ESports - Time To Unionize

This past week, ESPN published Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg’s remarks on Call of Duty’s eSports efforts. He attributes much success to the pro players – "They give you the momentum of a story: a beginning, middle and end. Those narratives are what fuel an interest in sports. People love watching the best players in the world play the game they love.”

A great nod and affirmation that the pro gamers are a major factor in Call of Duty World League (CWL)’s success, but look behind the curtain and you may see a different dynamic between league, publisher and player. The pro players – the influencers/stars – have little, if any, say in how the league unfolds and defining the best practices for treating the pro players. Back to that in a minute.

Generally speaking, in traditional sports like baseball, football and basketball, the stakeholders consist of the league, distribution partners, the pro players and the owners of the teams. In eSports, however, there is an added layer – you have the leagues, distribution partners, the players, the owners of the teams and the game publishers. Nobody owns football or basketball, but Activision does own Call of Duty and Riot does own League of Legends, and therein lies the challenge.

As non-endemic marketers like Mountain Dew, HTC, Turtle Wax, and Tostino’s are engaging eSports audiences, many publishers and leagues are going to have to change the dynamic with pro players and team owners to accommodate sponsors. The publishers feel that their game’s popularity would not exist without their IP and the players feel that the sports’ popularity is due to their personalities and how they engage the fans to participate. Like all sports, it’s a combination of the two. But unlike traditional sports, there are no formal governing bodies to arbitrate between the leagues and publishers and the players to meet everyone’s needs, and there are signs of strain for sponsors and pro players.

Over the last few months, we have seen Major League Gaming change its event format by moving pro players out of soundproof booths and into the open. While it makes for a better broadcast presentation and it is more exciting for fans attending the event, it affects most of the teams who have headset sponsors like Turtle Beach, Astro and SteelSeries as all of the players are forced to wear a competitive headset that they do not train with. This was implemented without consideration to the players, and teams that refuse to wear the headsets face disqualification. What would the response be if pro golfers showed up to the Masters and all were required to use the same set of clubs? What if MLB players were all forced to use the same bat during the World Series? 

Similarly, over the past few weeks, Riot’s League Championship Series struggled as it made rule changes and implemented patches without input from the pro players. The confusion runs so deep that sponsor HTC released the following statement on its Facebook page, “With less avenues for advertisement in League of Legends, stemming from the restrictions on the teams and players, restrictions on the subreddit, and the lack of available marketing opportunities at competitions, it is becoming difficult to justify our investments into the scene.”

Some other issues? Pro players not being offered proper accommodations during tournaments. They are expected to be on-site for up to three consecutive days and players’ lounges are typically lacking common amenities like private bathrooms, comfortable lounging areas, meals, separate entrances to the arena, and unbelievably, they are not allowed to bring their own food and drink into the arena. In many instances, they have to get in line with fans and are subject to the same security restrictions, which means no outside food or drinks allowed. If it weren’t for these pro players, events would not consistently sell out, so why are the leagues and publishers not accommodating their needs?

While there are some unions starting to formalize, we need to remember that “eSports” is a term just as diverse as “sports.” There cannot be one, all-encompassing, overarching body for all of eSports. As the welcome entrance of non-endemics jump into the space, let’s encourage the leagues and publishers to make sure the pro players are recognized and given proper credit (and compensation) for what they are doing for their respective sport. More will be accomplished with the players input than without.

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