The eSports Union Revolution Is Coming

Cyber athletes are organizing world-wide, but who really benefits most from gaming unions?

The year was 2005. I was wide-eyed, idealistic college freshman studying photography and journalism in sunny, unaffordable Santa Barbara, California. In between ditching class for the beach — talking all things sports and politics while drinking large amounts of cheap beer — I would spend my nights propped up on a kitchen stool watching my college girlfriend play World of Warcraft religiously.

“Could you run it by me again…what’s an MMORPG?” I would ask. Twenty minutes later I would be all caught up, and resume watching the gameplay with renewed fervor. I had grown up playing video games — the Diablo series, StarCraft, WarCraft — like everybody else. I just didn’t realize at the time how popular and, in many ways revolutionary, gaming would become.

Of course, professional gaming isn’t exactly new. High-skilled gamers have been making a living off of consoles since the late ‘90’s, and the first gaming tournaments started way back in the ‘80’s when Atari held the first video game competition: The Space Invaders Tournament.

Over 10,000 people took part, lighting the fuse on the esports powder keg. Competitive gaming was fairly common through the 1990’s and 2000’s, with companies like Nintendo and Blockbuster (RIP) sponsoring world championships, while PC gaming and first-person shooters (FPS) started to gain traction.

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In 1997, the widely popular FPS “Quake” held it’s Red Annihilation tournament, which is widely considered by gamers as the first iteration of esports. With around 2,000 total participants, and the winner of the tourney receiving lead Quake developer John Carmack’s gently used Ferrari. Weeks later, the Cyberathlete Professional League was founded.

As the 2000’s went by, more and more casual players became avid fans of competitive gaming. Major League Gaming grew to become a powerhouse in the world of esports, and the first televised video game console gaming league in the U.S.

“When we started Major League Gaming (MLG) in 2002, our goal was to provide those with an appetite for video game competition the ability to both participate and spectate,” explained Sundance DiGiovanni, Co-Founder and CEO of Major League Gaming in 2013. “I think we have laid the groundwork for a consistent and stable competitive platform and truly helped esports in the U.S. become what it is today.”

Many people point to Blizzard Entertainment’s release of StarCraft II in 2010 as the moment that kicked esports spectatorship into overdrive. Blizzard acquired all of MLG’s assets for $46 million in a move to satisfy broader esports ambitions.

“I have a simple vision for this,” said Robert A. Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard during a 2016 New York Times interview. “I want to build the ESPN of video games.”

And satisfy those ambitions they did.

Last year, the NCAA had to take notice of esports and consider its regulation and support of varsity competitions. Why? Because universities have increased the number of scholarships offered to video game players. The University of Utah, a top-five conference school, went as far as recruiting an entire esports team.

If that’s not enough proof, let’s take a look at the numbers: In 2016, according to Statista, there were 162 million regular esports viewers, with another 131 million who watched occasionally.

It doesn’t match up to FIFA World Cup viewer numbers, but it sure as hell blew away the 111.3 million viewership of last year’s Super Bowl. It’s those stats that have led esports to look at the traditional leagues for guidance and best practices.

Learning from the Wild West histories of the four major leagues — the chaos that existed before the teams consolidated into the leagues and franchises we now know — esports are looking to move past chaos and bring order and stability into their world by adding permanent franchises, revenue sharing agreements, player-centric features, and other financially successfully elements of their traditional sports cousins.

Activision Blizzard aims to have at least 28 international, city-based Overwatch League teams at a reported franchise fee of $20 million, while Riot Games is planning on having ten permanent franchises in its North American League of Legends Championship Series (NA LCS), at a cost of $10 million for existing team owners, and $13 million for new ones.

League of Legends has received franchise applications from all existing times, and Overwatch has announced nine franchises, including teams owned by New England Patriots’ Robert Kraft, New York Mets COO Jeff Wilbon, and several co-owners of the Sacramento Kings.

All that success and popularity adds up to one thing: money. The question, however, is which party is benefiting the most from the esports boom.

Esports players organize

With the rise in popularity and ungodly cash flow generated by esports, the issues of player rights have been cropping up, because all wealth is fundamentally generated by labour.

Under the labor theory of value: the economic value of a good or service is determined by the total amount of “socially necessary labor” required to produce it.

Basically, workers and athletes use their skills and talents to create wealth for CEO’s, team owners and leagues. A career as a pro esports competitor is often short-lived, and it’s crucial for players’ to earn a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

The solution to this labor inequality is often found through organizing a union: an organized association of workers, often in a trade or profession, formed to protect and further their rights and interests.

Through collective action, public pressure campaigns, sit-downs, boycotts, and threats to strike, workers have the ability to take control of their working environments and level the playing field when it comes to labor-management relations through collective bargaining.

Whispers of players associations’ forming in esports have been circulating for years, and come with questions attached: how would an esports players association operate? Would it be like the other major league players associations? Are esports players considered employees or independent contractors? Would they even be able to organize under current labor law?

The simple answer is, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) doesn’t just apply to unions. It applies to any labor organization (association) or group of employees acting in a concerted fashion to address workplace issues.

Taking a cue from NBA players association direct action in 1964 — threatening to boycott the 1964 All-Star game until a pension agreement was reached — The Counter-Strike players of Cloud9, Counter Logic Gaming, Immortals, Team Liquid, and Team SoloMid sent a public letter to the Professional Esports Association condemning their unilateral changes in competition games, preventing gameplay in ESL pro leagues, and that their participation would only occur when the players had the right to determine where and when they can and cannot compete. A year later, Riot Games announced the formation of a players association for the North American League of Legends Championship Series (NALCSPA).

There just one catch; it was created by Riot Games, not the players.

“It is a turning point for the NA LCS — we refer to it here as a reboot of the NA LCS,” said Chris Greeley, Riot league operations lead. “It is important as we begin to move forward in a different alignment with the owners that the players have a voice at that table and are able to have someone in those discussions whose sole responsibility is to answer to the players and look out for their interests.”

The players association retained Hal Biagas, former assistant general counsel at the National Basketball Players Association, as its first executive director.

While Riot’s plan outlines “providing pros with the resources to set up a Players’ Association,” the players will vote on representatives who will take part in league decision making. Once formed, the association will provide legal help, career-planning advice, and represent the players in what Riot calls “tri-party” negotiations between Riot, team owners, and the players themselves.

It’s eerily similar to how major league baseball first envisioned their players’ association — a company union giving players the illusion of union power.

“What these guys are talking about is not a union,” said Gene Orza, the retired chief operating officer of the Major League Baseball Players Association. “They’re using the word ‘association,’ but they will not be like the baseball players’ or the football players’ union, because they’re not going to be a union.”

“To form a union, you need employees, with an employer, who band together for the purpose of bargaining with, and some would say against, the employer. And that’s not what’s being envisioned here.”

This sports columnist agrees with that line of thought above — hopefully, the NALCSPA will look to the MLBPA’s history as guidance and a cautionary tale of blurring the labor-management lines.

In the days before Marvin Miller took the job as executive director of the MLBPA, the union and the league were one in the same. There was no independence, and all decision making was left to the team bosses.

At first, it didn’t even operate as a union, but rather as a loose coalition of players working together to earn a pension and benefits. Their first union “rep,” Robert “Judge” Cannon, was a bona fide court judge who missed becoming MLB commissioner by one vote and was happy keeping the illusion of “labor peace” by towing the baseball team owner’s line.

It took two years of one-on-one organizing, building union solidarity from the ground up before players understood the importance of an independent union — after being fed baseball bosses propaganda from day one in the majors — leading them to sign their first collective bargaining agreement with MLB in 1968.

While esports players rightly deserve a militant union to protect their interests, the solution isn’t found wrapped up nicely and delivered by the employer. That relationship between employers and employees is often adversarial, and there is no reason not to believe that behind closed doors, employers are always looking to get “more bang for their buck” — at players’ expense.

The NALCSPA held its first executive officer elections and announced the results June 14.

We will all hope for their success, but a healthy dose of scepticism goes a long way when it comes to negotiating with the boss — even if they insist the players association will act independently.

“There’s no real way to dissuade people if they have conspiracy theories about the way that this is gonna work,” Greeley said. “Part of it is, wait and see. We’ve gotten really good feedback from our pro players on this process so far — a lot of really positive comments, a lot of the guys are interested in it [and] are really pushing for this to be successful. So we hope that it is.”

Let’s see how positive that relationship will be when the first workplace dispute takes place.

Besides League of Legends, two other players associations are in their initial stages with players of Overwatch and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. The Overwatch players associations organizing efforts haven’t been formally released, though it’s expected details will come out sometime in August.

The union drive is headed by Overwatch Coach and former player Thomas “Morte” Kerbusch and sports-labor attorney Ellen Zavian.

Speaking to the Sports Business Journal, Zavian explained that their union would be modelled after the NFL Players Association. “I don’t see this [players association] as any different than any other PA just because it’s eSports,” Zavian said. “This isn’t something that will be a lighthearted step. This will be a big step.”

Zavian and Kerbush have not gone into much detail about the effort, and it’s unclear if they have begun collecting union cards — required by law when forming a union — from players

Zavian has also mentioned that the issues facing players are standard across all industries: wages, insurance, continuing education and arbitration of grievances.

The Counter-Strike organizing efforts led by Scott “SirScoots” Smith and attorney Michael Doi, is taking a different approach by not seeking to become a formal U.S. Union and focusing on building a global players associations — over 225 professional players worldwide currently.

“Every day I sign another guy,” said Smith. “I would say 70 or so have signed an official membership document that they are for the players association, are behind the players association, they want to be in the players association.”

The Counter-Strike Professional Players’ Association (CSPPA) currently has a seven-player executive board and focuses its daily operations on putting players first — including legal counsel.

“As any other players’ association, we will work to secure the best possible working conditions for players in CS:GO, while of course taking into account the special nature of the industry. In any sport, it makes sense that players can influence their employment conditions. There is certainly a huge difference in how CS: GO contracts are structured, and there will definitely be players that could benefit from guidance when signing them. Our goal is to represent the players in the best possible way and help the entire scene grow in a positive direction. We see a lot of possibilities for doing that.”

With the increased attacks against organized labor and all working people in the U.S. — just look at the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Janus — it’s a breath of fresh air to see union organizing take place in non-traditional settings.

Who knows…these organizing efforts in esports may even help save labor union ideals and create a new generation of (digital) rank and file activists.

Al Neal
Al Neal
Al Neal is an award-winning columnist at Grandstand Central writing on politics, labor relations, and the general rabble-rousing in professional sports. He spent a decade working in the trade union movement with various locals across the country and currently serves as Dir. of Education and Advocacy for the St. Louis Workers’ Education Society.


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