Do Video Gamers Need a Union?

Do Video Gamers Need a Union?

Fans cheer during the final round of the Sports FIFA Online Championship in Seoul this month.

Why you should care

Because you, or your kids, could get rich video gaming. 

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Forget what you think you know about the rock-star athlete of tomorrow, because odds are he (if it is a he) will look much like this scrawny white guy in a tank top slouched in front of his computer and a huge microphone. Meet HKSmash, who’s playing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. “Appreciate you, bro … like, a lot,” he monotones to a teammate. Then he’s riled up, screeching, “I had that kill … UHHHHH. We suck!” Despite the lament of suckitude, HKSmash gets ranked “Gold Nova II” a few days later. With just a few hours’ work, he and his teammates have pulled in 160,000 total views (yep, really).

But if he’s ever going to hit the big time, HKSmash needs harder training. Also, he could really use an agent … maybe even a players union, like in the big leagues.

Competitive video games, or e-sports, are suddenly huge. Controller-wielding rivals shoot to kill for hundreds, sometimes thousands of eyeballs online —in major tournaments, millions. Last year, 8.5 million people tuned in online to watch a League of Legends championship match. Globally, e-sports revenue is forecast to rise 43 percent this year from 2014, to $278 million, and it could reach $765 million in 2018, according to market research firm Newzoo. Lest you think this is solely a latter-day revenge of the nerds, Turner Broadcasting recently announced plans to form an e-sports league for Counter-Strike play and to broadcast games — on television.

In other words, e-sports are starting to look more like real sports. And like real sports, e-sports have real problems. In January, journalist Richard Lewis exposed a Counter-Strike match-rigging scheme reminiscent of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal. An e-sports doping crisis blew up in July when Kory Friesen — a prominent gamer known as SEMPHIS — copped to using the ADHD medication Adderall as a performance enhancer. Another tournament went off the rails when organizers failed to pay for players’ accommodations; the hotel confiscated gamers’ passports until it got paid. Some players have “signed away the right to their team,” when they thought they were just establishing a sponsorship agreement, according to e-sports attorney Matt Dillon.

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Competitors arrive at the grand finals of the International Dota 2 Championships, which offers an $18 million prize pool.

Source Jason Redmond / Corbis

Bryce Blum, a fast-talking Seattle lawyer with an intense stare, saw debates over mishandled player contracts and withheld payments rage on Reddit as long ago as 2013. So when a partner at the firm asked a roomful of lawyers if anyone was interested in video gaming, Blum’s hand shot up. Within a week, he’d drafted principles for handling some of the biggest headaches in e-sports. That was the easy part.

First off, it’s not clear video gamers are ready for a union. “There’s not enough stability, not enough players see the value,” Blum says. (There’s a lot of that going around with unions these days.) Baseball, after all, took almost a century to form a players union that could effectively challenge the “reserve clause” that basically bound players to their original team for life. Prior to that, the closest to a union the players got was a representative system in which teams designated one player to speak for them in collective discussions — and it didn’t accomplish much. E-sports players haven’t gotten any further.

Which, looked at a certain way, is a shame, given the sums of money that are flowing into e-sports. Top-level players undergo expensive training, with coaches tracking physiological responses like eye movement, reflex speed and heart rate. “I train about six days a week, eating the right foods, watching my nutrition,” says HKSmash, who occasionally plays in tournaments for $50,000 pots — not huge money by e-sports standards. Outside money from big-name sponsors like Coca-Cola and Axe sloshes about, and online advertising, according to Newzoo, will generate $337 million in 2018, compared with $194 million last year. Yet former players like 24-year-old Stephen Ellis, a League of Legends star who went by Snoopeh, worry that “the players are the last to benefit.”

For now, the well-off do well while other players make do. Makes sense: An agent has little incentive to spend time on a $10,000 contract. And as the gap widens between lower-tier and higher-tier players, those at the bottom can get the short end of the joystick. A month ago, e-sports team owner Chris Badawi received a call from a 17-year-old European player whose manager had absconded with the team’s car and money. “He hadn’t eaten in two days,” says Badawi, who claims player mistreatment is common, though he is seeing signs of improvement. (He took the kid in for a couple of days.)

Players still aren’t much involved in discussions about the future of their sport. At a recent e-sports conference, a panel on taming the sport’s frontier consisted of four adult men — two team owners, a Logitech vice president and Blum, the lawyer — but no players. It took “real” athletics 50 years to get its act together, says e-sports agent David Fry II. By comparison, he says, “I think we’re doing really well.”

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