Child’s Play for Big Pay, Esport Gamers Should Organize

By: Michael Kim

In recent years, the esports industry has seen impressive growth in terms of viewership and revenue.[1] What was traditionally viewed as child’s play has evolved to attract significant investment[2] and the attention of traditional sports organizations.[3]   An esport is generally defined as any video game that is played competitively.[4] Due to the large variety of video games available on the market, the esports scene is fragmented and decentralized, with no overarching regulatory body, akin to The Fédération Internationale de Football Association for football, presiding over the numerous tournaments and professional video game organizations.[5]

Esport pro gamers (“players”) typically earn money through tournament winnings, product sponsorship, and streaming ad-revenue.[6] Additionally, some pro gamers may earn a regular salary by signing on with professional competitive teams.[7] These player-team agreements have on occasion resulted in miscommunication where players and team owners had widely publicized disputes over unpaid salaries.[8] Players face difficulties in maintaining a steady income in this unstable industry which leads many players to retire young in hopes of transitioning towards a more stable or traditional career.[9]

Partially in response to this chaotic environment, Blizzard Entertainment (“Blizzard”), a video game publisher, plans to launch a new heavily regulated esports league for one of their games.[10] Blizzard’s entry into the e-sport scene represents a shift in the industry, where Blizzard hopes to redefine the norms of this nascent industry.[11] The upcoming “Overwatch League” establishes a franchise buy in model where a limited number professional gaming teams are permitted to participate in the league.[12] In addition, Blizzard has imposed numerous requirements on the franchises on what they must provide to their players.[13] These include, among other things, a $50,000 minimum yearly salary, health and retirement benefits, and at least half of team winnings to be disbursed directly to the players.[14]

Riot Games, another video game publisher, also plans to establish a similar “permanent team” franchise esport scheme for their video game League of Legends.[15] Additionally, Riot Games announced they would establish a players’ association to provide players a collective voice in the league.[16] The players do not fund the players’ association themselves and Riot Games makes it explicitly clear that the players’ association is not a union.[17]

The increasing control of tournament organizers and game publishers over the competitive esport system draws similarities to the dominance that professional sport leagues and team owners once exerted over professional athletes during the mid-twentieth century.[18] Before the rise of effective player unions, professional athletes were subjected to unfair employment terms which benefited team owners and tournament organizers at the expense of the professional athletes’ job security and benefits.[19] For example, Major League Baseball was once “an oligopoly” where the players had no say in negotiating the terms of their employment.[20] Additionally, team owners were adverse to the idea of player representation.[21] Baseball players could be traded at will, salaries were low, and benefits were nonexistent.[22]   These indignities eventually gave rise to powerful professional players union which fought to establish the rights of these professional athletes.[23]

Blizzard’s and Riot Games’ push for a more stable competitive scene signals a change in the wind for the esports industry. The benefits mandate and pseudo-representation established by these large publishers are a promising sight. The players have an inherently positive view of game publishers for making a video game they enjoy and earn a living with. However, players should be conscious of the potential conflict of interests held by these large corporate game publishers. As this industry begins to hit its stride, players should consider forming their own union, independent from the influence of game publishers, team owners, and tournament organizers. These players should look at the development of the professional athlete player unions for guidance. Team owners and tournament organizers have even suggested that players unionize in order to promote a more stable environment.[24] When child’s play becomes a profitable industry, it is important for these mostly young players to not be caught off guard. Blizzard and Riot Games may seem like benevolent giants, but proper representation will ensure that players receive their fair share of this growing market.


[1] Peter Warman, Esport Revenues Will Reach $696 Million this Year and Grow to $1.5 Billion by 2020 as Brand Investment Doubles, Newzoo (Feb. 14, 2017), https://newzoo.com/insights/articles/esports-revenues-will-reach-696-million-in-2017/.

[2] Id.

[3] We Are Tumult, Why Sports Teams are Investing In Esports and Why You Should Too., Medium: Laces Out (June 4, 2017), https://thelacesout.com/why-sports-teams-are-investing-in-esports-and-why-you-should-too-7d1143464a33.

[4] Ben Casselman, Resistance is Futile: eSports is Massive . . . and Growing, ESPN (May 22, 2015), http://www.espn.com/espn/story/_/id/13059210/esports-massive-industry-growing.

[5] Fabio Schlösser Vila, Do eSports Lack Structure?, Deutsche Welle (Dec. 29, 2016), http://www.dw.com/en/do-esports-lack-structure/a-36930847.

[6] H.B. Duran, Playing the Game: How Much ESports Players Really Make, [a]list (Aug. 18, 2016), http://www.alistdaily.com/media/playing-the-game-how-much-esports-players-really-make/.

[7] Id.

[8] See Jacob Wolf, Confirmed: Smash Melee Pro Duck Left Denial Esports over Missing Pay, espn (Jan. 7, 2017), http://www.espn.com/esports/story/_/id/18419792/ssbm-duck-leaves-denial-esports-missing-pay.

[9] Harrison Jacobs, Here’s What Professional Video Gamers Plan on Doing When They Retire – in Their 20s, Business Insider (May 7, 2015, 3:40 PM), http://www.businessinsider.com/pro-gamers-explain-what-they-will-do-when-they-retire-in-a-couple-years-2015-5.

[10] Philip Kollar, Overwatch League is Blizzard’s Ambitious New Esports Org, Includes City-based Teams, Polygon (Nov. 4, 2016, 2:34 PM), https://www.polygon.com/2016/11/4/13511762/overwatch-league-is-blizzards-ambitious-new-esports-org-includes-city.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Player Signings, Salaries, and More in the Overwatch League, Overwatch League (July 26, 2017) https://overwatchleague.com/en-us/news/20937016.

[15] Kieran Darcy, Riot’s Players’ Association Lays Groundwork for Unionization, ESPN (June 15, 2017), http://www.espn.com/esports/story/_/id/19617991/riot-players-association-lays-groundwork-unionization.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] See Michael Macklon, The Rise of Labor Unions in Pro Sports, Investopedia (July 5, 2011, 2:00 AM), http://www.investopedia.com/financial-edge/0711/the-rise-of-labor-unions-in-pro-sports.aspx.

[19] Id.

[20] Peter Dreier, The Fascinating Story of Major League Baseball’s Players Union Stimulated by the Death of Jim Bunning, Salon (June 3, 2017, 9:00 PM), https://www.salon.com/2017/06/03/the-fascinating-story-of-major-league-baseballs-players-union-stimulated-by-the-death-of-jim-bunning_partner/.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] See id.

[24] Paresh Dave, In E-sports, It’s the Bosses Who are Rallying for a Union, Los Angeles Times (May 26, 2017, 12:55 PM), http://www.latimes.com/business/technology/la-fi-tn-esports-unions-20170526-htmlstory.html.

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