Last week the world of Counter-Strike was up in arms: someone was starting a new association for esports with a select group of teams in a manner that invited all manner of questions. What was the World Esports Association (WESA) about? What rights did the teams give up to be a part of the cabal? What was the association's plans for non-associate members? Would there be exclusive leagues? And what part did ESL, the tournament organisers behind it all, have?
To quell concerns about the direction of the association, ESL chief executive (and WESA board member) Ralf Reichert and the association's interim commissioner Pietro Fringuelli opened themselves up to interviews. Which were horrible.
Rob Crossley over at Gamespot was given the opportunity to interview the pair following WESA's press conference last weekend. The organisation had already used their inaugural Tweet to dampen fears:
With regard to the speculation around WESA: it will not be an exclusive league but a body where teams and players have a significant voice.
— WESA (@WESAofficial) May 11, 2016
It's worth remembering the "not an exclusive league" part. We'll come back to that later.
The first problem people raised with the formation of a new esports association was the potential for a power imbalance. Professional Counter-Strike doesn't function in the same way as League of Legends, World of Tanks or Call of Duty. It's not an esport that's predominately dictated by the whims of the developer and developer-run leagues. Events are largely run by third parties, which are free to determine their own rules, structures, entry fees, rulesets, governance and more.
Rules and structures that WESA members vote on to influence. Naturally, someone asked ESL how exactly that was supposed to avoid any appearance of impropriety. Enter stage right, Gamespot's Rob Crossley.
Crossley: Okay, so what else will WESA be sanctioning?
Reichert: It sanctions transfer regulation, arbitration, tournament formats ...
Crossley: Right, so deciding on a tournament format can have an influence on play. Hearthstone, for example, has Last Hero Standing and Conquest formats, and both of those benefit certain styles of play and certain kinds of decks. Again, WESA's player council can choose which they prefer.
Reichert: But there are eight member teams, of which the vote is split between them.
Crossley: And there are more than eight teams taking part in the GS Pro League. Most won't have a say on format or other such rules, but the eight WESA teams will.
Reichert: In reality no. In reality those eight teams, maybe a few more, have always had a say in how things are run. Because they have the experience, and an informal relationship with the organiser is already there. We want most of the teams in WESA going forwards.
Crossley: So that gap will close. And it goes back to what we started with, and that's legitimacy. Obviously we don't want to discourage teams outside of WESA. So the current WESA team members need to avoid doing things which make them look like they're taking advantage.
It won't surprise you to know that Reichert didn't really explain his way out of a scenario where WESA's member teams collectively agree to vote on a scenario that favours them.
Here's something that can very easily play out in the real world. Professional Counter-Strike has just seen Valve re-introduce an updated version of Nuke to the game's competitive roster. It's a touch controversial, especially since Nuke — even in its updated form — is still heavily favours defenders. The HLTV database shows the map has only been played three times in official matches this year, and it was a defender's blowout each and every time.
The story's the same if you extend the search back a year. Since the start of 2015, 103 professional competitive games have been played on Nuke with the defenders winning almost two-thirds of the rounds (67.14%). It's a map that's notoriously difficult to attack on — and not something that every team fancies.
So say you've got an upcoming board meeting where you're voting on the structure and rules for an upcoming tournament. Valve wants to replace Inferno with Nuke in the official rotation. The board also happens to have two members from ESL and ESL's owner, Turtle Entertainment. ESL runs these major tournaments that you — and your opponents — will be playing in. Your team's record on Inferno happens to be quite good. Nuke, less so.
You can start to see the problem here.
Before we chase the conspiracy train too far, ESL pushed out an official statement. It outlines some of WESA's plans, has quotes from the inaugural teams and talks about why the teams joined up in the first place.
One of the milestones of WESA is the creation of an operative Player Council, elected by the players, which will represent, strengthen and advocate on behalf of pro gamers on a number of important topics, such as league policies, rulesets, player transfers and more. The aim is to empower players when it comes to influencing decision-making in tournaments operated under WESA regulations. As such, the ESL Pro League for CS:GO will become the first professional esports competition to adopt said WESA regulations.
To reiterate: the eight teams sitting on WESA's board have been "empowered" to influence rules including player transfers and other league policies involving any tournament that wants to adopt "WESA regulations". Which now includes the ESL Pro League, a league featuring 24 separate teams across Europe and North America.
This would make a lot more sense if the council was more inclusive. Reichert argued with Crossley that it would be, saying that "any pro team that meets a certain criteria" could become a WESA member.
Problem is, that criteria isn't defined. You'd think after negotiating for over a year would illuminate what kind of teams would be worthy. But according to the ESL founder and chief executive, the key factors were "success" and "stability" — and as for the success, WESA would "need to optimise" how they calculated success.
Not exactly the kind of start you want if you're trying to establish credibility. And the interim commissioner of WESA, Pietro Fringuelli, didn't help matters either.
Crossley: Independent from the ESL. Independent from the teams.
Crossley: What safeguards your independence?
Fringuelli: Nothing. This is exactly the system we are implementing now.
Fringuelli went on to proclaim that the professional players — through the teams — have the most power in WESA. Crossley again pointed out that the professional players were directly voting on tournament policy, but Fringuelli said "all [parties] have to find a compromise" because the players, teams and organisers of the events (but really just ESL, since they're the only organisers on WESA's board right now) have a say.
Remember, this is an association that is supposedly "an open and inclusive organisation". Which doesn't feature any teams from North America. Or any other organisers besides ESL. Or any representatives from Valve, developers of the only game whose tournaments WESA regulations affect right now. An organisation that charges fees from its members, members who have to pass a fairly vague and unclear vetting process.
If that wasn't bad enough, Fringuelli went on to draw comparisons between WESA and FIFA. Why on earth you'd want to align yourself in any way, shape or form with one of the most corrupt sporting organisations in modern history is beyond me. It makes even less sense given that ESL's own release advertises Fringuelli as someone offering "a wealth of experience and expertise from his time as an advisor to some of the biggest traditional sports organisations across Europe".
The waters get even more muddied when one of the member teams, EnVyUs, explained their rationale for joining WESA. In a blog, EnVyUs managing director Mike Rufail said his players "will now have ... additional sources of revenue coming to them that they have never had access to".
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.
Remember, the WESA member teams are paying to be a part of this organisation. An organisation that gives them an opportunity to influence the structure, rulings, player transfers and other machinations of leagues. An organisation which Rufail says WESA "is the first association to offer players and organisations both a direct line into some revenues generated from the streams" mentioned earlier.
The fact that WESA is registered under Turtle Entertainment — the owner of ESL — rather than their own branding is a small concern too. And it's worth remembering that team owners, not the players themselves, are the ones making executive decisions. A council for players will supposedly be established that will allow them to air concerns at WESA board meetings, but the owners are still the ones who get to decide. So what happens if a player has contract issues or takes umbrage with the way their owners are treating them? Are the owners supposed to vote against themselves?
It's a colossal mess. And good luck trying to make sense of it. WESA certainly isn't helping.