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How Players Associations Could Help Improve Esports’ Infrastructure

As players associations start to form within esports leagues, leaders are hopeful they can start to help solve the issues facing players in the industry.

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As the esports industry continues its ascent into big business, the players are beginning to realize the importance in the growth.

Multiple esports leagues have started to form players associations, most notably a global Counter-Strike union and League of Legends Players Association. The associations are forming in large part to fight for player rights and establish uniformity in the sport.

“At a 20,000-foot level, most player and team contracts are team-sided in all things,” said Scott Smith, who spearheaded the Counter-Strike association and is a longtime esports figure. “These young athletes sign away all their rights for a paycheck, X-amount to play a game.

“Players are starting to realize there’s money out there and they’re not replaceable. There’s a skill gap in these games.”

Counterstrike players formed its players association internationally, and thus won’t have the same leverage as a legalized labor union like the NFLPA, Smith said. Its main mission, at least currently, is to leverage the players’ voices and form some standardized tournament specifications.

“The business side is growing up,” Smith said. “We all figured out how to make it entertaining like a sport, but behind the scenes, infrastructure is playing catchup.”

READ MORE: The Boom of Implementing Esports Classes in College Has Begun

Unlike the Counter-Strike association, Riot Games brought in Hal Biagas to help lead a union of its League of Legends players. Biagas, the executive director of the NA LCS Players Association, has more than 21 years in sports industry experience, including 12 years working with the NBA Players Association as the assistant general counsel.

While doubts have been cast about the ability for the union to operate independently from the business. Smith, for one, believes associations should be started by angsty players looking for outside help to spark change. Smith pointed to Overwatch selling broadcast rights to Twitch for $90 million, with players getting no cut as a situation that could spur a union.

“It might just take some guys getting burned to get them truly activated,” Scott said.

Biagas seems optimistic Riot’s connection is not an issue.

“[Riot’s move] is very progressive and in some ways altruistic of Riot to suggest and advocate for it,” Biagas said. “It’s an interesting dynamic. I think from Riot’s perspective, they felt for the healthiest ecosystem, all the parties should have, maybe not equality, but there should at least be a level playing field.”

He also said he believes the company might have felt it would be beneficial to be ahead of the curve with the association model, with so many other esports leagues potentially set to follow suit in the future. For now, Biagas will focus on leading the association in growth and player involvement for when issues to present themselves to press the league on with a “unified voice.” A potential early issue will be moving the league’s teams toward a more uniform contract, he said.

For the four major sports leagues in the U.S., it took decades for player associations to form, but the cycle has accelerated in the recent past, with WNBA and MLS associations forming almost immediately in the 1990s.

Smith equated the esports industry MLB in 1900 when players were just excited to get paid to swing a bat.

The historic formation and power of some major sports player associations do provide a good framework, said Robert Rippee, executive director of the hospitality lab at the International Gaming Institute at UNLV.

“They have the ability. To look at plenty of case studies and learn from those and, potentially, do it better and faster,” Rippee said.

The relative delay of the creation of esports player associations against those two new sports leagues might be in part due to people not considering esports traditional sports, Biagas said.

Also involved is the youth of players, and a six-figure salary to play a video game rather than playing recreationally can be enticing. The youth and ability to play for money also could make selling the appeal of a union more difficult, even if they’re to the benefit of the players.

But selling away their rights poses one of the largest issues Biagas has seen and said it will be an issue he examines more thoroughly in the near future and is high on the list. Those lack of rights can be limiting in individual endorsement and sponsorship deals. Biagas said the youth of the sport and players, as well as inexperienced agents in the space, are the main reasons those rights were initially negotiated away.

“Most of the players rights are controlled by the teams,” he said. “Contracts are very limiting in what players are able to do with their images and other marks.”

From the team side of the players rights deals, Smith, who once owned a team, said he understands the early practice as the teams and leagues needed the control as they needed more revenue streams. Now as the industry as matured and more and more lucrative revenue streams have opened up, it’s less vital to the teams and leagues.

Smith said now he believes teams aren’t activating individual players enough and there’s an avenue to give players their rights back, pay them less and, ultimately, make more money. There are also plenty of verticals teams have no interest in selling, like socks, watches and shoes.

“No one uses them, let a kid try to go out and sell them,” he said. “Not every kid will be an entrepreneur, but there are quite a few who could activate that stuff. Teams wouldn’t lose money, they’d make money.”

READ MORE: Looking Into the Crystal Ball: 3 Esports Predictions for 2019

A major challenge within the esports industry is the vast amount of leagues across the globe and differences among the genres of game and demographics interested in those specific games.

“The issue is we use the term esports like sports. Sports is a huge word,” Smith said. “Counter-Strike and its ecosystem is way different than Rainbow Six and Rocket League and League of Legends.”

The idea of a standardized players associations bridging those gaps seems unlikely, Rippee said, but he believes the idea of the community will string through whenever esports players form associations.

“It’s a sign of maturation in the industry,” Rippee said. “But it’s not the peak. If you look at the history of esports, it began as a community construct, people playing together, and competition formed organically. These associations are an extension of those roots, they want to retain their input, involvement and control within the community.”

Pat Evans is a writer based in Las Vegas, focusing on sports business, food, and beverage. He graduated from Michigan State University in 2012. He's written two books: Grand Rapids Beer and Nevada Beer. Evans can be reached at pat@frntofficesport.com.

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Allied Esports Recognizes Opportunity in Mexico With New Partnership

Partnering with TV Azteca, Allied Esports hopes to tap into an underserved esports market in Latin America, particularly Mexico.

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Photo Courtesy Allied Esports

Allied Esports is seeking to grow its presence in Latin America with a strategic partnership with TV Azteca.

The partnership gives Allied Esports direct access to 95 percent of the Mexican market with TV Azteca’s digital channels and 40 local and regional free-to-air stations. With the partnership, TV Azteca is also launching its newest platform, Azteca Gaming, which will debut Allied Esports’ newest production, “Nation vs. Nation.”

Allied Esports CEO Jud Hannigan says TV Azteca’s position as a broadcast leader in Mexico provides them a great foundation for potential growth in Latin America, a relatively untapped market in the esports industry.

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“We’re excited about this first event in a new format as a kickoff,” Hannigan says. “They’re launching Azteca Esports and we’re coming in with this first event, and have plenty of others planned. They’re the top sports broadcaster in the region, so we couldn’t be more excited.”

“Nation vs. Nation” is the company’s first event and broadcast in Latin America, and it features four U.S. players against a Mexican team of 40 players in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. A trophy and cash prizes were on the line yesterday in Mexico City.

“The transformation process of TV Azteca, to bring the best television, has led to set an eye in new markets, towards an audience that consumes esports,” says Benjamín Salinas, CEO, TV Azteca. “Sports are part of our strength, and now with esports, we find a way to connect with a growing market in Mexico.”

Broadly speaking, this expansion for Allied Esports encompasses Latin America, but there’s a strategic importance specifically to Mexico, Hannigan notes. The country will be a primary driver of the region’s esports growth in the coming years.

According to eMarketer, Goldman Sachs projects the esports industry will bring in revenues of $2.96 billion in 2022. Latin America will make up $100 million of that.

The article reported the slow growth curve in Latin America is based on a lack of fixed broadband, but significant growth is expected in both Brazil and Mexico. Esports and video game revenue in Mexico jumped from $1.2 million in 2014 to an estimated $10.4 million in 2019 and is projected to rise to $20.3 million in 2022, according to Statista.

“Latin America represents a massive and transformative opportunity for Allied Esports,” says Frank Ng, co-CEO, Ourgame Holdings International – the current owner of Allied Esports. “By combining our live events experience with TV Azteca’s unequaled reach as the No. 1 sports network in Mexico, this crucial esports ecology partnership will be a major driver in building out the offline-online environment at the core of Allied Esports’ global strategy.”

The Allied Esports partnership with TV Azteca comes on the heels of sister company World Poker Tour reaching an agreement with the Latin American broadcaster to carry the poker tour’s library of content in March and develop poker-related products for the region’s audience.

As the World Poker Tour develops its localized content, Hannigan said the partners explored opportunities and landed on looking to grow esports in the region.

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The approach to Latin America through strategic partnerships will mirror how Allied Esports has tackled other regions of the globe, including Asia, Europe and North America. Along with Latin America, Australia is also in this year’s expansion plans.

“From our perspective, as Allied Esports grows, we’re looking at new regions and to affiliate with strong regional partners,” Hannigan says. “They’re really content-driven partnerships.”

Latin America might lag much of the rest of the world in esports popularity, but with the dearth comes opportunity. At least that’s what Allied Esports is banking on.

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Overwatch League’s First Homestand Weekend Sets the Stage for Geolocation

The Overwatch League’s first Homestand Weekend was a success. But what will happen in 2020 when a special attraction becomes a regular menu item?

Mike Piellucci

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Photo Courtesy: Dallas Fuel

Jiri “LiNKzr” Masalin had his doubts.

The Houston Outlaws player saw the same thing that so many fans, broadcasters and pundits did about the Overwatch League. That no matter how sleek the game design is, no matter who signed on as part of its star-studded ownership group and no matter how much financial muscle Blizzard puts behind the 16-month-old league, it’s future – “The whole premise of the league,” confirms Dallas Fuel owner Mike Rufail – hinges on how successfully it will geolocate its 20 franchises next year for its third season.

The league had its first test run on Saturday and Sunday at the Allen Event Center in suburban Dallas in the first of three “Homestand Weekend” events this season. It would be hard to term it anything other than a rousing success. The arena was filled to its 4,500-person capacity on both days, and the event featured activations from sponsors including Jack in the Box (the Fuel’s jersey sponsor), GameStop, AB InBev, T-Mobile and Omen by HP.

READ MORE: Esports Fashion Levels Up as Esports Continue into Mainstream

But the most impressive feat of all was the environment. With the Dallas Stars’ mascot, Victor E. Green, in attendance, the Fuel’s event staff manufactured an environment that resembled a playoff hockey game more so than any conventional expectations of an esports match, with accouterments like pyrotechnics, a live performance from electronic music artist Karma Fields and a cosplayed version of a dot race – and, crucially, a red-hot crowd.

When it was all said and done, even wary people like Masalin couldn’t help but be impressed.

“As someone who played online throughout most of my career, I was obviously a bit skeptical with everything that would go into this,” he says. “But after being here and feeling the crowd and seeing how the logistics were and just how it feels to be a player in this kind of situation, I was very impressed with what we managed to do on super-short notice, basically. I’m excited for next year instead of skeptical.”

OWL’s now has two chances to replicate it, first in Atlanta in July before heading to Los Angeles in August. But the true questions concern how much of the weekend’s pomp and circumstance will translate across the globe once localized matches aren’t part of a barnstorming tour but instead are featured on the everyday menu in crowded sports markets.

For his part, Rufail isn’t concerned about the Fuel’s prospects. Per the Fuel’s PR team, 77 percent of tickets were sold to Texas buyers, a number suggesting that the foundation of a core audience is already in place. Instead of worrying about regression, he wants to go even bigger when it comes time for the Fuel to choose a permanent home ahead of the 2020 season.

“I would like to see more fans in the seats and test if our fans will come out and sell out a bigger crowd,” he says. “You won’t ever know until you do it, you know? And so that’s the first priority, to see if we can get a bigger crowd.”

Yet the league is fighting a war on two fronts, and only one of them is with conventional sports. The second is with its audience’s consumer habits in a marketplace that shifts at warp speed. Fortnite, for instance, was barely a blip on the radar when the Overwatch League’s first season kicked off last January; now, the battle royale game is a global sensation. Overwatch’s Twitch numbers have also fluctuated, perhaps due to longstanding critiques regarding the gameplay experience going stagnant, chatter that culminated in a viral video by retired pro Brandon “Seagull” Larned – arguably the league’s most recognizable star during its first season – who called the game a “coin flip.” Fewer everyday players could eventually choke off the supply of fresh talent, which in turn could stagnate the league’s ability to mint new stars.

Rufail isn’t worried about that last point, instead pointing out that the majority of NFL fans are hardly active football participants. And, it’s worth noting, any big-picture concerns certainly don’t appear to be putting an immediate damper on growth. Big-name sponsors are continuing to sign on. AB InBev (necessary disclosure: AB InBev is a partner of Front Office Sports) used the first Homestand Weekend to kick off a leaguewide partnership, while GameStop is jumping aboard as a partner of the Fuel. The league’s Twitch numbers are back on the upswing, too, after becoming the livestream platform’s most-viewed account for the month of April. Now, the first Homestand Weekend has given the Overwatch League proof of concept for prospective partners that their product that can be monetized in all the ways traditional sports have been for generations.

READ MORE: Sports World Takes on TikTok as Next Social Media Frontier

“We have great demographic trends,” says the Outlaws’ Jacob “Jake” Lyon. “The only thing esports is missing from a business perspective is all those revenue streams that traditional sports are really relying on, which are ticket revenue, concessions revenue, bringing people into a physical space and making that experience so much richer than it could possibly be online or on television.”

Like his teammate Masalin, Lyon is convinced: Overwatch League – and esports – is here to stay. Last weekend only gave him 4,500 reasons to believe more fervently.

“Anyone looking for a litmus test, ask any fan in the building if they had a good time and if they can get their friends to come next time,” Lyon says.

“I think that’s really all you need to know about the future of esports.”

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Esports Fashion Levels Up as Esports Continue into Mainstream

From Foot Locker to Walmart to Champion to K-Swiss, mainstream brands are getting in on esports fashion as esportswear grows into a lifestyle brand.

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Esportswear is evolving. The rise of livestreaming and franchised endeavors like the Overwatch League have pushed esports into the mainstream, and it only follows that merchandise would move away from simple jerseys and t-shirts into more trendy looks. In a nutshell, esports merchandise has transitioned from a niche into lifestyle wear. And part of that shift into the mainstream is due, in part, to the ease of access. Companies everyone knows are starting to stock up on their offerings, while less widely associated brands are making inroads into the space.

It starts with distribution. Esports jerseys—from the likes of CLG, OpTic, Dignitas, and others—will line the walls of your local Foot Locker alongside NBA and NFL teams hats and shirts. The footwear retailer announced this week that it’s bringing Champion’s esports line to both its online and in-store shelves, with jerseys going on sale as early as today. Elsewhere, fans of the Overwatch League can buy jerseys and gear on Walmart.com, thanks to a major partnership with merchandisers Fanatics.

On the design front, shoe brand K-Swiss is just one of the more mainstream brands jumping into esports merchandise via a partnership with with esports organization Immortals. The deal calls for two shoes: the K-Swiss Icon Knit, which is already available, and a forthcoming performance shoe that’s designed specifically for gamers. K-Swiss global marketing director Patrick Buchanan told Front Office Sports that the performance shoe will be released this year.

“The options are growing, which is exciting for esports fans,” Buchanan said. “Many brands are creating apparel geared towards esports players or using players as ambassadors. This is opening doors and helping players develop and define their style.”

As pointed out last week by the New York Times, player interest in personal style is spreading outward to fans, too. And that’s where esports fashion becomes lifestyle wear, and not just gamer lifestyle wear.

Fans now want more than just a logo slapped on a hoodie, according to Team Liquid creative director Damian Estrada. “Teams that could get by in the past with little to no effort behind their merchandise are now facing the same scrutiny from fans that we see in not only traditional fashion markets, but other places such as tech and entertainment,” he said.

Quality merchandise is changing the way fans choose to support players, too.

“Merch is something fans really take stock of when choosing who to support,” Estrada continued. “Initially, it was all about winning. Then we saw the rise of certain personalities driving fandom. But now people are really looking for the complete package, and merchandise is a huge part of that.”

Estrada said that Team Liquid is still in the infancy of its time as a lifestyle brand. For now, the focus is on being experimental and testing things out. That’s what LQD is—a place for Estrada and his creative team to play with Team Liquid’s merchandise. He described it as a “conceptual vision” of a Team Liquid lifestyle brand. Items in the LQD line are techwear-inspired pieces that come and go, like the LQD19_v1_Hoodie hoodie from January. The exclusivity part of the hoodie plays into its appeal. Not everyone can get it.

Photo Credit: 1Up Studios

“The Basics products would be the best comparison point,” Estrada said. “For Basics, the aim is to have simple and clean Team Liquid products available for anyone anytime. For LQD, we’re taking aim at a certain style or look and firing away. We know not all of our fans will love it, but those who do can expect to see more of unique pieces hitting the store soon.”

Outside of teamwear, Ateyo, founded by Breanne Harrison Pollock and Rachel Feinberg, is looking to become what Forbes called the “Nike of esports.” The company has created a small line of core products: pants designed for sitting and another pair of joggers, a hoodie and pullover, bomber jacket, and a classic, everyday T-shirt. The clothing looks like classic, simple athleisure, but it’s tailored to the needs of gamers.

READ MORE: Full Sail University Anchors Strong Orlando Esports Ecosystem

“A lot of it has to do with temperature control, poster, and comfort,” Pollock said. “But you want to build products for peoples’ lifestyles. They’re going to work. They’re wearing the same sweatshirt they wore to work out to drinks or dinner. Maybe then they’re gaming in it, and again on the weekend they’re going to a tournament or convention. We make clothing that lasts through all of those aspects of people’s lives.”

Like Nike, Ateyo sometimes works with brands, like Team Liquid, for specific lines, like a streetwear-inspired hoodie with Team Liquid’s Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng. They’re creating the solid basics for esportswear to evolve from, which will be important in merchandising to come. They’re also focused on inclusivity and will launch a new women’s line next week Whereas other brands may re-size a “men’s” garment, Ateyo is thinking about it all: fabric, cut, and design.

“Women have been overlooked and under-served in the gaming market,” Pollock said. “Women are a much bigger part of the ecosystem than we give them credit for.”

The strategies and cuts may vary. But, at the end of the day, Team Liquid’s Estrada said it all boils down to one ethos: “The days of being able to grab a shitty white hoodie and slap a logo on the front are over.”

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