It feels like the world of professional Counter-Strike has been turned on its head overnight. Right now, it's the main talking point for analysts, players, teams, organisations, commentators, fans — and it all started with this one picture.
What's got everybody so worked up?
The image was a leaked photo from a printer, revealing the existence of a new league: the World Esports Association, an organisation run by the Electronic Sports League (ESL) including some of the world's most prominent teams.
— Joe Cardali (@tolkienfanatic_) May 10, 2016
So, it's a new group — potentially a new tournament. What's the issue exactly?
People are freaking out because they're concerned about exclusivity, what the teams may have signed over to ESL to gain access, and what it means for those not inside the inner circle.
We weren't invited in the beginning of the year and we haven't been invited to any talks this time around. All I can say about #WESA.
— Frederik Byskov (@fbyskov) May 10, 2016
I think a player union would be a good idea right about now.
— Frederik Byskov (@fbyskov) May 10, 2016
A business register listing has also revealed that the association is responsible for the creation, obtaining and production of "any necessary licenses / and or development of the software, technology, content" relating to ESL's leagues and any other leagues supported by the association.
The people listed on the board of WESA include: Hicham Chahine, chief executive of professional team Ninjas in Pyjamas; Sebastian Weishaar, vice president of international business at Turtle Entertainment, the owners of ESL; Ralf Reichert, founder and chief executive of ESL; and Cengiz Tuylu, chief executive of professional team Mousesports.
WESA will also handle the "bundling of sporting and commercial interests of the teams that are members of the association", with members supposedly contributing members' fees. It also appears that the association will hold the rights to the team brands.
Along with the appearance of exclusive leagues, it's the latter point that has really set the metaphorical cat amongst the pigeons. One of the elements unique to professional Counter-Strike that's increasingly absent from other games is the lack of centralisation.
Valve sponsors, promotes and supports Counter-Strike tournaments in a variety of ways, but the developer famously tries to maintain a hands off approach when it comes to the organisation of the game. In comparison, the worlds of Call of Duty and League of Legends revolve around publisher/developer-run leagues.
Both models have their advantages. But one major disadvantage of the publisher-first model is that it makes the players, teams and community within exceptionally reliant on the the powers that be. If a player or team falls afoul of that system, their entire livelihood is ripped out from under them with little, if any, avenue for appeal.
By not having more of a hands-on approach, Valve has opened the door for a third-party to establish a centralised league or association of their own. And that's the fear: that WESA will use its power to shut out non-members and non-ESL run tournaments, to the detriment of the community.
You know some of those guys behind the scene who run and manage esports orgs, the ones who give off a con-man air? #wesa is them cashing out
— stich (@theonlymichal) May 10, 2016
#wesa eerily reminiscent of 90's microsoft strategy: embrace, extend, extinguish. Everyone loses on the road to monopoly.
— curried lambda chops (@nodshum) May 10, 2016
The fun part of this is that neither ESL or the teams revealed on the poster have made an official statement — everything's speculation for now. But fans are already calling on Valve to step in to ward off any anti-competitive behaviour — although again, the intentions of the association and the teams behind it haven't been publicly revealed.
It adds further fuel to a week that has already seen so much esports drama. Counter-Strike is one of the few esports whose infrastructure relies on the community first, rather than being developer-driven. The thought of teams entering in exclusivity agreements with an association threatens that ideal, even if the Counter-Strike universe is more interconnected than fans realise.
Sometimes, one image is all it takes to shake up the world.