News and Society

Player Representation and the Future Structure of Esports Leagues


On Jun. 6 a new Twitter account was registered for @NALCSPA, the North American League of Legends Championship Series Players’ Association. “Hello Twitter!” began its first ever tweet. The simple existence of that account caused a stir. Players’ associations, while common in traditional sports, are nearly non-existent in esports.

Game developers—Riot Games in the case of LoL—own the games, and completely control the leagues. Players hold almost no power, and player strikes are unheard of.

The NALCSPA at first would seem like a step in the right direction, except for one minor detail: Riot provided the initial funding that got the players’ association off the ground.

“There isn’t any precedent for a league helping to form a players’ association that I’m aware of,” wrote Bryce Blum, an ESPN contributor and founder of ESG Law, the first firm dedicated to esports. “It’s important to understand that the players association isn’t an actual union—in fact, it couldn’t become a union until it is independently funded.”

Riot’s funding creates a potential conflict of interest for the association, which could impact negotiations on the players’ behalf.

“My understanding is that Riot doesn’t actually control or own the players association, though it did help get it off the ground with initial funding and legwork,” Blum continued. “The import of that support from Riot is extremely complicated. On the one hand, I don’t believe the players’ association would exist today without Riot’s assistance, but on the other hand the optics of this situation continue to be fairly bad—Riot is a potential adverse party to the players association and it’s important that the association both appears and actually is independent for it to function to its maximum potential.”

In a perfect world, that funding would never come into play. But if something went wrong, say an impending strike, Riot could theoretically use the funding as leverage.

There is at least one esport, though, that has adopted a governance structure more akin to what traditional sports fans are used to, player representation and all: the H1Z1 Pro League.

H1Z1 is a battle royale game similar in style to Fortnite or PUBG. At one time H1Z1 was a leader in the battle royale space, but it has given up most of its market share to those two giants. The game’s struggles, though, have led to experimentation. Developer Daybreak Games didn’t give up control purely out of altruism, but because of a lack of money. (And even a bizarre episode linking Daybreak to a Russian oligarch who had his assets frozen by the US Department of the Treasury for “destabilizing activities” relating to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.)

What makes H1Z1 unique in esports is its ownership structure. The Pro League is split into five parts, each controlling 20 percent: Daybreak Games, a player representative, a team representative, a commissioner chosen by all parties, and finally Twin Galaxies as a neutral third-party and the organization that set up this structure.

“[The governance committee] controls things like the scoring system, the rule set, the punitive actions and the nerfs in game,” said Jace Hall the chairman of Twin Galaxies and previously a developer himself as the founder of Monolith Productions. “It’s quite different than the other esports but is similar in structure to traditional sports.

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“The primary agenda will always be what makes the developers money,” Hall continued. “The games’ economics are driven by who is buying their game and how many people are playing. Sports economics are driven by who is watching, not who is playing… Imagine if the whole point of the NFL was to sell footballs.”

Twin Galaxies began as a global video game leaderboard, tracking top scores on arcade games as far back as 1981. Then in 2014, Vision Ventures, a company that has received investments from Odell Beckham Jr., Kevin Durant, and the St. Louis Cardinals, bought the company and named Hall as chairman.

The H1Z1 Pro League is Twin Galaxies first run at curating an esports league and Hall believes the structure represents the next generation of esports.

“We call it esports 2.0,” Hall said. “In esports 1.0 publishers are trying to make broadcasts that serve the game and get more people to buy the [game or in-app purchases.] In that system you have publishers, you have distribution platforms like Twitch and you have the players. In that triangle, the players end up on the crappy end of the economic spectrum.”

In traditional sports, the fandom for players and teams drives the popularity. In esports, that isn’t always the case.

“In traditional professional sports, the players and teams have a significant amount of power,” Hall said. “In the rules and in the economics. That’s not how Overwatch or LoL is set up. There is only one thing ruling those universes and that is the publisher.

“Basketball stays fresh and new because of the players. That’s what drives interest, not new basketballs. If people think esports will be any different, they have a reality check coming,” Hall said.

This won’t be Twin Galaxies last foray into esports league organization. Hall even called this really just a test run.

“If you did a league in something popular like Fortnite you would not be able to discern if your league is operating correctly or just being carried by hype of the game,” Hall explained. “Because H1Z1 has moved through its hype life cycle as a game. You have a good basis to see the results of your activity as a league on viewership.”

Ultimately Twin Galaxies is one of the few third-party companies that is established enough to run an esports league without a conflict of interest. The unique structure gives teams and players more power in the H1Z1 Pro League than in any other esports league. The NALCSPA will afford players some negotiating power but still won’t represent a truly equal seat at the decision making table.





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