Why the Players Chose EPL over the PEA
The Counter-Strike players of Cloud9, Counter Logic Gaming, Immortals, NRG Esports, Team Liquid, and Team SoloMid have unanimously decided to compete in ESL Pro League (EPL) over the Professional Esports Association (PEA) — a league founded, owned and operated by their team owners. The players have all signed voting documents and proxy communication forms giving me formal permission to relay their decision. What follows is my insight into some of the reasons behind the decision, as well as my own perspective on some of the larger industry issues the players currently face.
Two weeks ago, I published an open letter on behalf of the players of five Counter-Strike teams, expressing their concerns about the Professional Esports Association and its approach to the Counter-Strike community (today, five teams has grown to six). One of the things that the players wished to relay in their open letter was that they are all grateful to play the game they love for a living, and I want to reiterate that today on their behalf. Those of us who play or have played Counter-Strike (at any level) all remember the road we walked to get here — our first installs, public servers, teams, and scrims; our first matches and tournaments; our first wins (and lots of losses). The players remember these days, too. They do not take the privilege of their profession for granted, nor do they take for granted everyone who works to make it possible.
We made the decision two weeks ago to publish an open letter not only because the players didn’t feel they were being treated fairly by the PEA and their team owners, but also because we felt it was important to create a public dialogue about issues that loom large over the esports ecosystem: issues like transparency, trust, and players being properly represented with a real seat at the negotiating table. Those issues were pressing before the open letter, and they are still pressing as I write this today. To make sure we’re all on the same page, I want to remind everyone of what happened between the players and the PEA starting back in September.
On September 8th of 2016, the team owners that collectively co-founded (and now co-own) the PEA announced that they were forming a league that would empower players, set a new standard for transparency in the industry, and join the esports ecosystem without disrupting other tournaments on the circuit. The owners and Jason Katz, the PEA’s Commissioner, made many public comments about the league to this end when it was announced — for those of you who need to catch up, we cite some of these quotations in the second section of the open letter. Similar things were also said to the players in private.
Yet despite making these statements in September, the PEA proceeded to set up a voting structure that left the players easily outnumbered, and made little to no effort between September and November to establish a conversation with EPL that would allow the two leagues to co-exist. My involvement in all of this began in late November, when the players first heard rumors that no PEA/EPL dialogue was ongoing, and reached out to me for help. My first task was to get to the bottom of those rumors, and I was fairly quickly able to confirm not only that there was no dialogue, but that the PEA was the unresponsive party in the equation. When I first got involved, the players were just days away from losing their EPL slots.
By the time early December arrived, Jason Katz (the PEA Commissioner) and certain owners were telling us in private that the players were required to drop EPL, and that they did not have a choice. I want to be clear about the manner in which this was relayed, and the tone that was taken — because it was not soft. When I spoke with Jason Katz — who in the conversation was representing all of the PEA’s member teams — about this issue on December 8th, he made it clear that the owners believed they had full control over where the players could and could not play. When I asked him if the owners really believed they had the power to force the players out of EPL simply because the PEA viewed EPL as a competitor, his reply was simple: “Yes.” He also went on to tell me in that in the PEA’s view, it was inevitable that the esports industry would be under the control of the team owners and game developers only, with third-party tournament operators no longer part of the picture. These statements left very little room for interpretation, and when some of the PEA team owners spoke to their players between December 7th and December 9th, the tone was also quite direct. Some of the players felt very uncomfortable in those conversations. It was not a great environment.
As I observed Jason and the owners’ responses to our open letter, what struck me the most was that they didn’t really offer an explanation for everything that had happened. They certainly didn’t deny it. They mostly swept it under the rug and said, “Yeah, we could’ve communicated better.” With respect, what I would like to say about this is: Guys, I’m sorry, but you can’t just gloss over the discrepancy between what you said in September and what actually happened afterward by calling it a “miscommunication.” That’s a lot of spin — even for the esports industry — and I’m pointing this out not to be confrontational or reignite a debate that has already passed, but to remind everyone that the core issues of transparency, trust, and player representation still need to be addressed. They have not been fixed over the course of the last two weeks, and they will not be fixed overnight.
To their credit, after we released our open letter, the PEA and its team owners did concede that the choice between the PEA and EPL would be the players’ to make. We appreciate that, but on a deeper level, the team owners being able to determine the options from which the players can choose is a symptom of a larger problem. As I stated in one of my public comments, “Being able to ‘choose’ between two options that are not mutually exclusive is an illusion, not actual freedom of choice.” While the owners did concede the PEA/EPL decision to the players, they also made it very clear that they believe they “unambiguously have the contractual right to decide where their players compete.” Remember, until very recently, the players were not under the impression that the contracts they had signed gave their team owners the right to determine where they play. To the contrary, some of the owners had told their players directly that the players held the final say. The fact that the team owners believed the opposite was really the case is something we only found out as the PEA situation developed in November and December.
Over the past several weeks since we published our open letter, there has been a lot of community discussion on this subject. Some of you have made the point that it was unfair for the team owners to structure their players’ contracts the way they did — in a way that was potentially misleading. Some of you have also made the point that it is ultimately the players’ responsibility to research and understand their contracts before signing them. I understand both of these perspectives, and appreciate the passion all of you have shown in the arguments you have made. While I’ve mostly stayed quiet on this particular subject, I’d now like to share some thoughts of my own for you to consider.
There are two really important things to keep in mind when discussing this issue. The first is that most of the players who signed contracts containing these clauses in question were never told that the clauses could, or would, be used in the way the PEA attempted to use them back in December. Players were mostly either told that they held the final say on where they would play; were under the impression that the clauses were more for scheduling purposes than league selection purposes; or assured that the clauses were there for defensive reasons. Those are all very different from a world in which the clauses are used to force the players out of the biggest Counter-Strike league on the planet.
Now, I can imagine some of you are saying, “Scott, the players are professionals. They’re getting paid a lot of money, and they should know better than to sign documents without understanding what they’re really signing.” What I would say to that is: Actually, I agree with you. The players were naive to sign these contracts based on good faith, non-binding promises from their teams. What I would ask you guys to consider, though, is: Does a player being naive completely justify his team owner using potentially disingenuous negotiation tactics? Sean Gares’ situation is a good example for discussion. His team reassured him that the clause was there for defensive purposes. Yet as we understand it, on the day Sean signed that contract, his team was part of a group of PEA co-owners who actively intended to use that same clause to force their players out of EPL.
Think about that for a second. Who’s on the worse end of the negotiating table: the guy that has the hidden agenda, or the guy that decides to trust what the other guy is saying?
The second really important thing to keep in mind when discussing this issue is that, from what we know, almost every PEA team’s player contract includes these clauses or ones like them. This raises the question of whether the team owners would have actually removed these clauses from their contracts had the players asked. Over the past couple of weeks, some team owners have made it seem like they would’ve happily removed the clauses if it had been requested. I, for one, would be leery of these kinds of claims. We have heard, for example, of situations in which players negotiating with PEA teams were told that removing the clauses was not even up for discussion.
Wherever you stand on the contract clauses issue, what I hope we can all agree on is that players need better representation and a stronger voice. From what the PEA team owners have said publicly, they are also supportive of this. To the point many of you have made, maybe this issue with the contract clauses would not have happened had the players been unified and properly represented. While their team owners worked together to standardize their contracts in this way, there was no unified voice to look out for the players’ best interests until recently.
This is a perfect example of why players need to work together in order to have a real seat at the esports industry’s negotiating table. We remarked in our letter two weeks ago that the industry might now be at a point at which it’s just too big for trust alone to reasonably protect everyone’s interests. Perhaps this is the larger conclusion that the players need to reach after experiencing the events of the past two weeks.
Sticking together after the publication of the open letter, though, was not easy for the players. Some team owners did not initially respect the players’ requests to have dialogue go through me. Some team owners approached their players one-on-one in a way that made the players uncomfortable. Most notably, one player was outright removed from his team due to his participation in the open letter. While the team owners did eventually respect the players’ wishes to engage in a unified dialogue — and I give the owners credit for that — for the players, it a was a challenge to stick together. Now, it is their responsibility to keep sticking together if they want to have a real say in their future within this industry.
Regarding the players’ decision to participate in EPL over the PEA, the first point I’d like to make is that EPL was less financially lucrative for the players than the PEA in the short term. While EPL’s proposal included both profit and revenue sharing (compared to the PEA only offering profit sharing), the players viewed this more as a long term benefit. They would have made more money, more quickly and easily, with less challenging competition, had they chose the PEA. This was one of the PEA’s primary pitch points, but to most of the players it was actually a cause for concern.
As a professional gamer, so much of your livelihood depends on how you connect with your community. This happens in a variety of ways, including: social media, live streaming and other content, and of course playing in top-tier competitions with many fans watching. The players mostly felt that going with the PEA’s proposal would be a step in the wrong direction in these regards. Being in a more contained environment with easier competition might be appealing if the players only cared about making as much money per match as possible in the short term. However, from most other perspectives (including competition quality and prestige) the players did not feel that being contained was in their best interests or the best interests of the Counter-Strike community. This is especially because being contained can very quickly turn into being isolated.
There has been a lot of discussion over the past six months (not only in the Counter-Strike community, but across the esports community as a whole) about closed versus open systems. Some team owners have claimed that closed systems are necessary in order for their businesses to be financially viable, and it’s probably not a coincidence that there is a large amount of overlap between these owners and the owners that have founded the PEA. On a level of format and structure, there are arguments that can be made on both sides — as the players discussed this issue, for example, there was a lot of discussion and there were healthy debates. On an economic level, though, the conclusion was much clearer: overall, we do not agree that closed systems are necessary right now in order for everyone in esports to thrive.
Typically, there are a number of traditional sports analogies used when community members and industry figureheads discuss this issue. While I do think these can be useful for discussion, the overall point I would like to make on this subject is that the esports industry is not like any traditional sports industry and it really can’t be stuffed into any box based on traditional sports precedent. Esports as an industry is unique — it has been built with an inherent level of unprecedented openness that the accessibility of live streaming, social media and online play allows. I believe that this openness and accessibility should be empowered and cherished — not suffocated by forcing esports into traditional sports models.
I understand completely why the PEA team owners might like traditional sports analogies, and would want to implement a closed, franchise system that they own and operate. With respect, though, I do not think that this kind of system would be good for the community, the players, or the industry as a whole — at least not right now. Right now, it would mostly just be good for the team owners who founded the PEA. The PEA’s structure as it was proposed to the players would give its member teams an unprecedented amount of power and market control. EPL’s structure as it was presented is more open, balanced, and in line with the philosophy that esports should be treated as its own industry and not forced into traditional sports models. Ultimately, this was a major factor in the players choosing EPL. Don’t get me wrong: EPL is not perfect (and certainly neither is WESA), but at this point it was the far less concerning of the two options.
While the players have made a clear choice here, I want to reiterate both on their behalf and for myself that we appreciate everything the PEA teams have done for this industry. The result of this vote does not change that. We all recognize that the players’ careers would not be possible without the roles teams play in the industry, and how important it is that teams are able to run their businesses in a way that is financially viable. Our perspective is simply that the best way to make things financially viable — for everyone — is to engage in a truly open, transparent dialogue across the industry as a whole. Right now, we should be focusing on how players, teams, and leagues can work together more closely at the negotiating table, and not on blurring the line between team owner and league operator. In order for all of that to happen, though, the players must first come together on their own. Hopefully, their decision here is a big step in that direction.
For my part personally, I’d like to say the following to all of the players who made this decision: It has been an honor to work with you thus far. As someone who’s been a strong player advocate for my entire career in this industry, I am looking forward to working along side you as we continue to bring more players into the fold.
Scott “SirScoots” Smith