Wildcats and Wildcards - League of Legends, Unions, and Northwestern University
The Question of Unions
Professional League of Legends is one of the fastest growing businesses in the world of esports. As fantastic as it has been for fans to see games played in front of thousands of viewers in massive sports stadiums, it is undeniable that the speed of its growth has had many negative side-effects. Issues with gaps in trust between players, organizations, and Riot itself have increasingly worked their way to the forefront of community concerns. With the pursuit of a coveted LCS spot becoming fiercer, the question of how to best protect young players from the growing infrastructure of gaming organizations becomes a more and more pressing one.
The unfortunate reality is, immediate unionization isn’t a very realistic goal at the moment. In the current climate of League of Legends professional play, there is simply no feasible way that a workable union could be founded, either in one region or in several. That doesn’t necessarily discount their potential importance, it merely suggests that our discussion of unions resides more in how they will eventually function, rather than how they would function now. To understand why this is, we must look to another union movement and why it ultimately failed.
The Northwestern Parallel
Anyone tapped into mainstream sports media here in North America have no doubt heard of the recent attempt by football players at Northwestern University to form the first college athlete union. For those unaware (or simply didn’t care) the quick summary of the effort is as such: athletes contended that given the amount of money universities stand to make off their image and on-field performance, they should be considered employees of the school rather than simply students. Should this change take place, the athletes would then have the right to unionize and collectively bargain for further benefits/protections. The NCAA (National College Athletic Association) has long contended that the opportunity to receive a full-ride scholarship to their institutions was more than suitable compensation for the time and effort invested into sports.
The ultimate failure of the Northwestern union effort is perhaps the most damming evidence that League of Legends is a far ways off from having any kind of organized players organization. In examining the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling on the case, we find many uncomfortable parallels with current esports scene that will doom any attempt to subvert the current power structure.
In their official decision, the NLRB cited the potential damage that isolated unions could cause on competitive balance as a major factor in their thought process. Allowing Northwestern to unionize could potentially lead to a situation where certain private institutions like Northwestern could offer players union protection, while public schools (which make up the majority of Division 1 football) could be left without. Obviously, such a scenario could lead to serious ramifications in the competitive balance between these schools – the gap between the haves and the have-nots would become cripplingly huge.
This is a significant problem in League of Legends, as the esport’s professional scene spans the globe and thus contains regions with wildly different infrastructures and cultural values. We’ve already seen in recent years that player movement has more and more been governed by organizations’ ability to offer greater salaries and benefits. Korea, widely propped up as the strongest region in the world, has seen dozens of players jump ship for greener pastures in China, NA, and EU.
To be fair, this exodus of Korean talent hasn’t shown any clear signs of significantly weakening the region. True to form, last year’s World Championship was ultimately decided between two powerhouse Korean squads that proved there’s no shortage of dominant talents left over from the 2014/15 exodus. Nonetheless, the question remains a taxing one – what happens if a region like NA suddenly unionizes? Unions bring more than monetary benefit – players could expect benefits like retirement support, branding power, and the ability to appeal punishments. Simply put, were NA to unionize there would be no other region in the world that could compare in terms of player experience.
Another point raised by the NLRB in their report on unionization was that the evolving nature of the relationship between universities and athletes rendered a push to unionize “inappropriate” at this moment. The report was specifically pointing towards recent changes in policy by universities guaranteeing four-year scholarships to athletes, as well as a recent court case (O’Bannon v. NCAA) as indication that further improvement for player experience was already occurring.
This issue in the context of college sports is being somewhat over-simplified for the purposes of this article, but the primary thrust of the argument is most certainly a prescient one for esports like League of Legends. The logic here is that an industry like professional esports is growing so fast the moment that there simply hasn’t been time to establish a status quo. Player contracts are changing from year to year, with new protections and new standards being established all the time. While there will no doubt be unfortunate circumstances where players will suffer as a result of unclear rules or lack of contractual provisions, this is a natural process in the development of any professional sport. In fact, it is perhaps the transitory nature of LoL’s player/organization/Riot relationships that dissuades players from even suggesting the need for unions at this juncture. While there are many arguments in favor of unions, the reality is that most will see this as a pre-emptive and overly extreme measure at this stage in the esport’s life cycle.
One important distinction to make about the NLRB’s ruling on college athlete unions is that they did not specifically dispel the notion that college athletes are employees. If this seems strange, it should – the question of athlete employee status was routinely cited as the most important issue of contention throughout the process. Rather than provide any kind of clear position on the question, the NLRB instead simply ruled that they did not have the jurisdiction to provide a ruling on the problem. Essentially they were content to leave the status quo as it was rather than provide any kind of clarity or ironclad precedent.
In the case of LCS players, the employee rights question is somewhat more complex. As it is currently understood, Riot contracts define LCS players as “independent contractors” that are paid through their individual organizations rather than by Riot specifically (please reference Daily Dot article linked below for further explanation) – as such, Riot has the power to severely limit player bargaining power and collective action. At a glance, the core issue is essentially the same as college athletics – players’ efforts are directly benefitting Riot without providing them with benefits typically afforded company employees. Unfortunately, unlike college athletes, the contracts are given essentially require them to sign away any bargaining power they have to challenge this status. Whereas college athletes enjoy public sympathies for lack of direct compensation, Riot can quite rightly claim that players are fairly compensated by the organizations that sign them. Moreover, Riot reportedly doesn’t make a lot of direct monetary benefit from esports events specifically. Arguing that this compensation is unfair versus the gains Riot makes from player images and competition will be a far more difficult in these early stages of esports development than it was for college athletes against a widely unpopular institution like the NCAA.
The long and short of it is that LCS players don’t hold a lot of leverage, legal or otherwise, when it comes to pushing for some kind of collective bargaining situation. While unionization carries a lot of intrinsic benefits, the litany of potential obstacles currently blocking the path to this type of organization outweigh these improvements.
Ultimately a players union is likely inevitable, at least in certain regions, provided professional League of Legends continues growing at its current clip. The benefits of player collective bargaining are well documented throughout the history of professional sports – sooner or later, professional gamers will want a piece of that pie. If the death of the Northwestern unionization teaches us anything, it’s that popular support for such a movement often isn’t enough to overcome the many obstacles to its success. Unions might be coming, but it won’t be any time soon.