Gaming the System: Esports Players Face Many Challenges in Unionizing

It’s not just big bad corporations blocking progress, but way esports frames individual relationships at the pro level.

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Aug 10 2016, 2:00pm

Image: Denis Dervisevic/Flickr

By 2018, esports is projected to be a billion dollar industry. The current industry model of esports is dynamic: it is responsive to a burgeoning influx of angel investment, steadily accumulates hundred of millions of viewers through Twitch and traditional TV platforms, and is rapidly growing due to a constant injection of entrepreneurial activity bolstered by increasing marketing awareness of the potential consumer power captured by the esports fan base of tech literate digital natives.

But esports is also hobbled by a global lack of standardization, stymied by failures to consistently apply "best practice", and is structurally designed to exploit the labour of young professional gamers. For an industry that has really only gathered traction in the last five years, esports has already established a shameful tradition of mis-managing contracts, overworking players, and encouraging them to sign draconian non-compete clauses—agreements that prohibit players from competing in unsanctioned tournaments or bolstering their unpredictable, tournament-supplied incomes with more dependable modes of making money, like streaming on Twitch or getting paid for promotional appearances.

Many people have raised concerns about the systemic mistreatment of players in esports. Often, members of the esports community, especially those who have witnessed its dramatic evolution from the early days of cobbled together LAN events, place the blame for player exploitation and lack of unionization on the shoulders of megalithic corporations, sponsors, and league entities that control the players.

While this assumption might be true in rare instances, the fact of the matter is that the persistent failure to unionize—or, more appropriately, to permit unionization—in esports is not strictly the fault of "evil" corporations or inherently "evil" managers. The struggle to unionize is due to a complicated constellation of legal, political, and structural factors that also implicates the players themselves as part of the problem. Some preliminary steps have already been taken to establish a multi-platform esports coalition capable of "bargaining collectively" (not to be confused with the legal term, collective bargaining), but as esports lawyer Bryce Blum makes clear, "this is not a union".

One of the biggest hurdles to unionization in esports is that it requires such a high degree of individual sacrifice to achieve. America has a violent history of forcibly union-busting and the road to unionization, particularly for industrial labourers, was paved with the blood of many victims (the human resources of capitalist oligarchies). Even though the route to unionization in esports will undoubtedly be tamer, efforts to unionize in the arena of traditional sports suggest that similar attempts at unionization requires individuals to forfeit years of prime wage earning potential, stall their careers, or threaten to leave sport entirely: these are gambles that young pro players, who typically reach their competitive peak in their early 20s and face burnout or retirement soon after, cannot afford to make.

Given how ruthlessly competitive esports is, teams are incentivised to drop players if they are underperforming, and even skilled players are fearful of stagnation, bad luck, or tilting undermining their status as paid players. The lack of industry-wide support for contracts that guarantee minimum income or ensure player stability via two to three year lengths is a Sword of Damocles approach that nurtures an atmosphere of player anxiety built on job precarity. This atmosphere of precarity is antithetical to the formation of unions because it places individuals in a framework of constant competition rather than one of collaboration. Moreover, very few professional players are legally recognized as employees, and their attempts to unionize my run afoul of federal or state antitrust laws—that's not a risk that any one individual can be expected to shoulder.

The list goes on, and the problems I've identified here merit much more space than this article permits. But if esports is committed to professionalizing and wants to be perceived with an ounce of gravitas, it could start by adopting globally recognized standards that work to dismantle the hurdles players must confront in unionizing. I'd wholly support an esports industry that actively strategizes to give players a seat at the negotiating table.