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Volume 21 No. 13
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Chaos wins another round in esports

Investors and sports marketers have widely agreed on two broad theories about esports’ growth: It must become more standardized and structured to fully realize its potential, and everybody will benefit when that happens.

But on Jan. 5, a powerful group of stakeholders — the talent — issued a sharp rebuttal to that notion. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive players for the seven teams that founded the Professional eSports Association in September voted to play in the European ESL Pro League instead of their own teams’ planned startup.

The vote caused the PEA to suspend plans indefinitely for its CS:GO league, a serious blow to its stated goal of ending the “wild west” of esports. By creating a team-owned league, organizers hoped to offer certainty to sponsors and cut out third-party tournament organizers, who sometimes schedule events at the last minute, change rules and regulations on whims and take profits.

Players on the teams that founded the PEA voted instead to play in the ESL Pro League.
Photo by: AP IMAGES

But at least for now, these players prefer the wild west.

“Overall, we do not agree that closed systems are necessary right now in order for everyone in esports to thrive,” said Scott Smith, an esports industry veteran who spoke on behalf of the players in an open letter. He went on to say that “closed” systems, i.e., self-contained leagues made of teams that govern themselves and compete mostly with each other, would mostly benefit owners.

“Esports as an industry is unique — it has been built with an inherent level of unprecedented openness that the accessibility of live streaming, social media and online play allows,” Smith wrote. “I believe that this openness and accessibility should be empowered and cherished — not suffocated by forcing esports into traditional sports models.”

To be clear, this controversy was limited to a single game, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. CS:GO is especially prone to the wild west issues because publisher Valve has shown none of the interest in organizing and regulating competitions that Riot Games or Blizzard Entertainment have.

Nevertheless, the PEA’s struggles are a sobering reminder that interests are not as aligned as they may appear to esports newcomers. Players are only beginning to exercise their collective clout, and in this case, chose the EPL for its superior prize incentives and better worldwide reputation even though it undermined the momentum toward structure.

“There’s no doubt that players value certain aspects of the open ecosystem, including the prominence of international events with the best teams in the world,” said Bryce Blum, a lawyer who represents four of the seven PEA teams.

But, Blum thinks the recent events shouldn’t be seen as a blanket philosophical objection. “If there was an offer on the table that created a closed ecosystem with drastically better economics, it would be difficult to pass up.”

Shortly after the players’ vote, the PEA declared a startup CS:GO league could not be viable alongside the ESL Pro League and FACEIT’s ESports Championship League, where its teams are already committed. The CS:GO landscape is too saturated, the statement read, and others used the occasion to call on Valve to get more involved in regulating the game.

PEA Commissioner Jason Katz did not respond to requests for comment beyond an official statement, but sources within the PEA say the group intends to press ahead in other game titles.

Consultants who advise non-endemic marketers on the esports space preach patience. Most of them want highly predictable, closed leagues, a la the NBA or NFL, but it’s easy to forget that standardization only came to American pro sports after decades of brash competition, legal fights and bitter labor disputes.

“I’m not saying these leagues, these unions, are just going to fold,” said Dan Ciccone, managing director of rEvXP, an esports brand consultancy. “It’s kind of like Obamacare — you’ve got to implement something to get it going, then you’ve got to tweak it to go along.”