As Esports Mature, Different Models of Player’s Associations Emerge

April 26, 2018

“I want you to understand that this is going to be an adversarial relationship. A union is not a social club. A union is a restraint on what an employer can otherwise do. If you expect the owners to like me, to praise me, to compliment me, you’ll be disappointed. In fact, if I’m elected and you find the owners telling you what a great guy I am, fire me! Don’t hesitate, because it can’t be that way if your director is doing his job. The owners loved Judge Cannon. Don’t make the same mistake with your executive director.” – Marvin Miller, Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1982

That quote was said by Miller to players of the New York Yankees while he was campaigning for the Executive Director position. Under Miller’s leadership, the Players Association became one of the strongest unions in the United States.

Before Miller won the job, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) had no official headquarters and was overseen by an “advisor,” Milwaukee judge Robert Cannon, who was put in that position by team ownership.

While Cannon advised, the MLBPA players did not receive a raise (even when more games were added to the annual schedule in 1960), and the minimum salary remained at the 1946 amount of $6,000 for decades. Often, players were forced to take a second job if they wanted to keep playing professional baseball.

Under Miller’s tenure as Executive Director (a position he ran for opposite Cannon), the average player’s annual salary rose from $19,000 in 1966 to $326,000 in 1982, and he successfully negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement in professional sports.

In light of recent announcements in the esports industry, it’s interesting to contrast the Major League Baseball Players Association pre- and post-Miller. Efforts are underway to create players associations for two popular leagues: Overwatch and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO).

Photo Credit: Dot Esports

The Counter-Strike: Global Offensive effort is being led by Scott “SirScoots” Smith, a veteran esports player who became a team owner and esports broadcaster. He has hired attorney Michael Doi, who has experience representing esports players, to advise on the legal side of the venture. Plans for the CS:GO undertaking are to include both the ESL Pro League and the FACEIT ECS league. To make the undertaking a reality, Smith and Doi are attempting to collect more than 225 signatures from professional players around the world.

“Every day I sign another guy. I would say 70 or so have signed an official membership document that they are for the players association… They want to be in the players association,” said Smith.

What the players are signing are “membership letters” as opposed to the official “authorization cards,” which are needed to form a union under U.S. law. The ultimate goals of this association are still unclear. Right now, Smith and Doi are focused on acquiring signatures and surveying the players.

The notion for this association originated after Smith helped some CS:GO players and the owners of the Professional eSports Association (PEA) settle a dispute. After learning they would have to choose between playing in the ESL and PEA CS:GO leagues, a number of players voted to participate in the North American division of the European ESL Pro League rather than North American-based PEA, causing a very public rift between the groups. Ultimately, the PEA suspended its plans for a CS:GO league indefinitely.

The Overwatch players association is being spearheaded by a former professional player and current coach, Thomas “Morte” Kerbusch, who is being assisted by Sports Labor Attorney Ellen Zavian. Zavian has indicated that she would like to establish an organization modeled on other major North American players associations.

Photo Credit: Dot Esports

“I don’t see this PA (players association) as any different than any other PA just because it’s esports,” said Zavian.

The way these organizations are coming together is an interesting contrast to the way the formation of the first esports’ players association occurred, which was created just last year.

The owner and developer of League of Legends, Riot Games, created its own professional association. Riot provided funding for the group and selected three candidates to lead the venture. Players then voted to decide the leader. Hal Biagas, a sports attorney who formerly worked at the National Basketball Players Association, was selected to run the association, which is said to provide legal help and career-planning advice while representing the players in negotiations between Riot and team owners.

According to Chris Greeley of Riot league operations, “”As long as they are taking Riot’s money, under federal law they can’t form a union. So, for example, they can’t collectively bargain or strike. But they can have a representative. That representative is more than welcome to sit with us, and we will listen to those concerns and provide that representative with a vote as we start to work through governance issues”.

“At some point in the future if the players decided that they want to unionize and register with the NLRB (The National Labor Relations Board), they will have the option to forgo Riot funding and self-fund. It is our expectation and our hope that that happens at some point in the future, but in the meantime this association is designed to give the players a seat at the table and make sure that we’re aware of and responding to the things that are important to them.”

Photo Credit: Tweak Town

While the full plans for the Overwatch and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive associations won’t be known for a few months, neither organizer would say if they are collecting the authorization cards necessary to form a union. Of the three groups, Overwatch’s Zavian has bandied about the U-word the most. She has also said that she is working with players in games other than Overwatch. However, she has not detailed who those players are, what games they are associated with, or what form the association may take, be it by league, team, or game publisher.

“I wish I could tell you that, said Zavian, “but then that’s sort of revealing our strategy. But the laws are pretty clear on how you can recognize a union, and we will be following the legal structure that is in place in the U.S.”

Interestingly, neither the Overwatch nor the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive group was aware of the other’s efforts to form a players association. This is not a huge surprise since, in esports, each game operates its own community. Yet, one team often manages several squads that each specialize in a specific game.

So, in the very near future, it may be the teams that have the greatest influence over the directions of the players associations, as they witness what is working for one squad and not working for another. This input could very well prove invaluable as these nascent players associations, which will be spread across different publishers, leagues, and games, come to fruition.

There are still many interesting developments to come as the structure of these groups become clearer – and we will be sure to watch there development closely. For even more information or a deeper dive into our thoughts as these organizations come together, give one of our esports experts a call at 972-323-6354.