Esports meets mainstream: The NA LCS players association will set a precedent, for better or worse

by Daniel Rosen Jun 20 2017
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games

Riot’s decision to start a players association for the NA LCS is a very, very big deal. Honestly, I think it’s probably more important than the whole franchising thing it’s going along with. Depending on how it goes, it could represent a massive change in the way esports will work in the future and affect every other game with regards to how they could organize.

This isn’t to say Riot’s system is perfect — mostly because we don’t know anything about it yet. What we know right now is that a players association is happening, it’s going to be funded by Riot at launch, and that they’ll be voting on their representative this month. Riot’s senior manager of league operations, Chris Hopper, told Dot Esports that Riot is just “cutting a check” and will not veto anyone the players nominate so long as there are no legal complications or conflicts of interest.

Last week, ESPN reported that Hal Biagas, formerly the assistant general counsel at the National Basketball Players Association will be the first representative. If that’s the case, then the process is pretty far along and I’d hope we get an update sooner rather than later about what exactly the players association will do.

The are a few concerns I have personally about what Riot has said publicly so far, but I’ll reserve those for another time. With so little out there about the NA LCS players association, it’d be pretty disingenuous to try to criticize it. Instead, let’s go back to what I said at the beginning, about how this could be the first step in a long journey towards genuine, tangible professionalization in esports. My only concern about that is that since this is going to be the first major players labor union in esports, the way Riot is going about it is going to set a precedent, and their funding the launch feels odd to me.

The first professional sports labor union in America was the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players. It was founded by a handful of New York Giants players who wanted to discuss their low wages and a contract clause that bound players to teams longer than their contracts necessarily dictated. Since then, most, if not all, professional sports players associations and labor unions were founded with a specific grievance in mind.

The NFLPA was formed to represent players who wanted to negotiate compensation and allow for collective bargaining after some players were saddled with poor contracts and others were traded rather than be given raises. The NHLPA was formed to get more information about the NHL’s player pension plan. Even the MLS Players Union, formed in 2003, was launched following an antitrust lawsuit filed by MLS players against the league, where the players claimed that MLS was illegally monopolizing the market for player services.

Obviously, some of these leagues were formed in a time before labor unions were commonplace, and the grievances necessitated unions to better represent the players in negotiation. Honestly, I think it shows a lot of forethought from Riot to make having a players union a key part of their new league structure. Riot understands that no matter how well things are designed at the start, players will eventually have some issue that they’ll need a collective bargaining group to argue over, and it’s better to have one in place before the problems start instead of forcing players to put one together themselves after they already need it.

The issue is that it doesn’t necessarily feel like the players association is all that independent if it’s a key part of a league’s launch. It’s not necessarily a bad way to go about things and we don’t know how everything will work, but this is about the precedent Riot is setting. Players associations are going to become more and more important if esports becomes a bigger thing in the media landscape. The larger esports get, the more money will flow through it, and more players will want a fairer cut of the pie. If more esports leagues start to follow Riot’s model, then it’s possible they also take the part of the model where they launch with a players association in place facilitated by the league organizer.

With that in mind, this players association in particular is going to be very important for the future of esports. It’s a step towards equality between players, team owners and publishers through the creation of stability. If players can know in advance that their rights are secure, then that’s the kind of thing that makes a career in esports look more attractive to prospective players and their families.

I don’t know if Riot’s take on helping to build the association themselves will work, but I do know that it’s going to be important. If it works, it’ll be a safe model in place for other organizers to implement. If it doesn’t, well, hopefully we’ll keep trying to ensure that players get the representation they deserve.

Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.