Although the conversation about unionization in the gaming space has kept popping up consistently over the past years, they are a scarce commodity in the industry, let alone in esports. During the 2022 Inven Global Esports Conference, guest host Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles led the panel “The Fight for Unionization in Esports & Gaming” to discuss where the industries stand at the moment and what needs to happen for more unions to be created in the space.
- Jessica Gonzalez — Organizer Code-CWA
- Phillip Aram — Executive Director LCS Players Association
- Parth Naidu — League of Legends personality and former TSM manager
Before we get into the developer-side and tech-side of things, let’s start by talking about where you think unionization exists in the esports space, particularly for players.
Phillip: “We’re currently at zero unions. It is complicated in the esports world. In the traditional labor world, you have a very straightforward, two-party relationship between the employer and the employees. In esports, we have this really strange tri-party system where we have the employer, which is the team, the employees, which are the players, and we have the [game] developer, who governs the employment space for both parties. You can’t do a contract [in League of Legends esports] without running it by Riot. Riot gets to set rules about what goes in and out of those contracts. The US system for unionization is really designed around a two-party system. Navigating towards being the first union [in esports] requires figuring out how you fit our triangular system into what’s normally a binary system. That’s what we’re working on now.
Parth, in your former position [as GM of TSM], would you have welcomed these negotiations where teams would potentially be limited as a result of unionization?
Parth: “It’s a different perspective. I know all of the team owners have talked about what it could mean if it proceeds toward unionization. If you were to implement salary caps, what would that do to the competitiveness of NA as a region? It’s a heavy importing region and one of the biggest draws we have is that we’re able to pay high salaries. If you take that ability away, obviously the competitiveness is gonna go down. I think the situation is super complicated because, like Phil said, it’s that relationship of the union with the players, the orgs, and Riot.
Riot, for me, has always been really confusing to work with. You have the esports side that’s working in NA, you have Riot Global, who controls all of the esports operations across the globe, and then you also have Riot proper. Those are three different stakeholders in what happens. So, I think for right now, at least from the org side, it’s hard to tell whether it’s gonna be a positive or a negative for the ecosystem. It just depends on how those proceedings go and what shakes out.
Jessica, there is a large amount of stuff happening with Activision-Blizzard and we’ve actually seen a small group form a union under the Activision-Blizzard umbrella. As a former employee of ABK, why do you think unionization is so important for developers and people who work for these developers?
Jessica: The way the industry is now, it’s kind of a revolving door. You’re going into one studio and you think “Ok, maybe they don’t crunch this hard.” You’re kind of guessing at the labor practices of each studio. Worker protections in general, but specifically in quality assurance areas, are notoriously undervalued and notoriously underpaid. They’re crunched really hard; I’ve seen people suffer physically and mentally. That’s a lot of why it was important to start organizing in the game space. I think there’s this old world view of “You work in video games, you should be grateful that you work on video games,” but it’s just not enough, especially in these expensive locations like Santa Monica, Irvine… You’re gonna need at least several roommates to survive as an entry-level [employee] in quality assurance or customer service. Even higher-level engineers take a cut.
It was, “Oh you get to work at this company!” But I think people start to realize that it doesn’t mean a lot anymore, because of the scandals that are going on and how leadership responds to them. So, it’s part of taking that voice back and giving it to the workers. That board of directors decides the fate of everyone in the company, without [employees] having a say in it. That’s all we really wanted, a seat at the table.
It’s very different when it comes to professional players and crunch culture, Phil and Parth. There almost isn’t a choice when we’re talking about professional sports athletes. Crunching during the season is more or less mandatory if you’re going to compete at the highest level. We’re also, for the most part, talking about people with extremely high incomes, at least in the LCS.
Phillip: And yet, making a high income doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have a life balance and be able to be happy in your employment. That’s an important piece. Every person is gonna be different in terms of what crunch looks like. You have a wide variety in terms of how much a player plays solo queue, pubs, or in-houses and scrims, or maybe they watch replays.
But when we talk about the developer-side, team-side, or player-side, collective bargaining and working together is about lifting the sails of everybody. You just have more power together. I think you see it across the history of labor organizing. There is a reason why, for the first hundred years of labor organizing in America, every attempt to organize labor ended in the employer hiring local police and sending them to shoot the people organizing. It was worth it to people who had the means and production to quell this because employees are going to get more if they work together. They’re going to understand that they have more value and that Amazon setting record profits and things of that nature aren’t because of a few people on the board at the top. It’s because of the work being done by the people at the base.
In your case, in the case of esports, it could mean that players at the top could be set back in the amount they get paid if a salary cap was introduced. It is at least a possibility.
Phillip: Sure, and unionization salary structures are a part in labor as well. If you’re looking to seniority systems or what you see in labor organizing, oftentimes you’re putting in a set structure. Maybe there are a top few producers at Activision-Blizzard who have a little less leverage because they agree to be part of a collective. But let me also point out that there are sports where you don’t take away the top. That’s all a part of the collective bargaining process. If you want to have the highest earners bought into the process, in the same way that you have the highest-earning teams bought into the process, and who don’t want to cut back their budgets, it’s still possible to fit that into the system. You can look at the MLS, who balance all this and have some players exempted from the salary cap. There are systems out there that balance all those systems together. I think the notion of a hard salary cap is just an example. I think our system would develop its own way to tackle the problems that are there.
Parth, in what way would you appreciate a union in the esports space, with the understanding that teams are often squeezed from both sides?
Parth: There is a lot that leads up to unionization, and I think those steps are still kind of premature. For example, since I’ve left TSM I’ve spoken to a lot of prospective players who reached out to me and asked me about industry standards and what kind of contracts they should be looking at. What I found that the core problem was, is that there is information asymmetry between players and teams. Players didn’t know who to ask for help, how to go into negotiations… We keep talking about salary as the biggest point in the conversation, but they’re giving up rights like term length, consent for trades, termination clauses, salary reductions in their contracts… There’s just not enough clarity around that. I think these are the steps that the players and the PA can be taking right now.
Players coming into the scene are signing contracts without having any idea of how to read a contract or what it means. I think, if you Google right now, you can’t find what the minimum salary is for an LCS Academy player. You need to reach out to someone who knows that. I think that information needs to be more readily accessible for you as a player coming into the ecosystem. So, I think there are a lot of steps you can provide in the ecosystem before you even go to the final step of unionization.
What are the first hurdles that you’re trying to overcome when it comes to creating unions, Jessica?
Jessica: One of the hardest hurdles is people entering [the industry] and not knowing. But companies also spend millions of dollars hiring anti-union consultants, who tell them exactly what to say while skirting legalities. They can easily run an anti-union campaign, so as you’re trying to organize, they have these “captive audience sessions” where only the employers are allowed to talk to the employees. Everyone else is muted, nobody can chat. They pretty much say, “We think it’s best when the relationship between the employer and the employee is there, and we’d like to third-party a union.” But what they don’t understand is that the union is actually the employees. It’s not a third party. It’s not CWA. It’s not GWA.
The hardest hurdle is educating people on why it matters that they know what’s in their contract. It’s kind of like being an advocate for other workers. Even though one person’s issue with a company is not the same issue another person has with the company, you can work collectively to solve both of them together. You have to educate people on their rights. You are allowed to organize. They can’t retaliate against you. But it’s scary, obviously, when the business is being sued for retaliation. But it’s about making informed choices and having a seat at the table, instead of having this board decide everything for you.
Want to hear more? Watch the full panel here.
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