Globally, there are three properties that together form the "Big 3" of the gaming world. Magic: the Gathering as owned and produced by Wizards of the Cost, the Yu-Gi-Oh! Trading Card Game as owned and produced by Konami(formerly distributed by Upper Deck Entertainment) and Pokémon: The Trading Card Game as owned and produced by The Pokémon Company International(formerly distributed by Wizards of the Coast.) The most recent statistics on Magic point to a player base of six million, and while Yu-Gi-Oh! does not have dedicated statistics on its number of players, it is known to be the best-selling card game of all time at more than 22 billion cards. The Pokémon TCG has produced 15 billion cards and has been in operation for 15 years, putting it in third place.
For some scale, you could fit the entire worldwide Magic fandom in the city of San Fransisco and still have room for one million more occupants.
How do things look for Vanguard, just entering international markets? To be honest, there's no feasibly better situation. The industry as a whole isn't anywhere near on its last legs, but it's very weak at the moment, and Bushiroad isn't the only company to capitalize on this. Outside of Vanguard, there is one more underdog team taking the market, the Spin Master company's Redaki. While the popularity of the Big 3 might lead one to resolve the card game industry as mathematically "solved"--and the closure of all of Fantasy Flight Game's TCG properties in December 2009 would only support that view--we are in fact at a breaking point for two of the Big 3. This is the situation as it stands;
Magic: the Gathering -- Fine. As usual, Magic is going strong without any particular leaps or rebounds. The double-faced cards are likely causing some controversy, but they're not going to make anyone hate the game.
Yu-Gi-Oh! Trading Card Game -- In trouble. The Yu-Gi-Oh! TCG's national and international competitions are built on the idea that one duelist could be skilled enough to triumph over the others, but in practice the card game is dominated by one-turn kills and archetype decks. People want to play the Duel Monsters game they first saw in the source manga or anime, not the game that Konami has produced. The most loathed aspect of the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise isn't ZEXAL--which still has its fans despite the sometimes-questionable writing and design choices--but instead "missing the timing." Don't know what that is? Good, because it's not in the rulebook. And while I said that ZEXAL has fans, they are undoubtedly in the minority. ZEXAL's main writer, Shin Yoshida, is the most controversial name associated with the franchise, with accusations flying wild over the poorly-paced, almost camp writing he gave to ZEXAL, Dadaist character design and rampant commercial structure. In fact, the only solidly good thing everyone can agree upon about ZEXAL is its music.
(Yoshida's also maybe probably responsible for the silent X in the title. We think.)
The other difficulty Yu-Gi-Oh! is facing is the legal disputes over the new anime season. The US distributor, 4kids Entertainment, has become subject to a joint lawsuit for nearly 5 million USD. This lawsuit was filed by TV Tokyo and Nihon Ad Systems for underpayment and under-the-table deals conducted between 4kids and Funimation to garner extra profit from the home video release of the Yu-Gi-Oh! anime series. 4kids deliberately concealed their extra income in order to pay less to TV Tokyo than they would have otherwise, in direct violation of their contract. A similar deal was struck between 4kids and Majesco Entertainment for the GameBoy Advance Yu-Gi-Oh! videos. In addition to filing a lawsuit, TV Tokyo and Nihon Ad Systems terminated 4kids' rights to the distribution of the Yu-Gi-Oh! anime, which would have theoretically prevented them from accessing the ZEXAL season of Yu-Gi-Oh!
While 4kids insisted this termination to have no legal or factual basis, the companies involved are still going ahead with this lawsuit. Many people have assumed that 4kids' ongoing dub of ZEXAL means that this case was settled in 4kids' favor, however the lawsuit is in fact under a stay of proceedings, and the rights of the Yu-Gi-Oh! anime as a whole have been accordingly frozen. This means that while 4kids' termination is still assumed to take place following the trial, they currently maintain the rights--and until the second phase of the trial is completed, will continue to do so.
Said second phase of the trial concerns whether or not 4kids actually owes TV Tokyo and Nihon Ad Systems money, which they undoubtedly do seeing as they already confessed to it by giving TV Tokyo one million dollars in "good will" money. This is the equivalent to telling your brother in law that he knows you're good for it and you'll have the rest of his money later, but when it is determined that 4kids owes their $5 million, the company will fold. It has already filed for bankruptcy, and will not be able to muster the kind of funding necessary to pay up. The rights to ZEXAL will most probably go to either Funimation or as a cooperative effort between ADK and TV Tokyo. ADK is more likely due to Funimation's entanglement in the 4kids Yu-Gi-Oh! legal scandal, but regardless of who gets the rights, they will have to completely recast and redub existing Yu-Gi-Oh! episodes released from before the trial's second phase ended, throwing ZEXAL back one quarter in the fiscal year and disturbing its flow of episode release. In the meantime, Cardfight!! Vanguard's English release is set to go off on December 3rd, and Bushiroad would be crazy to not take advantage of their rivals' situation and send their own franchise over to US shores.
Pokémon Trading Card Game -- Is suffering nowhere near the amount of losses that Yu-Gi-Oh! is, but it still treading on thin ice. Preceding the previous national championships, the Pokémon Company officially announced that it was retiring the current Diamond and Pearl sets of cards early, ruling out more than half the current card pool to spur people on into using the Black & White cards. The difficult thing about Pokémon is that its metagame has always been poisoned, with just two or three decks appearing in every fight of any given national competition, but knowing this ahead of time makes it a lot easier to ignore. On the plus side, this new era of cards has tended towards mildly-innovative remakes of Base Set and Fossil/Jungle cards modified for the current rules, but that isn't quite enough to counterbalance the Donphan in the living room. Said Donphan is this; at the same time as the pre-national set rotation, the Pokémon Company International issued a ban on the use of foreign-language cards in official competitions. This was a new rule introduced to a game that had allowed non-English cards without limit for the past twelve years in North America. The fan outcry was understandable, and while the restriction was toned down to allow for up to 6% of a deck to consist of non-English cards(6 cards exactly) it's doubtless that this ban can and will eventually be reintroduced in full force.
Both Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon have realized their age, and their respective producers are making efforts to appeal to a much younger audience than before, generally in the 8-13 range. Introducing new players to the game is vital for maintaining a thriving atmosphere and profit. Unlike the previous series, the Zexal season of Yu-Gi-Oh! is staunchly targeted at middle school audiences, and Pokémon kicked off its Black & White sets in Japan with special releases geared towards children, color coded by gender. Prices on booster packs are being adjusted from 300-350円 to 150円, putting them more within a child's expected allowance, rather than inside the budget of a teenager or adult. Even the official websites have been broken down into simplified, step-by-step guides to meet the needs of a child customer.
The thing is, while the Pokémon TCG can conceivably ride out of its current situation and maintain presence as a global game, as most of its problems are localized inside of the English-language releases, Yu-Gi-Oh! is plagued by poor fan reception, an ever-changing banlist and terrible marketing from an anime that to many has overstayed its welcome. Kids are going to wake up and realize that the reason they can't win against players potentially as young as 14 is because their opponents' deck doesn't let them take their turn. Entire essays can be devoted to First-Turn Kills, One-Turn Kills and their merits versus the weaknesses they bring to a game, but the kids know that this is wrong and so does everyone else who doesn't run an FTK deck.
Okay, so two of the Big 3 are in trouble and there isn't an easy replacement for any of them. But just because the established card games are doing badly, that doesn't necessitate that Vanguard actually has anything going for it, right?
Vanguard already has an established western fanbase. Bushiroad signed a deal with Crunchyroll to distribute the series subtitled, online, completely free and with a simultaneous release. In fact, there are currently two active wikis for the series, as well as several means to play online and a number of forums out there to discuss it. The Cardfight!! Vanguard anime is currently available in Japanese, English and Spanish, with an English dub currently airing on Singapore's OKTO TV. The card game is soon to be released in Korea, and its popularity is snowballing rapidly. Through mass online release via Crunchyroll and fan-based advertisement through Tumblr, Facebook and YouTube, Bushiroad has eleven months' worth of advertising completely free. Without lifting a finger, they've ensured that there is an existing market for Vanguard, and we're currently just 19 days from the official release of Vanguard's first English booster pack. Fans are completely prepped to go wild over their first close look at this game.
As icing on the cake, Bushiroad is in marketing terms invincible due to the company's strong ties with Dentsu, an advertising agency which controls 30% of all mass media in Japan. A little under twice the size of its closest domestic rival, Dentsu has been expanding its circle of power to foreign markets since 2000, being the principal backer behind the modern Publicis Groupe, one of the three largest advertising and communications companies alongside Omnicom and WPP. It's because of Bushiroad's close relationship to Dentsu that they are able to make strong, independent moves in the modern market with minimal reprisal. Dentsu currently holds offices in both the United States and Canada, in addition to its Asian and European bases.
In Japan, this game is already the best thing. It's gotten to the point where waterpark advertising is a viable marketing strategy. Unlike with Yu-Gi-Oh!, the presentation is more up front, personal and less commercial. But, having the market prepped and having a product are different beasts. Surely the game can't be that great? Every card game has its breakers, right?
Vanguard currently has four booster packs out, with three more upcoming. It's at the point where fans should be raging over the most recent game breaker. True to form, following the first Japanese Vanguard nationals, fans cried out against these crimes against competitive game balance, and Bushiroad issued a banlist; Barcgal is now restricted from being the first card you put on the table.
Wait what? It's just one card? And you can still run four of it in a deck? And it's a grade 0, the weakest of all cards?
Cardfight!! Vanguard is a game of balance. Where Pokémon can make lots of plusses for you with 2-for-1 card costs, and Magic can make lots of minuses for your opponent with 1-for-5 mill decks, and Yu-Gi-Oh! can end the game before it even starts with first-turn kill archetype decks, Vanguard doesn't let you attack on the first turn. There are no alternate win conditions--you have to either deal 5 damage to your opponent or have them run out of cards, and there's no way to attack the cards in their deck or hand as in Magic. This is a game that's fun, well-marketed, balanced and has enjoyable, well-written material airing alongside it.
I'm not saying that the whole world is just going to give up its favorite card games overnight. But Yu-Gi-Oh!'s position in the Big 3 isn't so certain anymore, nor is the idea that there will be just a Big 3; the most likely scenario right now is for Yu-Gi-Oh! to fall back into last place with Magic and Pokémon taking up the second and third place slots. I could be just flapping my gums here--history could laugh at this blog post. But from where I stand now, Vanguard is worth my money.