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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.

Esports

New Sponsorship Maintains Trend of Quality Over Quantity for Riot Games

For Riot Games, the sponsorship strategy isn’t about stacking up sponsorship partners, but rather finding companies with aligned philosophical values.

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A recent partnership between League of Legends Esports and Dell Alienware launches the new year for Riot Games with another quality sponsor.

For Riot Games, the sponsorship strategy isn’t about stacking up sponsorship partners, but rather finding companies with aligned philosophical values, said Naz Aletaha, head of esports partnerships at Riot Games. Aletaha oversees League of Legends global sponsorships, strategic partnerships, business development, and media rights.

Along with Dell Alienware, Aletaha mentioned the Mastercard sponsorship launched at the League of Legends World Championship last year as the two prime examples of quality over quantity.

“Ultimately, we focus on finding partners who can do right by our fans and our sport — partners who share our fan-first philosophy and who want to stand side-by-side with us for the long term to deliver meaningful and authentic experiences to the entire ecosystem,” Aletaha said.

READ MORE: Inside Riot Games’ Partnership with Mastercard and What It Means for the Future of the Publisher

“Both are world-class brands who prioritize their customers and celebrate their passions. They both recognize by combining our efforts, we can take League of Legends Esports — which has scaled to a global, premier sport — to new heights.”

The multi-year partnership with Dell Alienware makes the computer manufacturer the “Official Competition PC and display partner” for the two leagues: League of Legends Championship Series and League of Legends European Championship. The partnership gives Dell Alienware the same title for four other international competitions, including the League of Legends World Championship.

The World Championship had 99.8 million unique viewers for the World Finals, showcasing the potential brand value with the esports league.

The deal will bring League of Legends a fleet of hundreds of Alienware Aurora R8 desktop computers with cutting-edge gaming monitors. Along with the computers will be Dell’s SupportAssist diagnostic, helping detect and prevent technical issues before they impact a match.

The computers will be deployed across the globe and “establishes a consistently high-performance standard, much like traditional sports have done in the past across a range of equipment such as game balls, bats, sticks and pucks,” Aletaha said.

“We are thrilled to be able to tap into Alienware and Dell’s unmatched expertise in hardware and technology services to set the gold standard for the official equipment that will power our sport,” she said.

Mastercard has a long history of sponsoring traditional sports, like Major League Baseball, PGA Tour, Rugby World Cup, and UEFA Champions League, among others.

“Esports is a phenomenon that continues to grow in popularity, with fans that can rival those at any major sporting event in their enthusiasm and energy,” Mastercard Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Raja Rajamannar said at the time of the 2018 Mastercard announcement. “Our Priceless platform is built around connecting with people through their passions.”

Like Mastercard, Dell Alienware will also work with Riot Games for onsite fan activations at all the major League of Legends Esports events to help further the fan attraction of the events.

Along with Alienware and Mastercard, Riot Games is bringing a similar approach to sponsors at a regional level across the globe. In the U.S., the regional sponsorship is State Farm.

Riot Games also has partnerships with Kia in Europe, Mercedes-Benz, and KFC in China, and Gillette in Brazil. The major brands have recognized the growth and significance of esports across the globe and are buying into the industry and its potential opportunities.

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

“The growth of the business of esports overall is incredibly exciting,” Aletaha said. “We’re very encouraged by the meaningful commitment that such respected and recognized brands are making in the space.”

Aletaha said the partnership has roots dating back to CES 2018, when she met key decision makers from the company for the first time. She said major industry conventions are invaluable to her job.

“We very quickly realized as that first meeting that we are both relentlessly committed to elevating the gaming experience for our audience and to the continued technological innovation and overall growth of esports.

“We knew right then and there that partnership was a no-brainer.”

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Looking Into the Crystal Ball: 3 Esports Predictions for 2019

We figured out what fans and gamers can expect from the world of competitive video games in 2019 with the help of a few industry professionals.

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In 2018, fans worldwide watched 6.6 billion hours of esports. With the ability to stream competitions becoming easier to access, the rise of newer games like “Fortnite,” and more fans coming on board, that number will most likely rise once again.

With the new year upon us, we took a look at what else fans and gamers can expect from the world of competitive video games in 2019 with the help of a few industry professionals.

Player welfare will take on more importance

In the past decade or so, the world of esports developed some habits that would probably be considered unhealthy. Players would all live and train together in a single facility. Not many resources were made available to players in terms of mental or physical wellness. Esports organizations also rarely made it a point to help players transition into a different career once their playing days were over.

Now, large organizations like Gen.G are changing the conversation.

At its newest facility in Seoul, Gen.G offers players access to resources like a nutritionist, a psychologist, a full gym, and streaming resources once players are done playing competitively. Players also work in this facility while commuting from their homes around the city in an effort to avoid mental burnout.

READ MORE: Gen.G Is Leading the Highly Competitive Esports Arms Race

In a recent interview, Gen.G Chief Growth Officer Arnold Hur spoke to the importance of his company dedicating resources to improve player welfare.

“I really don’t understand it when I see other organizations that aren’t as focused on player welfare,” Hur said. “It’s our top priority to make sure that a player can be more successful with us than with any other organization. In any sport, your number-one cost is going to be your talent, your players. Making sure that they’re able to perform at their best should be your biggest investment. Since they are our most important investment, we’re going to give it our best shot, so that our athletes can be the best that they can be.”

More non-endemic brands will come on as sponsors and investors

Brands like Alienware and Razer are deeply embedded in the sponsorship space of esports due to their long-established credibility with gamers.

Thanks to esports continuing to dominate the attention spans of the highly coveted 18-35 demographic worldwide, brands that offer products or services that aren’t specifically tied to gaming will likely be moving into esports at a quickened pace. Nike, for example, signed Chinese League of Legends player Jian Zihao to an endorser contract early in the year.

Based on this and other similar deals, fans can especially expect this in esports leagues adjacent to traditional sports like the NBA 2K League.

“We’ve seen a number of large, non-endemic brands and investors come into the space over the past few years, but most recently in 2018,” said Grant Paranjape, director of esports business and team operations for Monumental Sports & Entertainment. “For those who have entered with a thoughtful approach and an ability to integrate endemic esports knowledge into their organizations, I think they’ve been well rewarded by the reception from a very difficult to reach audience. During 2019, I would expect more brands to investigate the space, learn from the mistakes and successes of others, and bring a level of investment into the industry that further professionalizes every aspect, from organizations to individual teams and players.”

READ MORE: Study Confirms Esports Has Graduated to the Big Leagues

Chris “Chopper” Hopper, Riot’s North American head of esports, echoed this sentiment.

“There was a lot of discussion in 2018 with non-endemic brands in terms of sponsorship. That will turn into more closures in 2019. There’s a lot of value here in esports, and brands are aware of that,” Hopper said.

Riot has names like State Farm Insurance and Mastercard sponsoring its major competitions. Expect more larger brands to follow suit in the new year.

Esports will gain more traction in traditional athletic competitions

The 2019 Southeast Asian Games will take place from November 30 to December 11 this year. For the first time in its history, esports will be a part of the competition alongside 55 other athletic events. Games included are “Dota 2,” “Starcraft II,” “Tekken 7,” “Arena of Valor,” “Mobile Legends: Bang Bang,” and one yet to be announced.

The Southeast Asia Games are sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). This competition will mark the first time that esports is a medaled event in a competition sanctioned by the IOC.

Does this mean that we will see video games make their debut in the next Olympics? Not necessarily, but the IOC is opening the door here for other regional athletic competition to include video games in the program, which means the process is underway for esports to be an Olympic competition at some point in the next few years.

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Gen.G Is Leading the Highly Competitive Esports Arms Race

Gen.G, which is opening eyes around the industry, owns and fields teams across the world’s biggest competitions in the most recognizable gaming franchises.

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Fans of traditional sports will be familiar with the concepts of facility wars. This is where a college or pro team will invest in the best-of-the-best facilities and equipment in order to attract the top talent, as well as keep that talent performing at their best.

Thanks to some big recent developments, this movement may be spreading across esports. One of the organizations leading the way for this is Gen.G — a global organization with offices and facilities in Seoul, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Shanghai.

For those unfamiliar, Gen.G owns and fields teams across many of the world’s biggest competitions in the most recognizable gaming franchises — including “Overwatch,” “Overwatch Contenders,” “League of Legends,” “Fortnite,” “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds,” “Heroes of the Storm” and “Clash Royale.”

While Gen.G has a presence in several cities, eyes around the industry for the last month have been focused on its operations in Seoul, South Korea. Gen.G recently unveiled a new seven-floor facility in the Gangnam area of the city that is one of the most impressive ever seen in the space.

Within the new facility, players have access to a training room, a lounge, a gym, a sports psychologist, a streaming room and more. In contrast to what has become the usual esports setup where players live and train in the same building, Gen.G players in Seoul live off-site and commute to this facility. This is done in an effort to allow players time to mentally recuperate in between training sessions. As Gen.G Chief Growth Officer Arnold Hur can attest, player welfare is a top priority for the organization.

READ MORE: Study Confirms Esports Has Graduated to the Big Leagues

“I really don’t understand it when I see other organizations that aren’t as focused on player welfare,” Hur said. “It’s our top priority to make sure that a player can be more successful with us than with any other organization. In any sport, your number-one cost is going to be your talent, your players. Making sure that they’re able to perform at their best should be your biggest investment.

“For us, we feel like we’ve done things that, I think, are pretty innovative and ahead of the curve — whether it’s providing streamer opportunities, providing physical training and a nutritionist, or a sports psychologist on staff, we want them to be the best player they can be.”

Another aspect of Gen.G’s growth can be attributed to its partnerships strategy. Now working with brands like SIDIZ and Razer to give their teams the best equipment, the organization takes the quality over quantity approach with sponsorships and partnerships.

This makes it easier both in terms of activating in meaningful ways and in terms of the players getting acquainted with companies, which, in turn, helps with meaningful relationship building.

“Generally, in the esports market, you have a lot of teams out there that try to fill up as many patches on their jerseys as possible,” Hur stated. “We have to take a bit of a different approach. We try to grab some key partners that really believe in esports that are strategic for us and that we know we do a great job for them in terms of activations.”

With SIDIZ specifically, Gen.G found the partnership attractive because of SIDIZ’s desire to grow with the company on top of the quality of its product.

“We’re great at bringing non-endemic brands into the space. And for SIDIZ, what’s really exciting is that they’re going to make their move into gaming and esports, and we’re going to be a partner that helps them right from the beginning. They want a partner to grow with them. And I think that’s what was really meaningful for us.”

READ MORE: Inside the NFL’s New Partnership With ‘Fortnite’

“The importance of the player’s chair in esports is significantly underestimated from a health and comfort perspective because they spend so much time sitting down. As one of the most advanced chair brands, SIDIZ is the right partner for us,” added Edward Choi, head of marketing, Gen.G Esports. “Together with SIDIZ, we are aiming to supply our teams with the ergonomically designed chairs and create diverse marketing content that promotes both Gen.G and SIDIZ to consumers and gamers alike.”

With another new facility in Los Angeles set to open soon, Gen.G is setting the pace for esports to grow at an even faster rate. Look for more organizations to follow suit soon if they are hoping to compete.

“I think less about ‘are we behind, or are we ahead?’ — and more about moving faster, growing faster, and doing better. In the startup world and entrepreneurship, every single big company will look at a startup’s innovation and think, ‘we’ve got to go copy that.’ They’re better off just focusing on ways that they can make gradual improvements. With the L.A. facility, we’re definitely going to improve on what we’ve seen in the Korea facility side. We take all of these things and continuously and constantly improve on them.”

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