The World eSports Association: Problems, concerns, and a search for better solutions

Last Updated May 19th, 2016

Many journalists, players, and tournament organizers have characterized the world of e-Sports as the Wild West, and it’s hard to call that comparison inaccurate. As it stands, every tournament is run under completely different rules. There are no regulations for player transfers or acquisitions. There are no guidelines for fair wages or safe conditions for players. Pretty much anyone can start a team, anyone can run a tournament, and anyone can play in said tournaments.

While this lawless world makes it easier for practical unknowns to strike it big by going to a random tournament and making a splash, it makes it incredibly difficult for anyone to have an actual stable career as a professional e-Sports competitor. It also makes the sport prone to scandal as less scrupulous teams and organizers repeatedly get caught colluding, making last minute trades, refusing to pay their players, or stacking tournaments such that certain teams are favored to win.

It’s obvious that we in the e-Sports world need an independent governing body to set rules and policies, much like the NFL or FIFA does with their respective sports. This is what the recently founded WESA, or World eSports Association, is meant to do. But while it sounds good on paper, there are some real problems and concerns about what is professing to be the new face of legitimacy for the world of e-Sports.

What Is the WESA?

The WESA is a “council”, if you will, formed of eight teams. Those teams are Fnatic, Natus Vincere, EnVyUs, Virtus.pro, G2 Esports, FaZe, Mousesports, and Ninjas in Pyjamas. Players from those teams are to elect members of a “player council” who will “represent, strengthen and advocate on behalf of pro gamers on a number of important topics, such as league policies, rulesets, player transfers and more.”

Pietro Fringuelli, a German attorney who has advised the Bundesliga, FIFA and UEFA soccer leagues and game publishers, has been chosen as the league’s interim commissioner, who is to oversee all league operations. It is also partially owned by the ESL, the world’s biggest e-Sports network.

Why Is the WESA a Problem?

The idea behind the WESA is to create an independent governing body for e-Sports, but the WESA is hardly independent. ESL is the only e-Sports league involved. Major League Gaming, CEVO, PGL, Gfinity, and all other e-Sports networks have no say in the WESA’s policies. Therefore, the ESL’s choices for rules and tournament regulations are being used as a base for all decisions made, and these might not be the “best” or “most fair’ regulations, depending on which player you ask.

Speaking of players, the player council of the WESA is to be elected by players, but only by players who are members of WESA teams. As a result, many huge names in the world of e-Sports will not have any say in WESA regulations. Since its player council will determine what is “fair” they have the capability to make decisions based on what is advantageous to them.

For example, there are several different tournament formats for any game. Hearthstone has the Last Hero Standing and Conquest formats, and fighting games have a variety of 2 of 3, 3 of 5, first to X, single elimination, and team formats, depending on what tournament you go to and where it is being held. Certain players are better in certain formats, and the WESA could choose the format that its team members are the best at as the “fair” choice for competitions. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be a matter of purposeful corruption. People will obviously vote for the formats they are best at as the most “fair” formats, just because it seems the most fair to them. They probably won’t even know that they are subconsciously stacking the deck.

Then there is the matter of money. The WESA makes its money from the teams that comprise it. As a result, it will be incentivized to keep these teams happy in order to keep the funding flowing. This would make it difficult to agree on a ruling that a core team disagrees with, regardless of fairness, because it could affect the WESA’s bottom line.

Furthermore, the WESA has been primarily focused on rules and tournament regulations, which is certainly an important topic, but recent scandals all seem to involve player payment and contracts and the WESA is mysteriously silent on that topic.

The WESA’s Point of View

Shortly after the WESA’s founding announcement, Rob Crossley of GamesSpot grilled Fringuelli and chief executive Ralf Riechert on these problems and more, and they defended the WESA in some interesting ways.

First, they admitted that teams do have the ability to subtly affect rulings on tournament regulations. However, they do not have any effect on direct tournament rulings that are made at a tournament or by a referee. In addition, votes are split between several members of several teams, each which has wildly varying views on what is fair, and there are hopes that as more teams join the WESA, the chance for the rules to be skewed will be naturally balanced out by the number of dissenting opinions.

For that matter, Reichert suggests that big name teams already have a say in tournament rulings because many have informal relationships with tournament organizers, something that I can say from personal experience is 100% true. We also see similar situations in other professional sports, where popular, well-paid teams with star players sometimes have more influence on new rulings. The hope is that the WESA can reduce the impact of personal relationships and at the very least, spread player influence so thin amongst member teams that it is practically a non-issue, even if it cannot completely be removed.

Secondly, they admitted that the WESA does receive funding from its teams, however Reichert cited several other examples from the world of professional sports, such as the NFL, that use similar models.  Crossley suggested that comparing themselves to other pro sports organizations isn’t good enough, saying “e-Sports is on the back-foot when it comes to legitimacy in the public eye. It’s boys around computers playing for a big chunk of money. I just think the ESL needs to go the extra mile to legitimize it. You need to punch above your weight.” However, Reichert said, “If we’re seen as legitimate as the NFL, we’re happy. We probably don’t have the same standards as you have.”

Finally, they admitted that teams do have a say in what new teams can join the WESA, but Reichert professed that membership is still an open process. Any pro team that meets a certain criteria, which Reichert admitted hasn’t yet been established, will be able to join. While teams can attempt to block their rivals from joining, Reichert says that the executive team, and the league’s commissioner, will be able to act as a form of oversight, as they have a high interest in other teams joining. He insists that this system of checks and balances would be better than any single-owned property.

My Take

It’s clear that the WESA has some problems. The role of its commissioner is ill defined. The power its teams have is currently muddy and nebulous. It has not publicly stated any policy toward safe player conditions or fair payment yet. Most important, its power is massively limited. Right now they have influence, and limited influence at that, over tournaments held by the ESL. But the ESL is only one wing of e-Sports, and competitors will not stop playing in other leagues simply because the WESA exists.

At the same time, I think this serves as a sort of natural check on the WESA’s activities. There are far more non-WESA sanctioned tournaments than there are sanctioned ones, and far more non-WESA teams than there are members. If the WESA isn’t actually working for the good of all eSports competitors, non-member teams can just refuse to show up at WESA events. Without the support of the rest of the e-Sports community the WESA won’t get very far at all, and they have to be as fair as possible to earn that support.

I also don’t buy the idea that e-Sports needs to “punch above its weight”, as if now is the time that the e-Sports world has to be some sort of shining paragon of fairness and purity, and maybe later on once it’s more widely accepted people can strike it big and be lazy corrupt fatcats. That seems backward to me. The NFL, NBA and FIFA cannot avoid scandals like this and they have billions of dollars and trillions of man-hours to spare. E-Sports notably do not have that money nor that manpower, so it will naturally be harder for us to self-govern as a result.

Crossley noted that FIFA is widely accused of being one of the most corrupt sports associations in the world and doesn’t want e-Sports to be compared to it, but he misses an important point. FIFA is a wretched hive of scum and villainy, but that doesn’t prevent its players from earning living wages. It doesn’t prevent soccer from being the largest international sport, period. It doesn’t prevent fans from looking at soccer as a legitimate sport and business.

A better solution?

We have to ask ourselves, “What do we really want here?” If the desire is fairness then, yes, there are better ways to go about creating fair tournament conditions. But if the desire is the legitimacy and, more importantly, growth of the e-Sports industry, then the WESA is a step in the right direction. Crossley argues that the WESA will create more scandals, not less, and I think that’s true.

However, in a bizarre way, I also think that’s what GIVES e-Sports certain legitimacy. Professional sports are rife with scandal! By having scandals the e-Sports world is, in a way, becoming more like mainstream sports. It’s part of the territory. When enough people are exchanging enough money, scandal is unavoidable. I don’t know why some people think that e-Sports should be immune to the same thing that befalls any professional sports association. Frankly, I hold no hopes that a community that has had to ban several competitors for rampant toxicity has a chance to somehow be the shining pillar of morality in a world filled with corruption.

But regardless of their corrupt nature, professional sports leagues still operate. Do they have problems they need to fix? Yes, and we in the e-Sports world will eventually need to fix those same problems. But as it stands, competitors aren’t getting fairly paid. Players are being kept in unsafe living conditions. Teams and sponsors are mistreating young hopefuls just to make an extra buck. If the e-Sports community can somehow create a governing body that has even the tiniest bit of power to regulate these practices, I say it’s worth sacrificing a tiny bit of fairness. I’d rather see players playing in unfair tournaments and making a respectable living wage regardless of their losses, than playing in fair tournaments and making nothing.

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