Riot's players' association lays groundwork for unionization

The recent announcement that Riot is creating a players' association was welcome news to most involved with League of Legends, even if it's initially going to be run by Riot. Riot Games

Esports has taken another step toward the mainstream with the recent moves toward a players' association for the North American League of Legends Championship Series.

That news was part of Riot Games' revamp of the NA LCS, announced two weeks ago, which also includes going to a permanent franchise system as opposed to promotion and relegation. But the players' association is perhaps the most intriguing development of all.

Here's the twist: The players' association isn't being started by the players but by Riot itself -- the League of Legends publisher and operator of the NA LCS.

"A lot of us here are huge conventional sports fans, and we've all seen the benefits that players' associations can bring to professional players in a given league, whether it's Major League Baseball, the NBA or the NFL," Riot league operations lead Chris Greeley said.

But why would Riot do this when the players haven't organized themselves?

"It is a turning point for the NA LCS -- we refer to it here as a reboot of the NA LCS," Greeley said. "It is important as we begin to move forward in a different alignment with the owners that the players have a voice at that table and are able to have someone in those discussions whose sole responsibility is to answer to the players and look out for their interests."

Riot hosted a players summit at its California campus on June 5, inviting all starters and active subs to participate. As part of that summit, three presentations were made by candidates to head up the players' association, all put forward by Riot.

The candidates were Hal Biagas, former assistant general counsel at the National Basketball Players Association; a former commissioner of a women's professional sports league; and members of a prominent university's sports law and business program. This week, Biagas got the job.

"We talked to somewhere between 10 and 15 groups," Greeley said. "Law firms, talent agencies, consulting firms. We eliminated anyone who had conflicts in esports -- so if you ever worked for Riot, if you ever worked for one of our teams, if you ever worked for a player, we put those folks on the side. We wanted whoever was coming in to be fresh.

"Some dropped out on each side. These were the three groups that we thought were most qualified."

As part of this initiative, Riot will provide funding for the NA LCS players' association as well, at least at the start. This has led some to question its motives. There are certainly differences between how this organization is being set up and how players' associations in traditional sports have been formed.

"What these guys are talking about is not a union," said Gene Orza, retired chief operating officer of the Major League Baseball Players Association. "They're using the word 'association,' but they will not be like the baseball players' or the football players' union, because they're not going to be a union.

"To form a union, you need employees, with an employer, who band together for the purpose of bargaining with, and some would say against, the employer. And that's not what's being envisioned here."

Riot's involvement at the onset of the players' association does not concern Biagas.

"I don't have any concerns in the short term, and certainly not in the long term, that this is not gonna be a completely independent entity -- notwithstanding the way in which it came about. That's something that's important to the players, and it's critical as part of my decision-making to be involved," Biagas told ESPN.

The circumstances here are a little different, in that there are three parties involved as opposed to two: the game publisher and league operator (Riot), plus the team owners and then the players. But it does not sound like Riot is against the players legally unionizing at some point.

"As long as they are taking Riot's money, under federal law they can't form a union," Greeley said. "So, for example, they can't collectively bargain or strike. But they can have a representative, [and] that representative is more than welcome to sit with us, and we will listen to those concerns and provide that representative with a vote as we start to work through governance issues.

"At some point, if the players decided they would like to self-fund their players' association, since they wouldn't be taking third-party money -- or not taking money from Riot or the owners -- they would have the ability to unionize if they wanted to, or not if they wanted to keep the same relationship. It's a model that provides players with the opportunity to be independent at any point in which they would like to be independent -- and by independent, I mean financially independent.

"The players' association representative will only report to the players," Greeley continued. "Other than cashing our check, they have no duties or obligations or even ability to report to Riot on anything."

Paul Kelly, the former executive director of the National Hockey League Players' Association, also voiced some concerns about the setup.

"Obviously there is certainly the potential for conflict of interest, and the potential for the ownership side of the sport to assert control over the players through [the association] if they're the primary or only funding source," Kelly said.

As far as the team owners, in a recent interview with Yahoo!, Team SoloMid owner Andy "Reginald" Dinh sounded happy about the players' association development.

"I'm actually overall excited that this is happening," Dinh said. "When you're entering a negotiation with players, things are generally unclear. Now that they're getting a piece of the pie and it's a straight percentage, they're able to see what they're getting. It's going to make it a lot easier versus a system where you're just going to aim for the highest and there's no way to quantify what you're worth.

"Also, talking to someone with experience who is also vetting and reviewing your legal documents is going to be much easier too. Often, these players don't understand what they're signing."

Immortals CEO Noah Whinston struck a similar tone in the same Yahoo! interview.

"I really like the idea of a players' association," Whinston said. "It's about as far as Riot can go unilaterally right now. I think a player union -- the kind you see in traditional sports -- you can't just have a publisher come in and fund that and get that set up, you need players to do it for themselves. But players aren't gonna do that for themselves until they have some conception of what it means to be a collective body.

"Until players recognize the same way the team owners are starting to recognize that they're aligned with each other instead of competing with each other, you're never going to have them all working towards a common interest. So I think a players' association is a great interim step to get all players on the same page about what their common interests are. And from there, if they take that collective action towards the union or towards something that's more formalized as a collective body, so much the better."

We know what the players are getting in this new NA LCS "reboot" to some degree. The minimum player salary is being increased to $75,000, and they are being guaranteed at least 35 percent of league revenues, which could lead to bonus payments.

"Overall, I think [franchising] is a pretty good change for the NA LCS in general. It gives a lot of players stability if your owner gets in for sure," Cloud9 jungler Juan "Contractz" Garcia said to ESPN.com. "The only thing I'm kind of worried about is you're on a present LCS team and your owner doesn't get into the franchising -- they get declined or something. You [wouldn't] know where to go as a player, because you're not going to be in the NA LCS if your owner doesn't get accepted.

"[A players' association] is a really good step for players for the future, obviously. They can teach you stuff like finances. They're basically just the big voice for players when we have an issue or something random comes up and we need it dealt with, like, immediately, then the players' association rep will step in and be the voice that we need."

We'll have to wait and see what kind of impact the players' association has in the weeks and months to come on the players and the league.

Some skepticism is natural, but Riot insists it has the players' best interests at heart.

"There's no real way to dissuade people if they have conspiracy theories about the way that this is gonna work," Greeley said. "Part of it is, wait and see. We've gotten really good feedback from our pro players on this process so far -- a lot of really positive comments, a lot of the guys are interested in it [and] are really pushing for this to be successful. So we hope that it is."

ESPN.com esports writer Tyler Erzberger contributed to this report