MSRP of $144/box, it’s a bit strange—but either way, intriguing stuff.

Another bit for the ensuing discussion: Wizards of the Coast has said varying Prizing on Match Record is a legal obstacle in some jurisdictions. I suspect similar issues may apply to solutions like “just pay out all of Day 2!”

Moving forward, there is certainly an argument that an event paying out to less than 3% of its participants—see, Collinsville, IL, 2 days—is an increasingly strange look for a circuit that seemed to be unapologetically moving toward catering the Masters division. I’m not really attempting to take a stance one way or the other on whether TPCi should further redistribute to favor Masters’ ballooning attendance, but having the numbers down can help better inform the argument all around.

In any event, the best to everyone in Collinsville this weekend, no matter what side of the tournament you’ll be on.


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