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Unionisation in e-Sports

The next big step

by Ronan Molloy

Image courtesy of GaboGames via Flickr

The consequences of unionisation in the 20th century were immense. Changes in working conditions, working hours, wages and benefits significantly improved the workplace for labourers. Minimum wage, the 5-day week and the 8-hour day are things we take for granted now, but would not have existed were it not for the labour movement.

Throughout the rest of society, union membership is on a steady decline. However, no unions exist at all for athletes in the e-sports industry. As the gap between the value of their labour and the level of their compensation increases, professional gamers will reach a tipping point, forming the first e-sports players unions and radically changing the landscape of e-sports forever.

E-sports, competitive video gaming, has a long and complex history. As far back as the 70s and 80s, gamers were trying to beat each other’s high scores down at their local arcades. However, the top prize was little more than prestige and competitions were rare and arranged mainly for fun, serving only the local community. In the 90s, networked gaming took off. The birth of the LAN party (Local Area Network) meant PC gamers could compete with and against each other, playing their favourite titles without a great deal of expense or technical know-how.

The popularity of networked play grew rapidly, and regional competitions emerged for games such as Quake and Doom. It was in the late 90s that, arguably, the first-ever professional video game player emerged. Dennis “Thresh” Fong made an estimated $100,000 per year from prize money and endorsements for a short period of time, and, famously, won id Software CEO John Carmack’s red Ferrari 328, in a Quake tournament in 1997.

From this point on, e-sports became more structured and more commercialised. No longer were tournaments organized by a group of tech and media-savvy nerds who wanted to celebrate their favourite game. Competitions were increasingly becoming events that game publishers saw as a source of revenue and an opportunity to further promote their game. Fast forward 20 years and now six, sometimes even seven-figure salaries and hundreds of thousands of viewers are not rare at the elite levels, in games such as League of Legends and Dota 2.

In traditional sports, out of the 4 major leagues in America, The National Basketball Association (NBA) was the first to have its players enter an independent labour union in 1954. As recently as 2011, players were effectively on strike, missing a fifth of the regular season, as a result of disputes regarding salary. Whilst forming and maintaining a union and then exercising the right to form a collective bargaining agreement is not a simple process, it is, on the surface, a fairly linear one.

These particular workers may receive their pay from different team owners, but they are all providing the labour for one organization that has a significant influence on their wage – namely, the NBA. They all live and operate in the same country and are therefore subject to the same laws regarding workers rights and trade unions. And with only 400-500 players in the league, some of which hold considerable social and economic power beyond the NBA, a complete turnover of workers is next to impossible.

In the three dimensions listed above, e-sports differs quite significantly from traditional sports; labour and wages are not so clearly centralised, the players, teams and tournaments are frequently not localised and as such there is very little legal clarity and precedent on matters of workers rights Thirdly, players themselves are not as valuable, neither to the people who pay them nor to wider society. However, there is one more difference which is perhaps most crucial: the players themselves do not know the true value of their own labour.

Whilst it can be easy to lament an athlete for big-headedness or an inflated ego, at the highest level, they do a pretty good job of making sure they get compensated for their work. The same cannot be said for e-sports athletes. At the elite levels, e-sports athletes are often very young and just happy with “getting paid to play video games.”

E-sports athletes are known to train for extended periods of time: 10-hour days are not uncommon. Training conditions are often poor, with players sitting in a small, dull room with a couple of anime posters on the wall, playing game after game. Players frequently play out of hours too, as many try to supplement their income with a side career as streamers. However, to have a stable income as a streamer one must put in a considerable number of hours off-camera in order to produce a high-quality stream – time e-sports athletes cannot afford. The repetitiveness and pressure of the training can often become too much for young players, especially those who have jumped straight from their parents' house to shared accommodation with complete strangers who speak another language. A frequently given reason for players retiring young is the mental strain they are put under.

So, what does the future hold? Whilst it may seem things are improving, unionisation is still a far way away. Riot Games recently formed a player association for the North American League of Legends Championship Series. However, the association was formed by Riot Games, and as such the players are yet to organize themselves independently.

At some point in the future, when the wealth that the players generate is so disproportionate to their wages and working conditions, there will be a serious conflict of interest and a handful of players will begin to unionise. As spectators and fans, our hope is that this will increase the quality of the product on display at tournaments. If players are happier at work and at home, then they will have longer careers and, as such, will be inherently more valuable. This, coupled with the players’ demand for greater job security, will increase competition between teams at the top and hopefully guarantee a brighter future for everyone involved in e-sports.


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