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Power Dynamics in Esports - the Role of the Publisher

Courtesy of Riot Games

Last week will go down as one of the most significant in the history of esports. Riot dropped the ban hammer in League of Legends, compelling the sale of League Championship Series teams Renegades and Team Impulse, and Challenger Series team Team Dragon Knights. Meanwhile, the Electronic Sports League (ESL) launched the World Esports Association (WESA), an entity ESL describes as "an open and inclusive organisation to oversee standardized tournament regulations, player representation as well as revenue sharing for teams."

On the surface, these two events seem wholly unrelated. But they are actually at the heart of one of most important and overlooked parts of the esports industry: the development of competition infrastructure.

I've worked extensively in League of Legends, CS:GO, and many other esports titles. While people will argue the merits of each system, I can say without a doubt that each game still has a long way to go in developing the rules, regulations, and processes that operate behind the scenes. We still lack many of the basic structures and protections that are commonplace in the world of traditional sports.

Incredibly impactful decisions continue to be made behind closed doors, without meaningful input from key stakeholders. There are no effective and cost-efficient avenues to resolve disputes. Moreover, in virtually every ecosystem other than League of Legends, the lack of a centralized authority creates a fractured environment that allows for inconsistent decision-making and unpredictability.

These flaws can and have led to unjust outcomes. But more important, they act as barriers to the stability and growth of the industry.

This article series will address the root causes of these issues. I'll dive into the current state of League of Legends and CS:GO, and cover topics ranging from dispute resolution to unionization. I will also try to offer concrete solutions to what I see as some of the most problematic components in which esports are currently structured.

The role of the publisher

It is impossible to analyze power dynamics and competitive infrastructure in esports without beginning by discussing the role of the publisher. As the intellectual property holder, a publisher can stop people from playing or broadcasting their game if they so choose. This gives publishers a type of leverage that simply doesn't exist in traditional sports. After all, no one owns the game of basketball. While this legal authority is not boundless -- a topic I will cover in a later article in this series -- the publisher certainly has a unique and powerful role in any esports ecosystem.

The spectrum of publisher involvement in esports has Riot on one end and Valve on the other. Riot controls every part of its competitive ecosystem, whereas Valve is largely hands-off and lets third parties run the show. Both paths have strengths and weaknesses, and create fundamentally different landscapes for the other stakeholders (players, teams, and tournament organizers). As such, I want to begin this series by analyzing the current state of both games, as they offer interesting case studies for the ways in which the manner and extent of publisher involvement can impact the ecosystem as a whole.

The Riot model

Omnipresent and all-knowing, Riot rules its esports ecosystem with an iron fist. Having spent time with a number of people on the Riot esports team, I'm relatively confident that their hearts are in the right place. They genuinely believe that everything they're doing is just, and see themselves as the only party equipped to balance the various interests at stake, safeguard the integrity of the game, and foster the growth of its competitive scene.

If only it were that simple.

Riot has business interests that are often times in direct conflict with the parties that participate in its leagues. Yet Riot continues to run a system where the players and teams have little protection, transparency into Riot's business or actions, or a meaningful say in a wide array of topics that impact their separate interests.

Perhaps the most basic example of this surrounds revenue generation. Riot perpetually asserts that esports is a loss-leader, and it has every incentive to do so. If Riot were to admit that esports are a profitable operation, it would give teams and players significant leverage to claim they are undervalued and deserve a piece of the pie. So Riot will continue to avoid financial transparency at all costs. What the players and teams don't know, they can't use to bargain against Riot.

This approach is also prevalent in Riot's competitive rulings. There is no contemplated process for investigations or punishment proceedings in the LCS rulebook. This has always been the case, but the short history of the LCS has seen an increase in the severity of punishments that makes Riot's methods particularly problematic.

Riot's recent ban of TDK and Renegades is a bad sign for the industry, and not because it removed alleged wrongdoers from the scene. What's most striking about this ruling is the utter lack of information provided. We don't know how the investigation was conducted, who Riot talked to, or what those people said. But far more alarming, neither did the owners who were banned or the players on those teams.

Let that sink in for a moment.

These owners were removed from the league and forced to sacrifice massive financial interests without, allegedly, receiving any information about the substance behind Riot's decision or the underlying procedures. No transparency. No due process. No right to appeal. And no protection for the players, whose positions on the respective rosters will now hinge on the whims of entirely new decision-makers.

Big-time investors are still interested in League of Legends because of its massive popularity, but this decision is scary for anyone that is already investing or thinking about investing their time and resources in League-esports.

It must also be noted that Riot's level of control also creates positive outcomes, such as industry-leading efforts to safeguard competitive integrity. In contrast to other esports, Riot has also established the most comprehensive rule set. While the rules are not perfect, they certainly do a better job than any others in putting participants on notice of what they are and are not allowed to do.

That being said, Riot's largely dictatorial approach to decision-making is more akin to the earliest days of many traditional sports leagues -- a model that has been eradicated as other parties have exerted their interests over time.

The Valve model

Valve's approach to esports can generously be described as laissez-faire. Valve does not maintain a significant esports staff or manage any but the highest level areas of competitive CS:GO or Dota 2.

On rare occasions, Valve has involved itself more directly in issues impacting the competitive ecosystems surrounding its games -- decisions that have not been without controversy. When Valve descended from on high to issue lifetime bans for four of the ex-IBP players, it undertook a problematically similar approach to Riot's punishment procedures. This decision remains a hot-button issue in the scene to this day.

That being said, Valve can hardly be criticized for being an overbearing presence in the space. Quite to the contrary. The primary issues -- and potential issues -- surrounding CS:GO esports stem from the lack of centralized authority.

Tournament organizers can and do implement different sets of rules. If a player is ever banned from ESL events for violating its drug-testing policy, that player can still compete in an ECS, MLG or ELEAGUE match the following weekend. These rule differences could even affect gameplay. For instance, one league allowing jump throw bindings while another does not. CS:GO is also facing newer challenges that many industry insiders associate with the grueling schedule, including a spike in player injuries and surprisingly poor performances from top teams in certain events they appear not to prioritize.

This type of fractured infrastructure makes it extremely difficult to tackle problems as a whole, thereby delaying progress. Issues such as player welfare, competitive integrity, and dispute resolution impact the entire ecosystem, and ought to be addressed by leveraging the collective experience and resources of everyone involved. Valve's lack of leadership makes the prospect of such cooperation more challenging, though certainly not impossible.

I'll return to WESA later in this series, but ESL's public statements thus far make it clear that this is the precise problem it's attempting to solve. Whether that happens successfully or other intentions that have not yet been made public emerge remains to be seen.

Conclusion

As I said at the outset, Riot's and Valve's approaches to esports fall at opposite ends of the spectrum. While both have their strengths and weaknesses, the reality is Riot and Valve are incredibly unlikely to change their core stance on esports in the near future. Thus, this series will address how other stakeholders fit into the systems created by the publishers, and what solutions can be offered within existing frameworks.

Each article will cover a different substantive area, including dispute resolution, WESA, unionization, and much more. My goal with this series is to drive public discussion on these core issues. They're not always sexy, but the decisions we make in these areas over the next few years will have a lasting impact on the way esports evolves and breaks into the mainstream. We need to learn from our traditional sports counterparts and, where appropriate, forge our own path. We need to meaningfully involve all key stakeholders. And we need to stop fearing change.

Esports will continue to evolve. So as long as we're thoughtful about how that happens, we can build an industry that is capable of rising to mainstream prominence, paying our players massive salaries, demanding multimillion dollar sponsorship deals, and producing events beyond anything we have seen to date, all without sacrificing certain core aspects that make esports equal parts unique and amazing.

Editor's note: Bryce Blum practices at IME Law (www.imelaw.com), where he represents six LCS teams, including Renegades, and four of the top 10 Counter-Strike: Global Offensive teams according to the current HLTV ranking, including two of the WESA Founding Members. He is a co-founder of the Esports Player Resource Center.