SBJ/June 19-25, 2017/Labor and Agents

Players association a first for North America

Derek Shao (right), known as Zig, and his Phoenix1 "League of Legends" teammates are now part of a players
association. 
Photo by: RIOT GAMES
The 50 or so professional players in one of Riot Games’ “League of Legends” circuits have voted to create what is thought to be the first esports players association in North America.

The players also voted to hire attorney Hal Biagas, who formerly worked at the National Basketball Players Association, to run the new organization.

“The first order of business is to meet with all the players and establish our priorities,” Biagas said. “I don’t want to talk too much about anything until I talk to the players. They are going to set the agenda.”

Details such as the association’s name and Biagas’ title have not yet been decided.

Biagas
After leaving Excel Sports Management, Biagas formed an agency in February called Sideline Sports Management that represents coaches and broadcasters. Before that, Biagas held an executive position at Wasserman and was an attorney at the NBPA for nearly 13 years. Unlike the NBPA, the new players association is not a union. Although it can advocate on behalf of players, only a union can collectively bargain terms and conditions of employment.

The esports players association is thought to be unusual, if not unique, in several ways.

First, Riot Games, which publishes “League of Legends,” is funding the association for the players on the 10 teams in its North American League Championship Series.

Second, Riot and not the players initiated the discussions to form the association. Riot selected Biagas and two others as candidates to run the union.

“It’s driven by Riot, like, the formation of the players association,” said Derek Shao, a player on Phoenix1 whose professional name is Zig. Players were given the choice of voting for one of three candidates or to vote against forming an association at a players summit held by Riot earlier this month.

“Each of the presenters came out with their own rationale, like what the vision for our players association should be,” Shao said. The candidates were “well-rounded” and “pretty qualified,” Shao said, adding that he voted for one of them without saying whom.

Player representation in the esports world is in its infancy, and most players don’t have agents.

At the same time, esports is becoming more big league every day, as NBA team owners and millionaire retired athletes become esports franchise owners.

Shao said many players on the teams are young and are dealing directly with much more sophisticated league executives and team owners. “So I think it would be good to have a separate entity representing the players — a voice, so to speak,” he said.

Chris Hopper, Riot Games senior manager of esports, said the players association is meant to benefit the players as the league continues to grow. “From knowing the players and working with them for several years, it became fairly apparent that that wasn’t something they were going to organically self-organize,” Hopper said.

Ryan Morrison, an attorney who represents esports players, said that he had been talking to esports players about starting a union but that they have shown little interest. The announcement by Riot that it would fund a players association caught a lot of people in the esports community by surprise, he said.

“Riot, I think, has good intentions. I don’t think it’s anything malicious,” Morrison said. “It sounds nice on paper. … But you never want to use the attorney your boss wants you to, and that is what is happening here.” Morrison said he also has concerns about Riot paying for the attorney who may be negotiating against the team owners on the other side of the table.

The National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from providing financial and other support for employee unions, said Bill Gould, a Stanford Law School professor and former chairman of the NLRB. He added that he has not heard of such an association in sports before.

Jim Quinn, an attorney who has acted as outside counsel to multiple sports unions, including the NBPA and the NFL Players Association over three decades, said he is not aware of a players association being set up in such a way, either.

“It’s kind of bizarre,” Quinn said.

But he added that it was probably legal, since it is acting as a trade association and not a union that is in engaged in collective bargaining.

Sports is different from other industries, in that team owners want unions. The creation of a union creates an antitrust exemption protecting teams and leagues from legal challenges to things like a salary cap and a draft.

Meanwhile, a lot of team owners across esports are interested in things like a salary cap and a draft.

Jason Lake, founder of compLexity Gaming, is one of them. “I believe it is best for the players individually and the ecosystem in general,” Lake said. “As a team owner, I welcome the chance to negotiate with sophisticated player representatives and eventually discuss salary caps and other relevant issues.”


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