Competitive Esports Models – Where Does the Athlete Fit In?

The dictionary definition of an athlete is ‘a person who is proficient in sports and other forms of physical exercise.’ However, the word athlete has its roots in the Greek word ‘athlein’ which simply means ‘to compete for a prize’.

While there are some (and the number is steadily decreasing) who still contend that esport athletes are not ‘real’ athletes, the vast majority of teams, leagues, organizations and fans are proving that their gamer heroes are not only athletes, but they are athletes in a sport that is gaining momentum and recognition by the minute. Even now, the International Olympic Committee is in deep discussion regarding esport inclusion on an Olympic level.

Not athletes, eh?

In my last blog, we explored the two predominant competitive models and the key players involved in the current esport ecosystem. While we touched on the implications of these models for athletes briefly, we will dive a little deeper now into how each structure affects and influences the esport athlete and all of their significant relationships.

A thought before we begin…

Without the athlete, there is no need for any competitive model. The athletes are at the very centre of the competitive esports industry. Without the athlete, there are no teams, leagues, tournaments, or revenue. In either competitive model, the athlete has more power than they realize. Figuring out how best to leverage that power will be important for esports athletes moving forward.

So, what do these two competitive models mean for athletes?  Where do they currently fit?


The Non-Franchise Model

Typically, there are four parties involved in this model:

  • Game Developer
  • Tournament Organizer
  • Team
  • Athlete

Each party has their own goals and objectives. They all work collectively to achieve these individual goals, though not all of the parties work with each other directly.

Relationship Structures

  • Game Developer & Tournament Organizer – strictly a business relationship based on the Developer’s game being used in the context of an esport event or tournament.
  • Tournament Organizer & Team– strictly a business relationship based on the inclusion of teams in a specific esport event or tournament.
  • Team & Athlete – in a perfect world there would be more than just a business relationship here. It benefits the Team Owner to advocate for their athletes in the context of their wider relationship spheres

What does this mean for the athlete?

Theoretically, this model allows for athletes to come together and form their own team in order to compete, which is perhaps the very essence of competition and sport. This could never happen in a Franchise Model environment unless the athletes were able to raise the exorbitant amount of money to buy a franchise slot.  More on that a little later.


This model, in theory, provides a clear structure for the athletes and the relationships they have to manage.  As a team member, the athlete receives compensation to play a given game for a predetermined period of time. Typically, the Team provides tournament buy-ins, equipment and uniforms among other things and, in return, benefits from increased exposure and popularity their brand experiences from having their team compete in various events and tournaments.  

Athletes, as a result, are integral to team success.  The relationship between the athlete and the team SHOULD be a mutually beneficial one though it is not always the case in reality.


One of the benefits of this model is the level of flexibility afforded to the athlete. Typically, in this model, the Game Developer has less involvement. Though they still own and control the game’s IP, they are far less involved in the running of the tournament and are ‘okay’ with the Organizer taking the leadership role. This means that teams primarily deal with the Tournament Organizer, not the Developer. Issues of control and IP are dealt with at the Developer / Tournament Organizer level, keeping the Organizer / Team relationship much more event, team and brand driven. This all means that the athlete’s main focus remains on their team and performance…right where it should be.


In this model, the athlete deals with the Team and the Team alone. Because of this, the athlete has far more control over all aspects of their career. Although the Developer is still inherently involved and expects a certain level of conduct from the athlete in exchange for their permission to compete, the athlete has more control in the structure of their relationship with their Team.  Athletes are able to negotiate all aspects of that relationship, with little to no Developer involvement.


The Franchise Model

Typically, this model leaves complete control in the Game Developer’s hands. There are really only three parties involved in the relational landscape:

  • Game Developer
  • Franchise Owner
  • Athlete

What about the Tournament Organizers?

Tournament Organizers still operate in the Franchise Model but on a different level with significantly less economic and relational impact. The focus is not on the event or tournament but rather, on the franchised league.

What we are beginning to see is Developers bringing Tournament Organizers ‘in-house’.  Tespa is a Tournament Organizer whose headquarters are quite literally located within Blizzard’s HQ in California. They ‘partner’ with Blizzard to essentially run collegiate level events like the CEC.

When a Developer creates a franchised league for one of their games, their goal is to maintain a certain level of control over their IP and how it is used.  In adding Tournament-Organizing arms to their businesses, Developers are effectively removing the opportunity for independent tournament organizers to host events using that underlying IP.

Relationship Structures

  • Game Developer & Franchise Owner – strictly a business relationship based on the Developer’s game being used in the context of an esport franchise.
  • Franchise Owner & Athlete – again, in a perfect world there would be more than just a business relationship here. The close relationship between the Franchise Owner and the Developer, however, leaves athletes more vulnerable to the Developer’s desires.

What does this mean for the athlete?


While this model also provides a clear structure for the parties involved, it is potentially more difficult to navigate for the athlete. The Developer and the Franchise Owner both implement their own sets of rules and regulations, and while much of it overlaps, it still creates an additional layer for the athlete to navigate.  The reciprocal relationship seen in the Non-Franchise Model is replaced by a relationship that is much more one-sided.


In the Franchise Model, there is less flexibility for the athlete. Typically, the Game Developer is more present and exerts more control over the entire ecosystem and process. As the owners of the game’s IP, they feel it is their right and duty to protect and promote it. With the smaller Tournament Organizer presence in this model, there is a more direct and felt influence of the Developer’s goals and objectives. This not only minimizes the athlete’s flexibility, but demands that the athlete be more aware of, and invested in, the strategic relationships that impact their success in the space.       


Athletes possess less control in this landscape than in the Non-Franchise Model. Ultimate control is held by the Developer, with secondary control lent to the Franchise Owners.  Issues that are critical to the athlete may not be critical to the Developer – and therefore not a focus for Franchise Owners.  Perhaps the best illustration of this is the idea of revenue sharing. The Franchise Model creates the opportunity to implement a revenue sharing model into the newly-created league, and another potential source of revenue for athletes – if they get included.  Any revenue sharing model incorporated into a Franchised league does NOT inherently have to include the athlete.


Revenue Sharing

Implementing a revenue sharing model means that the multiple streams of income – including ticket sales, broadcast rights, sponsorships, merchandise sales (and more)- are distributed or shared on a percentage basis between the Developer and the Franchise Owners.  For Team Owners, it means their focus will be on the success of the league, and not necessarily on their specific team. What’s key to understand is the ‘collective mind’ at work here. Developers and Franchise Owners want the same thing – success for the Developer because this ultimately means success for the Franchise Owner.

Historically, traditional sports athletes had to fight to be included in these revenue sharing models – and it seems like esports athletes will have to do the same. We will have to wait and see what happens.



In the Non-Franchise Model, it is possible for a group of athletes to join together to form their own team. In the Franchise Model, this is not an option.  Franchise slots are incredibly expensive and difficult to acquire. Additionally, in the Non-Franchise Model, the athlete has more control over the contractual relationship they have with their team.  In the Franchise Model, athletes are much more limited in the types of sponsorships and partnerships they are able to pursue. Any form of independent revenue stream is typically subject to Team approval and is often prohibited in favour of elevating the Team and the league.

So, can the Franchise Model exist outside of heavy Developer involvement? Should we be asking it to or are there other potential models to explore in the ever-widening esport landscape? Though it seems to be to the esport athletes advantage to be a part of a Non-Franchise Model, there still exists a chasm between the concerns of the athlete and the concerns of the other parties involved.

Athletes have more power than they think in either model – the first step to leveraging that power is understanding the relationships in each model, and acknowledging their OWN importance in the esports industry.

Thanks for reading my blog. The above content is not legal advice but observation about the vast esports field. If you have any questions or comments or would like to schedule me to speak at your event, head over to my website

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