Understanding the “FIFA for eSports”

May 18, 2016

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Categories:Analysis, Industry, Insight, outlook, Strategy

Last week’s announcement of the World ESports Association (WESA) caused a noticeable stir in and around the world of competitive video games. Chaired by the Electronic Sports League (ESL), a long-standing competitive gaming events company, and leading European teams from the Counter Strike Global Offensive (CSGO) scene, WESA positioning is,

“Based on similar traditional sports associations, WESA is an open and inclusive organization that will further professionalize eSports by introducing elements of player representation, standardized regulations, and revenue shares for teams.”

The first Interim League Commissioner is Pietro Fringuelli, an experienced advisor to some of the biggest traditional sports organizations across Europe. Furthermore, a condensed list of WESA responsibilities includes:

  • Regulation of schedules, creating predictability
  • Creation of standardized contracts for players
  • Definition and implementation all rules that are currently missing, i.e. with regards to player transfers
  • Establishing arbitration
WESA_Structure
Figure – Courtesy of WESA

Details

A review of WESA messaging reveals a mass of vague statements which leave a number of important questions unanswered. Additionally, the association has commonly refused to release copies or even excerpts of bylaws and other founding documents.  Nonetheless, a Swiss business registry reveals some interesting particulars about WESA structure:

  • “Bündelung der sportlichen und wirtschaftlichen Interessen der Teams, die Mitglied des Vereins sind (‘WESA-Team(s)’), als Gemeinschaft gegenüber Marketingpartnern.” An English transliteration is that WESA will act as a representative body for negotiating agreements with sponsors.
  • “…sowie Vermarktung aller von den WESA Team-Spielern (‘Spieler’) und den WESA-Teams übertragenen Rechte” interpreted in English seems to imply that WESA will only control marketing rights in areas authorized by teams AND players.

Question marks

While nothing overtly alludes to a secretive organization or cartel. There are several prominent red flags worth noting:

  • The absence of Astralis, an eSports company with a player owned CSGO team, is puzzling given multiple mentions to player well-being. It’s uncanny that the only team with concrete player privileges was left out. Frederick Byskov, founder and managing partner at Astralis, went on record stating that his organization was neither invited nor involved with WESA, at any point.
Figure - Courtesy of Twitter
Figure – Courtesy of Twitter
  • In an attempt at transparency, WESA took to Reddit with an Ask Me Anything (AMA) thread, which produced multiple contradictory and circuitous statements, in response to probing questions from community members. The idea for an AMA came across as well-intentioned, but the end result was far from informative, as very little additional light was shed.
  • The visceral reaction from the CSGO, and larger eSports community, reflects the gap between WESA and its most important stakeholders: eSports fans and viewers. Especially since, the most valuable aspect of the eSports experience is the collective value of its audiences. Unlike traditional sports, which feature billion dollar teams and franchises, eSports is driven by the tastes of those who play its games, watch the tournaments, and support the teams/players.
Figure - Courtesy of reader poll by PC Advisor
Figure – Courtesy of reader poll by PC Advisor

Still, as of today, WESA is essentially corporate and public relations (PR) messaging. Execution remains the ultimate barometer for its true intent and purpose. In the meantime, a Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities Threats (SWOT) analysis is useful in understanding factors which will affect its direction and potential for success.


Strengths

Organized body for partnerships – For prospective sponsors and investors looking to enter the competitive video game fray, eSports can come across as a puzzling maze. From the lack of governance and clearly stated regulations, to hazardous legal pitfalls, there is little that resembles the top-down organization present in traditional sports. The common question of, “Who’s in charge?” can now be answered, in part, by WESA. Companies, with little to no experience with the video game industry, will find this brand of organization to be an appealing salve for various levels of unfamiliarity.  Whether this results in successful partnerships, which produce sustainable revenue for eSports and returns for corporate partners, has yet to be seen.

Positive industry facing PR – The WESA approach might have fallen flat within the eSports community, but its language will resonate with those outside its walls. Members of mainstream media outlets have been mostly quick to characterize WESA as a cure to what ills eSports. And while, these positions are formed from a generally removed perspective, the perception that eSports is “organizing for the better” or finally becoming a “real sport” is valuable.

Weaknesses

Clear conflicts of interest – As a founding member of WESA, ESL is in a strong position to influence the association’s direction and character. The imbalance of access to resources between ESL, owned by the Modern Times Group, a publicly traded, digital entertainment company, and the other member teams is of concern. The prospect of, a company like ESL, maintaining a spirit of equitability and impartiality, without a counterbalance in clout is highly unlikely. Additionally, should WESA begin to scale, introducing checks on the company’s profit motive will be close to impossible. There’s a very real reason professional sports organizations are structured to avoid heavy handed influence from a single corporate party.

Suppression of true player rights – WESA continues to underscore its role as an advocate for player representation, when in reality it could unintentionally delay the emergence of a true players union. Claiming that, “WESA will not be overseeing a player organization, but rather it offers players a platform to organize themselves. The player-elected Council will participate in WESA member meetings, representing all players on WESA teams and their interest.” This is an undoubtedly positive sounding concept, but one which could actually suppress true player rights, as it will take time for its ineffectual nature to arise. A true governing body is responsible for recognizing that the interests of players (labor) and teams (ownership) are often antagonistic. So while a council might give voice to, it will not produce solutions for, player issues; something only an independently run players union can accomplish.

The profit horizon – Numerous comparisons to professional sports leagues, while claiming to not function as an exclusive league, has left many confused as to the true intentions of WESA. In response, the organization countered, “We’re referring to NHL and other sports leagues to bring an example of how it was formed, and to illustrate the similarities between both. WESA is not a league, but a body that will organize other leagues.” Yet, as multiple, non-exclusive CSGO leagues begin to emerge, attracting involvement from TV outlets (Turner Sports’ ELEAGUE), and live streaming platforms (eSports Championship Series on Twitch), it doesn’t take an oracle to comprehend how valuable broadcast exclusivity would be to ESL’s bottom line.

However, should WESA pursue some sense of exclusivity any time in the near future, it’s difficult to imagine how this would benefit the wider industry. While consolidation is inevitable, given its nascent state, electronic sports is not developed enough to support even quasi-monopolistic moves. For instance, Traditional sports endured decades of competitive rivalry before today’s consolidated leagues materialized. Treading closely to premature exclusivity is a real hazard for the future prospects of everyone involved.

Opportunities

Raise the bar for event standards – Quality concerns continue to plague the diverse circuit of competitive video game tournaments and leagues. If WESA develops into a true body that organizes multiple leagues, it could raise the overall bar for event standards. Areas such as fan experience, player accommodation, timeliness and production quality will all benefit from effective governance.

Consistent sanctions – Currently, there is no agreed upon system for deterring harmful actions across organized eSports. For example, ESL instituted a drug testing policy for its own tournaments in 2015, in response to media frenzy about performance enhancing drugs in eSports, but other organizers have yet to take similar actions. There are a number of issues, such as match fixing, which will weigh heavily on the future of pro gaming. All of which demand strong sanctioning across the board. WESA could be a driving force in that regard.

Collaboration – Electronic sports currently lacks industry associations for a fast-growing layer of professionals responsible for operation of its enterprise. Given the global scope of eSports, it’s critical to encourage as much collaboration and knowledge sharing as possible. Articles like best practices and industry standards stem from conversations between professionals, and the cooperation which follows. Ideally, WESA will fill this gap by focusing on inclusivity across teams, leagues, and video game publishers.

Threats

Zero buy-in from game publishers – The CSGO game title remains the sole intellectual property (IP) of Valve Software. WESA commented that, “Valve has been contacted and is aware of WESA. Their core business is to make fantastic games and grow their communities, not a body like WESA. We remain in close contact with Valve all the time, and we’re positive we can continue working with them on CS:GO events and leagues.” Affiliation with Valve would have been a huge boon for quelling claims of anti-competitive intentions. Not to mention, forming strategic direction, without official approval from the game’s sole proprietor could be a recipe for disaster. Valve, and any other game publisher, retains the absolute authority to revoke use of its IP, at any point in time. Close involvement with a party that holds this form of ultimate veto power is a must.

Missing leagues – The fact that WESA is situated as a body for organizing other leagues, yet lacks representatives from said leagues is puzzling. Proprietors of CSGO leagues such as MLG, GFinity, and CEVO were not invited. And others like FACEIT, ELEAGUE and PGL haven’t issued a public statement. Unfortunately, WESA needs involvement from other leagues to fulfill its stated mission. According to the Reddit AMA, WESA was, “in talks with a lot of Teams for over 18 months, figuring out what’s needed and desired to make WESA work.” Meanwhile, not a single league or organizer could be convinced to join. It’s not rash to assume there’s commonality amongst that group of currently removed parties. As time passes, this could be the seed for encouraging them to band together and create exactly what WESA is claiming to be.


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