Two very different, but serious, efforts are underway to create players associations for professional esports competitors in two of the most popular games — “Overwatch” and “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.”
If successful, the efforts would mark the first real grassroots, player-driven moves to form official groups to represent the interests of esports players.
One effort, being led by “Overwatch” player-turned-coach Thomas “Morte” Kerbusch and veteran sports labor attorney Ellen Zavian, could result in the first esports players union. Unions have the ability to collectively bargain terms and conditions of employment, and Zavian indicated that she was seeking to form a model like the other major North American sports unions, such as the NFL Players Association or the MLB Players Association.
“I don’t see this PA (players association) as any different than any other PA just because it’s esports,” Zavian said. “So this isn’t something that will be a lighthearted step. This will be a big step.”
The other effort is ongoing in the “Counter-Strike” world and encompasses players in both the ESL Pro League and the FACEIT ECS league. It is being led by Scott “SirScoots” Smith, a pioneer esports personality, former team owner and now broadcaster, and Michael Doi, an attorney who represents esports players and is providing Smith with legal help. The Counter-Strike Professional Players Association, or CSPPA, is seeking to gather signatures from the more than 225 players who play the game professionally around the world, Smith said.
“Every day I sign another guy,” he said. “I would say 70 or so have signed an official membership document that they are for the players association, are behind the players association, they want to be in the players association.”
Smith said the CSPPA is not looking to form a union under U.S. law because “Counter-Strike” is a global game. Most of the professional “Counter-Strike” players are based in Europe and less than a quarter are based in the U.S., he said.
“Overwatch” is also a global game; nine of the 12 teams in the Activision Blizzard-owned Overwatch League are based in the U.S., while the others are in China, South Korea and England.
The players in the CSPPA are signing “membership letters” and not formal “authorization cards” that are needed to form a union under U.S. law, Smith said. As of now, the CSPPA has not set an agenda of what players want but is currently just gathering signatures, Smith said. But even though the CSPPA is in the formation stage, tournament organizers are asking Smith what players want and about working conditions.
Neither Zavian nor Kerbusch would say if they were collecting authorization cards, but both said they planned to unveil the details of their effort formally in a few months. They had planned to keep the formation of the association secret but agreed to answer some questions about it when approached by SportsBusiness Journal.
“In four months we want to have a press release out with everything, like how many players are represented, and we are looking for the association to be set up legally,” Kerbusch said.
Zavian and Kerbusch said they had sought out advice from players associations in North America but would not name them. Zavian said she envisions the new esports association dealing with the same issues that other major players associations address, including pay, insurance, continuing education and arbitration for grievances.
She indicated that she was working with players from games other than “Overwatch” but would not name them. She also would not reveal if she is looking at organizing the players by team, league or publisher.
“I wish I could tell you that, but then that’s sort of revealing our strategy,” Zavian said. “But the laws are pretty clear on how you can recognize a union and we will be following the legal structure that is in place in the U.S.”
Zavian and Kerbusch were not aware of Smith’s effort and he was not aware of theirs. In esports, each game operates in its own universe, with its own community, much like separate stick-and-ball sports such as football or baseball operate in the U.S.
If the “Overwatch” or “Counter-Strike” associations are formally launched, neither of them would be the first esports players association, but they more than likely would be the first created by players themselves. Last year Riot Games, owner and developer of the “League of Legends” game, created the first players association by inviting three association leader candidates and asking LOL players to select one to run the association. The players selected Hal Biagas, a sports attorney who formerly worked at the National Basketball Players Association.
I believe formation of a players association, or more accurately multiple players associations across different publishers, leagues and games, is inevitable.
Biagas said last week that he was not aware of other efforts to form esports players associations, but that LOL players are supportive of other efforts to provide players with the benefits of working collectively to achieve their objectives.
“While we haven’t finalized what the name will be, it will likely be the League of Legends Players Association,” Biagas said of his group.
He would not comment on whether professional “League of Legends” players would vote to unionize. But Biagas said, “Our first priorities are to standardize the team contracts and make changes to them to make them more player friendly.”
Smith called it “kind of weird” that Riot actually formed the players association, “but if that’s the only way it’s going to get up and running, it’s better than nothing,” he said.
The CSPPA was formed after “Counter-Strike” players enlisted Smith to help them resolve a dispute with the owners of the Professional eSports Association in January 2017. The dispute involved a group of “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” players voting to participate in the North American division of the European ESL Pro League, rather than North American-based PEA. The vote caused the PEA to indefinitely suspend its plans for a CS:GO league.
Kerbusch has been wanting to form an association to represent “Overwatch” players since the game launched in 2016 but started working on it after he met Zavian through mutual friends. Zavian, who has been active in sports law for almost 30 years and teaches sports law at George Washington University, has been involved in the formation of several sports unions, including the one that represents the U.S. women’s soccer team.
Josh Swartz, president and co-founder of Catalyst Sports & Media, an esports advisory firm, said the formation of esports players associations and unions may be in the best interests of both players and owners. Collective bargaining may bring player cost certainty for owners, while insuring that someone is looking after the players’ best interests.
“I believe formation of a players association, or more accurately multiple players associations across different publishers, leagues and games, is inevitable,” Swartz said.For more coverage of the business of esports, visit our partners, esportsobserver.com.