On Thursday, VP Esports released a bombshell report on the Boston Uprising, alleging mismanagement, player conflicts, and poor living conditions, among other things. Uprising’s President Chris “HuK” Loranger released a response shortly afterwards that refuted many points and downplayed the severity of several others. Since then, former Uprising players Kalios & Neko have stepped forward to decry HuK’s response.
What we’re left with is a hodgepodge of “he said, they said” allegations and rumors coming from all corners of the Overwatch community.The one clear result of this mess – which is by no means the first of its kind – is that Overwatch League players need a dedicated third party to look out for their collective interests.
One Clear Result
The need for a players’ union in Overwatch is old news at this point. Since the earliest days of the game’s competitive scene, there have been organizations willing to exploit their players. xQc, Custa, and other OWL stars that played for Denial Esports have detailed records of thousands of dollars in missed payments. Former EnVision Esports owner Artur Minacov has failed to pay his players despite extensive reports detailing his negligence and a promise (since broken) to reimburse his former subordinates.
If the mistreatment of esports athletes is so well documented, then why hasn’t been anything been done? The answers are, of course, more complicated than we might like. The process of unionization in any industry is a frustratingly opaque one, especially in a league with so many young players with so much to lose.
You can find parallels to Overwatch’s current struggle everywhere. Take minor league baseball, for example – this article from Slate details the struggle of Tier 2 baseball players in grisly detail. Salaries of $1,100 a month, restrictions on moving into the major leagues, you name it. These guys are put through the ringer every day, putting up with gross injustices in the blind hope that they’ll prove themselves worthy.
In the Slate report, MLBPA founder Marvin Miller detailed the struggle to justify unionizing. “The notion that these very young, inexperienced people were going to defy the owners, when they had stars in their eyes about making it to the major leagues—it’s just not going to happen.”
No Problem At All
From a top-down view, it seems like the Overwatch League would be just fine with a players’ union. In a mid-March report from Unikrn, former player Thomas “Morte” Kerbusch detailed plans to announce a fully-fledged and accredited union for players. While the report mentioned a planned announcement date of July 2018, not even whispers have surfaced of the proposed organization. I reached out to Morte for comment but got no response at the time of publication.
In an interview with Dexerto, Commissioner Nate Nanzer was open to the idea should it present itself.
“…it was really important to us in designing the Overwatch League that we created a league where players were treated really well. I think we’ve taken a lot of steps to do that. But if players decide that it’s in the best interest to form a union, of course we’d be supportive of that and have those discussions.”
Dan Fiden, President of the London Spitfire, has expressed similar sentiments.
“Anything that leads to the players feeling as though they have the best possible chance at having a long and fruitful career in esports, and actually directly contributes to that, we would be absolutely in favor of. If that’s the way that the players want to go, we’re fine with that. There are business pros and cons, at least in the US, for what that means for us; there can’t be salary caps unless there’s a player’s union, so there are benefits and some perceived negatives.”
I even reached out to Andy Miller, CEO and founder of the San Francisco Shock, for comment on a players’ union. Andy has always looked out for his players and staff, and his stance on a potential player organization reflected that.
“[I’m] all for it, as are more of the owners. Getting organized, having formal representation, understanding issues and economics of esports on both sides can only help grow the industry and be good for its long term health.”
Where, then, is the players’ union the League so desperately needs? Have Morte’s efforts failed? If so, what’s stopping another player (or group of players) from seeking out legal representation and making life better for their colleagues?
More of a Problem Than You Think
The roadblocks preventing union formation are threefold.
Players are not secure enough in a young, volatile league like OWL to stand up for their rights. If you become a problem, you’re traded away, benched, or released – and word travels fast in a small community like ours. Relegation to Contenders can be a death sentence for many players – as I feel we will soon see in Season 2 – and with so little money to be had outside of the league proper, players with little financial recourse must stay in their team’s good graces to put food on the table.
Players also aren’t aware of the processes surrounding union formation. It’s a complex web of legal proceedings that many of these young players are simply unaware of. While many players have agents or a common legal representative to assist in contract negotiations, union formation is an entirely different beast.
Finally, making a union paints a target on your back. Historically, pro-union activists in almost any industry are not their bosses’ favorite people. While there have been plenty of pro-union statements from high-level OWL personnel, not everyone will share that rosy opinion. For owners and other OWL leadership, a players’ union means a loss of money. They don’t like losing money.
Things to Do
With these problems in mind, a few things need to happen. Players need to be educated on how a union would benefit them and how to get involved. They also need to know how they’re formed in the first place. That means reading up on labor laws and talking to the right people to gain that education.
There also have to be players in the league that are secure enough to take the risk and get involved in unionization proceedings. They don’t have to be the ones to start it – as evidenced, outside parties can kick things off if they’ve got the time. All they have to do is lend their voice.
Finally, the players (or whoever gets things going) need to not be prevented from forming a union. I don’t necessarily think there are people actively working against unionization at the moment, but I’m not on the inside. There very well could be. If such forces exist, they must be overcome.
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Featured Image Courtesy of Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment