Teams, leagues, and players are fighting for their share of the ballooning esports loot
Andy "Reginald" Dinh, CEO of one of the most famous esports teams – Team SoloMid – is furious. It's December 20, and SoloMid's Counter-Strike: Global Offensive players, led by captain Sean "Seangares" Gares, have just signed their names to an open letter accusing team owners like Dinh of violating their rights. A hashtag on Twitter, #PlayersRights, is stirring up what could optimistically be called a "lively" fan response, with Team SoloMid square in the crosshairs.
Dinh takes to Twitter to confront Sean Gares with a private message. "I saw the post that you guys made today. How come you didn't come to me to talk?"
Gares, clearly uncomfortable, replies: "We just chose Scott early on... as a voice for all of the players."
"Scott" is Scott "SirScoots" Smith, a semi-retired esports elder and venerable Counter-Strike community member, who'd spent the past several weeks negotiating with team owners on behalf of the players in the open letter.
"I don't think that's a good reason to hurt our brand publically," writes Dinh. "You could have just called me to talk this through."
"I can understand that, but I really don't want it to be personal, or make you think it reflects my opinion of you… it's about us as players being able to stand up for ourselves," Gares replies.
The reason today that we have access to these chat logs is that Dinh soon terminated Gares' contract. At which point Gares immediately shared screenshots of the conversation with his 137,000 Twitter followers, turning him into a martyr of the Players' Rights movement, and wreaking far more havoc on SoloMid's brand, presumably, than had been accomplished by the open letter alone. Why the disagreement, though? What was worth getting so worked up about in the first place? People like Gares are paid to play video games full time – what rights of theirs were in such jeopardy that they would warrant a confrontation like this?
Players like Gares want the right to choose which tournaments they participate in. Their contracts give this right to the team owners. Usually, this discrepancy isn't a problem, because team owners and players tend to prefer the same events – big, well-established tournaments with large prize pools and solid viewership. But when seven North American esports teams founded the Professional eSports Association (PEA), this happy coincidence changed.
The PEA, which frames itself as an "owner-operated league aiming to be the NBA of eSports," intended to launch an online Counter-Strike: Global Offensive league in January 2017. In doing this, they entered into direct competition with established tournament companies like ESL, which had its own long-running online Counter-Strike league, the ESL ESEA Pro League (EPL).
This came as a shock – our owners had always given us the clear impression that we held the final say when it came to where we competed
With the formation of the Professional Esports Association, many in the community wondered how so many online Counter-Strike leagues could exist simultaneously. It soon became clear that the PEA had never intended to run side-by-side with the EPL – the PEA's member teams privately discussed plans to yank their players out of the EPL. In response to which the players in question said, roughly: hey, wait a minute, what?
The open letter came soon after. "[The team owners'] response was very direct: It's in your contracts," players from the five most prominent North American Counter-Strike teams wrote. "This came as a shock – our owners had always given us the clear impression that we held the final say when it came to where we competed."
Then came the confrontation between Dinh and Gares, the termination, and the Twitter firestorm. The outraged community placed all the blame on Dinh, who on December 23 authored a Twitlonger post defending his decision. This kicked off another round of back-and-forth, with spirited missives from the PEA, SirScoots, and others flying back and forth like clouds of pissed-off wasps.
Things died down for a little while until December 29th, when Dinh explained his side of the Sean Gares controversy yet again via an agonizingly lengthy video interview. Gares immediately responded on Reddit, writing "the way Andy portrays things in this video is just not true." This, of course, led Dinh to post a response to Gares' response on Twitlonger ("In the wake of my interview with Thorin, Sean has once again made a post that suggests I was not telling the truth…"), and around and around it went – again.
The upshot of this whole excruciating saga was that the PEA abandoned plans for a Counter-Strike league and retreated into the shadows to lick its wounds, while the entirety of Team SoloMid's roster departed to join ousted player Sean Gares en route to parts unknown. In his (inevitable) post explaining the players' preference for the EPL over the fledgling PEA, Scott "SirScoots" Smith argued that a critical error in the PEA's plan was blindly mimicking the tenets of traditional sports. "Esports as an industry is unique," Smith wrote. "It has been built with an inherent level of unprecedented openness that the accessibility of live streaming, social media and online play allows."
In truth, the biggest difference between esports and meatsports is scale. Accessibility and openness – along with instability, feeding-frenzy investments, and CEOs who eschew PR for half-baked Twitlonger screeds – are mostly side effects of esports' relatively small size.
When teams tell me they're like NFL teams, that's when I tell them they have no idea what they're talking about
Take streaming, perhaps the best example of esports' openness and accessibility. Counter-Strike fans can interact with their favorite players via their personal streams, which is essentially unheard of in the NBA or NFL. Would the NBA boot LeBron James out of the league if he made money on the side by Twitch-streaming his private practices? Absolutely not. He'll never, ever do it, though – at least not for profit – because the money is completely negligible next to his sponsorship revenue and salary. The same goes for social media. LeBron James is restricted from interacting with his fans on social media only by their sheer number – by the fact that anything he posts will be greeted with a cascade of tweets reading only "Daddy," a barrage of desperate cries for attention. From a regulatory perspective, LeBron is just as free to be "open" and "accessible" to fans as an esports player, it's just that the scale of his celebrity makes it impossible.
If an organization like the PEA offered players a reliable $1M salary, they would turn their backs on the EPL in an instant. Many of them would probably also stream less, because why bother? This is already happening with Dota 2, where many top players don't bother streaming, because the money they'd make is chump change compared to Valve's multimillion-dollar tournament circuit – which gets at the real problem with the PEA: Exclusivity clauses aren't morally wrong – a team choosing which events a player competes in isn't a violation of some God-given right – it's just that if you're going to convince players to give up their independence, you have to compensate them for it, or they're going to fight you. The reason the PEA failed is that their offer just wasn't good enough. In fact, it may have been impossible for them to come up with any offer that was good enough. "Look," Scoots says, "when teams tell me they're like NFL teams, that's when I tell them they have no idea what they're talking about. An NFL team has three thousand employees, has to operate stadiums, has to operate training facilities – the overhead is completely different."
And, he points out, NFL players can count on the NFL being around to keep signing paychecks for years to come. Esports leagues, on the other hand, fizzle with clockwork regularity. Take News Corp's Championship Gaming Series, which in 2007 promised $5M for player salaries, then folded after two seasons amid accusations of never paying out. (Don't think today's players haven't noticed that Jason Katz, commissioner of the PEA, was VP of CGS – a Hindenbergian event particularly infamous in the Counter-Strike community.)
The EPL, with four successful seasons behind it, has the allure of proven payout, stability, and competent management. It also features the best teams from around the world, not just North America, which is often considered one of the weakest regions. For Counter-Strike pros, who are by definition cutthroat competitors, squaring off against the best teams is a coveted opportunity. "The PEA had to, at the end of the day, give the players way more money [to outweigh these advantages]," says Smith.
And they didn't. According to Smith, the PEA's offer was only slightly more lucrative than EPL's, and it hinged on weaker competition in North America yielding a better chance of victory. The offer to "be a big fish in a small pond" doesn't go over well with people who are determined to be the best in the world.
For now, both sides have reached a relatively amicable truce. "I believe there was fair value in the PEA ask," Team Liquid CEO Victor Goossens tells us. "The players don't agree – I can respect that."
According to Goossens, the PEA is still ongoing, busy considering its next move. You can hardly blame the team owners for trying. Some day, esports like Counter-Strike may very well resemble their meatspace counterparts, with giant, monolithic leagues and seven-figure contracts. There's a lot of money to be made between here and there. The only question is who gets to make it.