How IP Affects Athletes and Labour Relations in Esports

The esport landscape continues to grow at breakneck speed, with game-changing announcements regarding teams, tournaments, partnerships or profit projections being made on an almost daily basis. With so much going on in so many countries, impacting so many organizations, it can be difficult to process the ramifications of all of the events and activities.  

At ECEsports, our goal is to redefine the position and value of the esport athlete, empowering them to make intelligent decisions within the evolving esport landscape. In previous blogs, we have looked at the relationship between the esport athlete and the Game Developer, and have seen how IP has a pervasive and continual influence on the esports landscape.  In this blog, using the ECEsports Stakeholder Relationship Diamond, we are going to investigate the relationship between Intellectual Property (IP) and Labour Relations in the world of esports.

The Significance of Labour and Employment Relations

Labour and employment law and regulations give structure to our workplaces and the employer-employee relationship.  Their purpose is not only to protect everyone in the workplace and provide all parties with appropriate representation and a voice but to also promote economic development, fair labour practices, peace, democracy and social development.  Most countries have implemented their own legislation to deal with labour and employment issues. Because of the global nature of esports, issues have begun to arise in the sense that one country’s legal framework may not necessarily equate with that of another country. Ensuring these laws cohesively work together is a continuing struggle for the esports industry, and will be critical to resolve so that esports can continue with its global presence and growth.  These issues and the challenges they present, however, will be addressed in a future blog.

Instead, this blog will be focusing on the athletes themselves and their ability to create a platform that provides them with a voice. How do esport athletes negotiate with their employers? Who are their employers? Are they able to form a labour relations organization? Where does this group fit into the esport ecosystem?

In order to begin to answer these questions, we need to understand what a ‘labour relations organization’ is and the purpose it is created to serve.  We can use traditional North American sports leagues as an example

Sports and Labour Relations

In many traditional North American sports leagues, athletes have fought and established labour organizations.  The NHLPA, NFLPA and MLBPA are all examples of independent athlete-funded labour organizations, in this case, unions.  Each of these player unions has helped, and continues to help, their athletes by managing the athletes’ (employees) relationship with the team owners (employer).  It was a hard and arduous road to get these types of player association up and running, but it was an important step to establishing athlete representation in each respective sport.  Player organizations can be key in giving a voice to the athletes and creating a balanced and fair environment from which proper compensation, working conditions, and proper athlete treatment, among other things, can be established.

The Unique Challenge of Esports and Labour Relations

Esports present a unique problem that traditional sports athletes have never had to consider in the context of labour and employment – the Developer’s IP.  

In traditional sports, nobody ‘owns’ the sport.  The Major League Baseball (MLB) does not ‘own’ the sport of baseball.  Athletes are free to play baseball wherever they want. The MLB is made up of franchise owners, who tell athletes they cannot play in the MLB, but they can’t tell athletes they cannot play baseball.  So, when MLB athletes were looking to form a labour group, they only had to contend with the possibility that the MLB could shut them out from their league NOT their sport entirely.

Contrast this to esports, where Developers DO own the sport (i.e. the IP).  Esport athletes wake up every day with the very real possibility (because it has happened many times) of a Developer literally removing their ability to compete and perform in an esport. It’s as if the MLB COULD decide who played the sport of baseball.

So what does this mean for athlete labour organizations in esports?

It means that in any sort of discussion involving labour relations in esports, the Developer needs to be involved, and ultimately holds all the cards.  From an athlete’s perspective, this situation suggests that even if athletes wish to establish a truly independent player organization, the Developer can dictate what types of labour organization they will recognize and engage with. This is true regardless of the types of competitive models the Developer implements (i.e.  Franchise /League based model, promotion-relegation model, tournament-based model, promotion-relegation model etc).

Like so many other things in the esport landscape, labour relations are subject to the goals and mission of the Game Developer because of their ownership and control over their game’s IP. Do they see the value of the athlete? Will they recognize the importance of the athlete’s presence and person in the context of their competitive ecosystem.

Some Developers will embrace the athlete and understand that it is the athlete that drives storylines, engages fans, and makes the esport interesting.  Recently, Valve has taken this approach toward their CS:GO athletes.

Valve and the Counter-Strike Professional Players’ Association (CSPPA)

The CSPPA is the first truly independent player association in the esports industry – by the players, for the players (unlike Riot’s self-implemented “player association”).  The CSPPA says it best themselves;

The Counter-Strike Professional Players’ Association (CSPPA) is a newly formed worldwide representative association for professional Counter-Strike (CS:GO) players.

The CSPPA is player-driven, independent and democratic. Equality and solidarity are key values.

The CSPPA aims to safeguard, protect and promote professional Counter-Strike players’ interests both during and after their active career. The CSPPA will work to secure the best possible working conditions for the players while taking into account the special nature of the industry.

Any player who is contracted or actively seeking a contract as a professional Counter-Strike player and who competes at an elite level is eligible to be an active member of the CSPPA.

The CSPPA is a very new development, only coming into existence in 2018.  But Valve, CS:GO’s Developer, has already acknowledged the CSPPA and is actually listening to them.  While there is still a long way to go, this voluntary move by Valve is again showing they know what’s best when it comes to facilitating and growing a competitive ecosystem. Valve recognizes the importance and value of their athletes and engages them in ongoing discussions surrounding suggestions and improvements to the CS:GO esport landscape.  Other Developers could, and should, follow suit.

Again, the key here is understanding that this is happening because Valve CHOOSES to allow it to happen, not because they are being forced to listen by the CSPPA. It should be celebrated as a very positive step for the esports industry but it is based on a choice, not a mandate.

What does it all mean?

Labour and employment relations, in any industry, are often a major source of tension – just look at how it has become a major issue for the video game industry as of late.  Esports is no different in this regard – the inherent struggle between the employer and employee lives on.  In esports, the added layer of IP creates unique problems that will have to be delicately dealt with if the athlete ever wants a real seat at the table.

The bottom line is that in the current esport ecosystem, a Developer will never be required to listen to an independent player association – their ownership over their game’s IP ensures that.

Every Developer is unique, and each will look at the athlete’s playing their game in a different way.  Historically, in esports, Developers have not been particularly concerned with the individual athlete, but Valve’s approach to CS:GO athletes signals that a potentially positive shift may be on the horizon. Only time will tell how Valve’s approach will affect other Developers’ perception of the athlete…if it has any effect at all.



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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