Power Dynamics in Esports - The WESA experiment

Provided by WESA

Two weeks ago, ESL launched the World Esports Association (WESA), an entity described as "an open and inclusive organisation to oversee standardized tournament regulations, player representation as well as revenue sharing for teams." Despite repeated claims about the importance of transparency, we don't know much beyond WESA's stated goals and vague assertions about the role it will play in the broader esports ecosystem.

While much has been written and discussed about WESA since its launch, I was holding back largely because not much information about WESA is publicly available. But today this lack of transparency had a much more concrete impact, with FaZe Clan officially announcing its departure from WESA - an undoubtedly heavy blow to the prospects of the organization. In its press release, FaZe noted that "[WESA] doesn't lack big metaphors of what it could be, but it lacks transparency on how to get there and that is the main reason for why we are leaving WESA."

This sudden departure, appears to validate the significant level of skepticism surrounding the initiative. A lot of important questions have been asked over the past couple weeks, and very few concrete answers have been provided.

It's not surprising there is a healthy level of skepticism surrounding the initiative. A lot of important questions have been asked over the past couple of weeks, and few concrete answers have been provided. That being said, the overwhelming hate WESA, ESL and the participating teams have received thus far is a little over the top, at least for the time being.

Many of WESA's publicly disclosed goals address the root problems in the industry, particularly for CS:GO - esports (covered in more detail in the first article in this series). Player contracts need to be improved and standardized. Competitive integrity standards should be created and adopted by all major tournament organizers. And, as discussed in the second article in this series, alternative dispute resolution mechanisms are sorely needed to prevent and address many of the most common issues plaguing the industry.

We don't have many details about how WESA will accomplish these goals, and this appears to be the biggest reason for FaZe's departure. As they said in their Facebook statement, "The big vision executed would be a right step towards progressing e-sports into more of a traditional sports setup and all the benefits that comes with that." I get where FaZe is coming from, but I also think its decision is impacted by public pressure as much as it is by substantive dissent from the structure of WESA. After all, this project is more than a year in the making, and nothing has changed over the past 10 days aside from the public's reaction to WESA's long-established plans.

I also think it's time we unpack some of ESL's statements and recognize WESA for what it is: an organization much more akin to the NBA or another traditional sports league than some type of overarching regulatory body for esports.

For me, that structure isn't as terrifying as it is for many CSGO fans, and the fact that there is an entity dedicated to addressing some of the core issues facing CSGO-esports is a step in the right direction. At the very least, it has that potential. Would an overarching body with buy-in from every major competition organizer prove more effective in achieving many of WESA's stated goals? Probably. But it would also be much harder to put together. WESA has the potential to do tangible good in the interim. Unfortunately, it will now have to try to do so while overcoming widespread public hate and recovering from the immediate loss of one of the eight founding teams.

WESA's ties to ESL

I'll begin by stating what I see as an obvious fact: An initiative such as WESA is far less likely to have a broad impact if it is spearheaded by a single tournament organizer without meaningful participation from others.

Despite claims from ESL that they attempted to work with other tournament organizers on this initiative, CEVO, Gfinity and MLG have all made public statements that they were never approached to discuss or join WESA. Presumably, ESL reached out to FACEIT and Turner, but were unsuccessful in persuading them to come on board.

This isn't exactly surprising. ESL may have altruistic intentions to impact positive change for the industry, but only within the confines of their perspective and decision-making authority. If I were another tournament organizer, I can't imagine I'd be eager to join a third-party entity that will be dictating various rules and standards in which ESL has two board seats and handpicked the commissioner.

For example, it's extremely likely that ESL's drug testing policy will be included in WESA's governance plans. Signing up for WESA would therefore necessitate that other organizers follow suit, regardless of whether they see PEDs as a serious issue confronting esports. A truly effective version of overarching infrastructure would include representatives from all key stakeholders who could commission studies about the impact of certain drugs on a player's performance, discuss and debate the findings, and ultimately adopt game- or industry-wide regulations on the subject, if any are needed.

"Perhaps WESA's attempts will fail, the inherent conflicts will prove overwhelming and all of the doomsday scenarios that have come to the fore since the announcement will become reality."

That being said, I'm not prepared to condemn ESL if they advance the industry along with their business interests. As the owner of Team EnVyUs, Mike Rufail, recently noted in his post on the subject, this type of initiative takes a significant amount of money, legal work and time. WESA itself took 18 months to get off the ground, and that was without attempting to get a wide array of direct business competitors to agree on terms and cede authority. At the end of the day, ESL was willing to take on this massive lift, which has the potential to do a lot of good for the industry.

I do wish ESL was a little more transparent about its clear interests in doing this alone; a huge amount of the backlash stems from its attempts to deny any ulterior motives through vague restatements of an already vague announcement. This backlash will only serve to hinder WESA's efforts to impact positive change. But for now at least, I'm prepared to let this play out and see what good WESA can accomplish before I denounce the effort as nothing more than a power grab by ESL.

WESA's Involvement of Teams and Player

While "exclusivity" continues to be the dirtiest word in CSGO-esports, the overwhelming community opposition to the prospect of fewer competitions run by fewer organizers is not so black and white for teams and players. They operate in an ecosystem marred in fierce competition between tournament organizers and without overarching structure. This leads to competing schedules, tournament oversaturation, disputes with little hope of resolution, unpredictability and even obstacles to monetization.

Would teams and players prefer it if WESA was a more collaborative effort? Probably. But this was the option on the table, and some saw it as worthwhile.

It should also go without saying that the teams are divided on the prospects of WESA. While the Founding Teams include many of the most prominent brands in esports, there is a conspicuous lack of U.S. teams and other prominent organizations. Some teams weren't even approached to consider joining (Astralis, for example) -- an entirely different problem that WESA will have to address if it wants to be effective.

As for the players, WESA's statements assert that players will "have a seat at the table." But that seat comes in the form of a separate Player Council, rather than a position on the board of the organization. Many people have criticized this structure, and I think skepticism is perfectly fair. But we simply don't have enough information to say the players are getting a raw deal.

The ultimate impact of the Player Council will hinge on how it is incorporated into the overall structure. What issues will include Player Council input? Do player representatives have any form of voting power? How is player input balanced in relation to that of the teams, the league and the commissioner? Is WESA doing anything else for players, beyond the formation of the Player Council? Until we have the answers to these and many related questions, I'm inclined to give WESA the benefit of the doubt -- I'd be surprised if they came out of the gate trumpeting player welfare, only to ignore their viewpoints or render them absolutely powerless.

Assuming for the moment that the Player Council is given a real role in decision-making, that is undoubtedly a major shift from the way in which competition infrastructure has historically been built in esports. Though people seem to be overlooking the fact that this isn't a wholly original idea, FACEIT's announcement surrounding the ECS states that "players will also be given seats on the league's governing committee to help decide and enforce key aspects of the league, including regulatory framework, integrity, players' welfare, holidays and best practices to ensure synergy among the league and its participants."

Is it a players union? No. But this level of involvement is exactly the type of thing a union would lobby to achieve.

Is an independent body that represents player interests still necessary? Absolutely. I work with more than 30 esports teams, and almost every owner I've talked to about this issue agrees. But these two routes to player protection are not mutually exclusive.

WESA Analogies: The NHL, UEFA or Something Else Entirely?

One of the strangest parts of the WESA launch has been the messaging surrounding what exactly WESA is trying to become. Depending on which spokesperson is speaking, WESA has been compared to the NHL, FIFA, UEFA and various other sporting bodies. In the official WESA AMA, Ralf Reichert commented that WESA "is not an exclusive league. The NHL example is there because they started small and then became bigger. WESA is more comparable to an association like UEFA in that sense."

ESL wants WESA to serve as some overarching governing body for esports. The problem is, that's not what they launched. To regulate various leagues and competitions, WESA would need buy-in from the other competition organizers that willingly submit to WESA's authority (as do the English Premier League, German Bundesliga, Spanish La Liga and other leagues for UEFA). But based on the reaction from other competition organizers, that doesn't seem likely at the moment. In fact, ESL's own public statements make it clear that while they tried to bring other organizers to the table, WESA ultimately wasn't built to accommodate other competition organizers within the structure:

"We as organizers tried and were not successful at making it work with more than one organizer at the table. It became a case of too many cooks in the kitchen and an inability amongst the organizers to align to really make things happen, and it was established that we would be building something ineffective. ... So we think the right solution is to have ESL work with other organizers via WESA to balance schedules, but the fundamental structure of WESA doesn't allow for more organizers to be members."

From my perspective, WESA is poised to become far more akin to the NBA or a similar style of American sports league. As Rufail noted in a recent esports talk show, WESA's current plan is to allow its members to play in other tournaments, but not other ongoing leagues beginning in two years. This is a sort of esports compromise to the traditional sports exclusivity model -- we'll still have the majors and other large tournaments, but WESA aims to be the more consistent, weekly league content.

Of course, WESA does not include every team, and there is plenty of room for other organizers to put together a competitive body. Here is where the NBA analogy comes to the fore: We will likely see the emergence of competing, semi-exclusive leagues that have the potential to merge into a super-league sometime down the road.

Perhaps WESA will pivot and address the structural issues that would make it difficult for the body to regulate esports more broadly. But for now, I think the UEFA comparison is not keeping with the way WESA was launched.


We still know very little about WESA, which is a problem in and of itself, particularly for an organization trumpeting transparency. FaZe's sudden departure from the organization less than two weeks after its official launch only serves to reinforce this point. But the success or failure of WESA remains to be seen. I think it's fair to question its structure and long-term intentions. But the almost unparalleled level of hate WESA has received thus far is unwarranted.

WESA is a direct byproduct of the power vacuum Valve's approach to esports has created. And while CSGO-esports in 2016 functions well enough, it's far from optimal. WESA's stated aim is to address many of the most significant current and potential problems facing the industry. I can't exactly get up in arms about this mission, though there are many other issues that will need to be addressed moving forward for WESA to impact the positive changes it claims to seek.

Perhaps WESA's attempts will fail, the inherent conflicts will prove overwhelming and all of the doomsday scenarios that have come to the fore since the announcement will become reality. If so, I'm sure I'll be in the line of opinion pieces denouncing the effort as net negative for the industry. But that day is not today, much as everyone seems to think it is.

WESA could be a step in the right direction, or it could be a power grab. It's likely a bit of both. A wholly independent body trying to address the same issues would likely be more successful. But WESA is the option on the table. I'm inclined to give it a chance.

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.