The Trials of WESA: After troubled start, standards body gains ground with esports industry

by theScore Staff Jun 28 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of World Esports Association

Going on two months since the founders of the World Electronic Sports Association revealed their plans to the CS:GO community, the controversy has died down, but the machinery behind WESA is still grinding away. The organization's leadership says they are hard at work trying to convince players, teams and sponsors that WESA can help bring stability to an underfunded and overworked CS:GO scene — without turning it into a corrupt and stagnant monopoly.

Wouter Sleijffers, CEO of Fnatic and one of two team representatives on WESA's executive board, says that while he and the other founders of WESA weren't exactly expecting such a frosty reception from CS:GO fans, he's really more interested in what they'll think of the organization a year from now, once it's had time to make an impact.

"For us, it's not necessarily about trying to sell the WESA story," he says. "I think what we have to do is deliver on the promises that we're making and the ambitions that we have, and by doing so, people will continuously see the value of it and start to support the initiative."

Sleijffers says that, contrary to what's been speculated in the social sphere, WESA is not attempting to create an exclusive, Riot Games-style global CS:GO league. He stresses the organization is ambivalent to whether CS:GO has a "one-league" or "many-league" future, and that Fnatic and the other teams that are part of WESA have no real interest in a scenario where WESA — and by extension its sole founding league, ESL — is the only game in town.

"I think it should very much still be a natural competition between tournaments and leagues about what the fans and viewers appreciate, in the end, the most. That's what should be the leading factor," he says. Competition between leagues like ECS, ELEAGUE and DreamHack ultimately improves the experience for both fans and players, he says, and WESA doesn't want to flatten the vibrant CS:GO ecosystem by dictating which leagues it's acceptable for members to play in.

What Fnatic and the other teams on WESA aren't okay with, however, is an endlessly expanding plethora of tournaments and leagues demanding their participation. Fnatic, like many pro teams, are already finding that a schedule crammed with premier events is over-stressing their players and leading to burnout and injuries.

"Organically you have already seen that we started to play fewer leagues and tournaments, just because there are so many," he says. "And somewhat organically you've seen there are certain events, tournaments and leagues where we see all those top CS:GO teams are participating, and others where they are not participating anymore. ... You could say that the ambition of WESA is — with the teams — to improve the experience for fans, but also for players and teams, and to reduce the number of tournaments."

Teams are looking for a way to separate out the top competitive leagues from the rest. The way Sleijffers and his colleagues intend to do that is by laying out standards and best practices that describe the kind of leagues they're looking to play in. He says this is something teams have always done informally, by emailing organizers behind the scenes to work out how their players will be treated. But with WESA, they aim to formalize and democratize the process, getting input from many of the top teams and players in the scene and establishing some universal expectations for competitive leagues.

"What we hope to achieve is that we set a certain standard or example that others can either follow or take the bits out of it that feel important," he says. Though WESA initially talked about "sanctioning" other leagues, Sleijffers now says that was the wrong language to use, as it implies that WESA would dictate terms that leagues would be obliged to follow. As he sees it, leagues will not need to seek approval from WESA, but will be free to follow WESA's recommendations — or not — and teams can make their own choices about whether or not to participate in non-WESA-compliant events. Even for leagues that don't attract the top caliber of teams and players, Sleijffers hopes WESA's principles can be applied to improve conditions for participants.

WESA is already pushing hard for tournament organizers to adopt one practice in particular: revenue-sharing. In Sleijffers' view, teams and players deserve a cut of the revenue made at major CS:GO events, since their presence is a major draw for viewers and attendees. Though these kinds of revenue-sharing deals are fairly new to esports, they are a pretty fundamental component of traditional sports leagues like the NFL or MLB.

In a blog post published in May, shortly after WESA was announced, Team EnVyUs managing director and former Call of Duty pro Mike "Hastr0" Rufail said that while tournament prize pools have become more generous, prize money is still the only real source of earnings for players and teams that attend the event. As a result, participating in tournaments can be a money-losing venture, especially for newer teams that aren't likely to place highly.

"The money YOU spend and generate watching these events is all at the disposal and in the control of the leagues and tournament organizers," Hastr0 wrote. "We do not have audit rights and we are not able to see their revenues generated from the events we play in. The players and organizations do not have a direct source of revenue from things like ticket sales, advertising revenue, merchandise, league sponsorship, or MEDIA/BROADCAST RIGHTS which will without a doubt become the largest source of revenue in esports when television comes knocking and the reason mainstream sports athletes and teams have multi-million dollar deals."

Though Hastr0 doesn't name Turner Sports or ELEAGUE specifically, the world's first TV-broadcast CS:GO league has been the first to succeed in signing $2 million, multi-season sponsorship deals with household brands like Arby's and Buffalo Wild Wings. ELEAGUE is likely paying out some of that revenue to teams that are participating, but the terms of those deals haven't been made public.

For EnVyUs, revenue-sharing was the primary reason for joining WESA, and Sleijffers makes it clear that pushing revenue-sharing is priority number one for the association. "I think the most important thing that we're achieving here is that tournament organizers are responding to this, and are thinking about how teams and players can also be getting the benefit of revenue sharing," he says. "Because by all means they are, to a very large extent, why there are so many viewers and visitors to their events."

Sleijffers points to FACEIT's Esports Championship Series as an example of a league that has openly committed to sharing some of its revenues with teams via a co-ownership agreement. For top-tier teams, participation in tournaments and leagues may soon be contingent on such arrangements.

ESL has also committed to sharing revenues from its events with teams, via WESA. And this is where many fans have a big problem with the organization. So far, it's been very difficult to distinguish where ESL ends and WESA begins. Beyond providing much of the monetary backing for WESA, ESL has two out of five seats on its executive board, and the interim commissioner, Pietro Fringuelli, has also served as legal counsel for ESL. ESL has even offered the founding teams $150,000 each upon joining WESA, in what many early reports characterized as a "sign-up fee" to entice teams to join. Sleijffers describes it as a sort of advance on earnings ESL plans to share with member teams. He says it's not really a "fee," since the money will come out of the teams' cut at upcoming ESL events. He also clarified the teams don't expect similar up-front guarantees from other leagues.

WESA has shown no interest in involving ESL's competitors as members. As ESL VP pro gaming product James Lampkin told Richard Lewis in an interview for the Daily Dot, "The fundamental structure of WESA doesn’t allow for more organizers to be members." Lampkin said that though ESL initially tried negotiating with other leagues, "It became a case of too many cooks in the kitchen," and it wasn't possible for the organizers to iron out conflicts in their business interests. Yet with only one league so deeply entrenched in the organization, it's been hard for the CS:GO community accept WESA as a truly independent body, rather than an attempt by ESL to cozy up to top EU teams and shove out competing tournament organizers.

From the perspective of WESA commissioner Fringuelli, the ideal scenario of having many leagues collaborating on a project like this isn't feasible, but that shouldn't deter ESL from trying to improve the scene in ways that are. "The reality is simply that there are a ton of different teams, leagues, publishers, players, press, media, pundits and fans in the space," Fringuelli says. "Some of their interests align really well, and some don't. The job is to figure out who you can work with and try to make something great.

"The teams and players have a tremendous part of the decision making, so all three stakeholders automatically keep each other in checks and balances," he goes on. "The way WESA is set up, it’s impossible for ESL to be the only, or major, decision maker."

Sleijffers says that while it may be hard for outsiders to believe the lofty promises being made by WESA, what he's seen so far has made him hopeful about what the organization can accomplish. "The reason why we've been feeling good with this so far is because within these fifteen months, we've been able to discuss a lot, we've been able to change a lot," he says. "WESA 1.0 is not the same as WESA 0.1. We have already made certain changes that we all felt were really for the benefit of the vision we have and the ambition we have with WESA."

He admits that WESA could have done a better job with its early public relations, particularly on social media, where they weren't ready for the reaction. But he believes that if WESA succeeds in improving conditions and reliable pay for players, then fans will likely come to support it as well. Time will tell if WESA can succeed where other fledgling esports associations have failed, or whether it will be another grandiose but ultimately fruitless gesture. One thing we can all agree it won't be? The death of CS:GO.

Jeff "omniclast" Fraser is a supervising editor for theScore esports. He believes that one day, people will stop giving him such shocked looks when they find out how much The International is worth. You can follow him on Twitter.