E sports have exploded as an industry in the last five years, with leagues for every genre from FPS to RTS, but most notably Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas (MOBAs). Games like DOTA 2 and League of Legends have dominated the field, grossing millions of dollars in prize pools to be split among the top teams and their players. The growth and spurred a significant rise in aspiring pro gamers, with young teens and even preteens rushing to grab a slice of the limelight. This growth has not come without growing pains and has currently left E sports' progress ahead of player rights.
This market has grown at a pace that no one anticipated, leaving huge gaps in regulations as well as team and player rights. Current rules and traditions make it possible for teams to make sweeping changes, moments before roster locks, or leave players in unpaid positions while locked into seemingly unending contracts. Some leagues have made attempts to combat these issues and bring structure to the sport, but the cost may be greater than we ever imagined.
If we take a look at League of Legends and how Riot has begun to seize control of its league; enforcing contract restrictions, age limits, and even behavioral guidelines. Now all of these things are necessary and probably a great step in the right direction, but we must also look at the cost. Essentially we have allowed the maker of the game to also become the governing body of the league. This is especially troubling when it comes to player rights and their ability to market their image. Riot now has the ability to ban a member and retain ownership of that member's account and gamer tag, essentially blacklisting and destroying that players brand. Riot has never exercised this power and they might not ever have to, but for me their move towards this potential scenario is already going too far.
The players need to step up and protect themselves in some way, the most obvious one being the formation of a player’s union. We have already seen the formation of what appears to be a team union across multiple leagues including DOTA and CS: GO. This is not to be confused with a player’s union, and is almost exactly the opposite; this union’s expressed purpose is to represent the interest of the organizations that make up the E-sports teams. Meaning their primary goal is to lessen the financial burden on the organizations which run teams, and make the events more profitable for the team, but not necessarily the players. The fact that the only group that seems unrepresented is the players is deeply concerning, and reinforces the idea of founding an organization or union focused on player's rights.
DOTA2 Shanghai Prize Pool
It isn't that simple though. Players are faced with some very large hurdles that are holding back the formation of a union. Most notably is the inability to fund a union without mandatory fees, a cost that would make it nearly impossible for lower level players to survive. The huge income gap between top players and everyone else makes a mutually beneficial agreement for all level of players nearly impossible to reach. Unless players can come together and get creative about funding a union and specifying the goals of that union, we will continue to see corporations and teams step in and look out for their own interest, while player continue to be disposable.