Esports meets mainstream: WESA doesn’t know what mainstream means

by Daniel Rosen Apr 17 2017
Thumbnail image courtesy of World Esports Association

Last week, when WESA added SK Gaming and Renegades to their ranks, SK Gaming CEO Alex Müller said that WESA and all of its member teams are working to “take esports mainstream.” Beyond the fact that that statement makes no sense even when it’s in context, I’m fairly certain that that wasn’t WESA’s stated goal at the beginning.

Then again, I also don’t really know what WESA’s goal even is, and I’m pretty sure they don’t either.

Founded in May 2016, the World Esports Association is loosely defined as a joint effort by several (mostly European) esports organizations with Counter-Strike teams that launched with a stated goal of professionalizing esports. Since then, they’ve lost a founding member, added two new members, and issued a handful of tournament rulings. Not exactly changing the face of esports.

Perhaps that’s being a little dismissive. In theory, WESA has done a lot behind the scenes. They say they’ve created a set of comprehensive regulations for running leagues, which include a code of conduct and sanction regulations, and that they’ve instituted an arbitration court that’s open to “everyone involved in esports.” The problem is that we actually haven’t seen tangible results from any of WESA’s backroom efforts, and it’s hard to say how key some of them will be when WESA hasn’t been entirely transparent with even their regulations.

WESA’s “comprehensive regulations” do not include specific penalties for infractions. Instead, WESA’s board of executives will evaluate each infraction and dish out an individual penalty. According to an emailed statement from WESA, unless you’re a WESA member or playing in a WESA-sanctioned league, you won’t have access to these regulations.

In the meantime, rumors have flown freely about the shadier side of WESA’s dealings regarding player exclusivity and caster contracts (which, to WESA’s credit, they have denied). WESA has been tight-lipped about everything behinds the scenes, and they’ve spent most their press releases talking about vague plans the public isn’t allowed to see and moves that ESL, WESA’s parent company, has made. WESA is an arm of the oligarchic, incestuous cabal that is European CS:GO, and it really has acted like that so far.

And yet, one of esports’ most complicated, least transparent organizations is now purporting to be pushing the industry into the mainstream with...what, exactly? Is it the ESL Pro League, a league WESA sanctions but that existed before them in mostly the same state? Are they using those vague, hidden-from-public-eyes regulations to make esports mainstream? Or will Ken Hershman, their executive chairman and commissioner, use his former HBO Sports know-how to make WESA the figurehead of the esports ship that breaches the mainstream?

With respect to Hershman, none of that seems likely, if only because WESA hasn’t really outlined what “mainstream” means in the context of bringing esports into it. To be fair to them, no one really has, including myself. So let’s take a moment to fix that and try to figure out exactly what exactly esports wants from the mainstream, before we figure out if WESA can even achieve that.

For the most part, the mainstream tends to refer to… well, everything that isn’t esports. Usually “penetrating the mainstream” gets thrown around whenever esports has a cool intersection with traditional sports, but also whenever big, recognizable brands sponsor an event or team. Basically, it’s safe to say that whenever we’re talking about breaking into the mainstream, we’re talking about money coming into esports.

When it comes to WESA talking about the mainstream though, it seems to have more to do with building infrastructure. WESA’s stated goals include setting industry standards for tournament regulations, codes of conduct and revenue sharing for the tournaments that they sanction. The problem is that I don’t think that actually helps bring esports into the mainstream. If the general public isn’t interested in esports, tournament regulation isn’t really going to do it.

Big companies don’t necessarily care that esports has a tiny group of big teams that are working to craft standards for tournaments they’ve decided to participate in because they benefit them. The mainstream doesn’t care that there is a WESA. They care about advertising dollars and viewership numbers a dozen tangible things that aren’t “professionalism.” That’s what they want to bring to the space, to look like the heroes in a scene that, despite WESA’s best efforts, is still so Wild West that I think I saw Fallen riding a horse away from Starladder when SK was eliminated.

If WESA wants to make esports mainstream, they should really focus on making themselves mainstream within esports first.

Grade: D — WESA throwing around “mainstream” in a press release is indicative of both the esports industry’s lack of understanding of the mainstream, and of how out of touch WESA is these days. WESA isn’t really proving their value to the greater esports community, and if they’re going to lead esports into the vast unknown that is “the mainstream,” they’re going to need to start becoming more transparent and letting everyone understand what on earth they’re going to do to get us there.