eSports boasts an awkward pairing of futuristic products and profits with prehistoric infrastructure. According to market intelligence company Newzoo, global eSports revenue is set to hit $463 million this year. By 2019, it is projected the revenue will top $1 billion, the sort of revenue that knocks on the door of what mainstream sports bring in. Yet the industry is currently missing many pieces that make traditional sports so sustainable and watchable, while players lack the basic resources that prevent more mainstream athletes from being exploited. Enter the World eSport Association (WESA), which was formally announced on Friday in London and intends to level the playing field.
WESA is a partnership between the Electronic Sports League (ESL), the world's largest eSports organizer, and eight top Counter-Strike teams: Fnatic, Natus Vincere, EnVyUs, Virtus.Pro, Gamers2, Faze, mousesports, and Ninjas in Pyjamas. They all play the same game by design: Counter-Strike is the test market, with the hope being that organizations and teams from every game can join in the future.
Excited chatter painted Friday's announcement as eSports' answer to FIFA's formation. Unlike the famed soccer organization, however, WESA isn't presenting itself as a governing body. For better or worse, this isn't the organization that will streamline and centralize global competitions.
What WESA will do, or at least intends to, is tidy up some of the messier labor issues. WESA's structure will consist of player representatives from each of the teams—something that has been nonexistent in the industry so far—who will have a say in tournament structure, finally granting players a voice in their own industry. The lack of formal player unions have been something of a worry in eSports for many years now, and while WESA carefully couches their new structure as a "player council" versus an outright union, it will perform similar functions including allowing player representatives to vote on decisions and bring them forward to an executive committee. Players are not being given access to the likes of lawyers and accountants yet, although this is tentatively in WESA's future plans.
Contracts are another, even murkier, issue. According to Pietro Fringuelli, WESA's interim commissioner, the existing protocol is barely a step above a school permission slip. "No written agreements with players, nothing," says Fringuelli, who heads the media and sports department at international law firm CMS. "When the players go to a tournament you have a one page thing and they sign it, 'I'm participating.' I couldn't believe it." Those on the ground level share his concern. Viktor Jendeby, who coaches Fnatic, has thrown his support behind WESA in part because he believes it will foster a "more comfortable" way to discuss contracts, player transfers, and other ground rules within the industry.
Fans figure to benefit from WESA as well, thanks to more consistent and predictable tournament schedules. With occasional exceptions such as weekly scheduled matches in League of Legends' League Championship Series, predicting when your favorite teams will be playing ahead of time can be difficult. Tournaments often overlap and announcements can be sporadic. The schedule itself is over saturated, with teams sometimes criss-crossing the globe three weeks in a row to attend tournaments. The result is an environment devoid of the tension that should accompany significant contests. "The value for top matches has disappeared," Jendeby says. "For example, a match between us and Ninjas in Pyjamas, it happens too often for people to build hype around. Looking at other sports, when Barcelona plays Real Madrid, it's huge. The whole football world stops. I want that to be in eSports as well. I want big matches to really, really matter."
These are all good things, which begs the question of why something like this hasn't happened before. After all, while eSports' popularity has exploded recently, the sport itself has been around for decades. "I think a little bit it has to do with the scene growing up," says ESL managing director Ralf Reichert. "The more adult, educated and experienced the people at the table are, the higher the chances to overcome challenges. That's why it has seemed to work this time."
Which sounds good, but there's reason to wonder whether WESA has all its bases covered. Questions of diversity issues were dodged, while no one volunteered specifics about how resources such as team lawyers and accountants will be financed. There's also the matter of preferential treatment: Will other teams and players be treated as second-class citizens for not getting in on the ground floor?
To WESA's credit, there at least seems to be a recognition of these issues being important. Already, they've integrated external auditors into each stage of their decision-making process, something that Reichert, who is eager to dismiss comparisons to the more unsavory aspects of FIFA, notes "doesn't happen at FIFA... I think they just introduced external auditors." The status quo is so disorganized that just about anything would represent progress, given how ignorant players can be of even the most fundamental sporting conventions. "I was proposing to some selected players the legal team's idea of what kind of compliance rules players should respect, for example anti-doping, anti-cheating, anti-betting -- and one player said 'why can't I bet on my own game?'" Fringuelli recalls incredulously. "Can you imagine? One player could ruin the image of the whole industry."
The organization is being careful about not guaranteeing more than it can deliver: Reichert tentatively offered a two-year timeframe for WESA determining "if this works, and we'll see if we can achieve our goals." But there's ample reason to hope they succeed. WESA is a sorely needed attempt to further legitimize eSports and match the ever-increasing dollar figures to a more mature way of running things. It will certainly take time, but if this is the mechanism that can force infrastructure to catch up to revenues, eSports will be better for it.