Esports are rapidly pushing closer and closer to the centerfield of the modern sports entertainment industry, but what even is an “esport”? And just how different are they structurally from sports like football and basketball? The answer to the first question can be found in this article by one of my peers, and I highly recommend you check it out to get up to speed on what esports are and how they are growing. The second question, however, warrants a further breakdown, as the competitive format and legal entities present in esports puts in on a somewhat different path than the traditional sports we’ve known and loved for decades.
The hierarchy of practically every esport contains the following: players, tournaments, and organizations. This seems straightforward enough, but once you consider that this model is repeated across dozens of different video games and titles, all with different twists and takes on the structure to fit the needs of that specific scene, it’s easy to get lost in the details. Therefore, I will break down each step in turn, starting with the bottom rung, the players, before building up to tournaments and then organizations. This explanation will not only provide a broad overview of how esports tends to operate as an entertainment structure, but also highlight the actors and entities that will be the focus of esports law as it develops.
The First Rung: Players
Unsurprisingly, the existence and success of an esport relies heavily on its player base. Similar to how football would lose its luster if there were only 40 people on the planet that were interested in playing, every game and title in the esports industry needs to get individuals interested enough in its mechanics and ruleset to get them to participate. Once the game succeeds in this endeavor, and the pool of players within the game is large enough to start naturally stratifying into groups of different skill and ability, players gain the power to prove themselves as the “best of the best” of the game they play. It is this subset of highly skilled individuals that comprise the “players” of the esports scene, as they are the ones who have the ability to make a career out of their gaming prowess. Such a career, however, is highly dependent on tournaments, as tournaments serve the key function of allowing spectators, other players, and organizations to see who consistently maintains peak performance, while also showing which players have the fortitude to bring their A-game while being watched by millions of people.
The Second Rung: Tournaments
Tournaments are the cornerstone of esports. Not only can they be set up so that less skilled players can duke it out with peers of their skill level, but, as I mentioned previously, they are the stepping stone that allow the best esports players to show their skill and climb to even greater heights. Some tournaments, such as the World Championship of League of Legends and the World Cup of Fortnite, carry many millions of dollars as a prize pool and are watched by millions of people, largely because the games are extremely popular and the tournament participants are guaranteed to be the best of the best in their field. Other tournaments, such as TESPA’s Collegiate Tournaments, garner much less viewership and seek to provide college esports athletes a chance to show their ability among their peers for a small prize pool. They clearly differ in popularity and scale, partly because the Fortnite and League of Legends tournaments are hosted by the game companies that created the game, whereas TESPA is a third-party company that hosts tournaments for games other companies create, yet both still undoubtedly qualify as “esports tournaments.” Such examples highlight not only that esports tournaments come in all shapes and sizes, but also that tournaments are, above all else, accessible. No matter what your skill level, odds are good that if you play a game with a large player base, you can find an online tournament to participate in. This prevalence of “free access” tournaments creates an appearance that your financial success in esports is only limited by your skill in the game you play and by how many tournaments you can win. This however, isn’t necessarily true, as there is another rung to the esports scene that plays a huge role in what success players can achieve, and that rung is esports organizations.
The Third Rung: Esports Organizations
Esports organizations (or “orgs” for short) are companies that contract with top esports players to get them to compete underneath the organization’s brand. This is no small issue, as these “brands” are a big deal in the esports industry. While some brands work internationally, most brands limit themselves to their nation of origin, meaning many North American based esports orgs primarily work with North American citizens and players, and the same applies to brands based in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and more. Some of the biggest North American esports orgs are Team SoloMid, Cloud9, and FaZe Clan. These orgs are so big that they have the funds to contract with the best players from a variety of different games, meaning a single esports organization can appear across dozens of different video game titles. This can be a big deal, as the proliferation of large orgs across various video games allows spectators to grow attached to a specific org, giving them a reason to buy the org’s merchandise or watch one of the org’s top performing teams play even if they are unfamiliar with that specific esport. This is compounded by the fact that orgs often represent their country of origin in international tournaments, meaning there is a certain amount of national pride represented in each org that successfully drafted a team that wound up winning an esports World Championship, adding to its allure.
Esports organizations don’t stop there, however. They also often hire coaches and managers for their various teams or players, and sometimes assist their best teams in getting their own practice areas, which tend to be a house equipped with adequate facilities, electronics, and space for a roster of five esports players and their coaches. These locations are called “Gaming Houses,” and can be a huge sign of a team’s (or individual player’s) success in the industry. Organizations also sign and contract influencers and streamers (who are video game players that livestream themselves playing video games, often on sites that allow real time audience interaction such as Twitch) whose personalities and images align with the brand. They also play a huge role in setting up fan meet & greets, deciding what a player under their employ can and can’t do (often based on the terms of their contract), and promoting certain products through endorsements. This list is hardly exhaustive, but hopefully it sheds some light on just how large of a role esports organizations play in the esports scene. It’s this large role that often makes orgs the subject of law suits regarding player grievances or other problems, and similarly makes them a big target of esports law and regulation as it progresses.
There is no doubt that esports differ from conventional sports. Not only are they more tournament-centric, but they also have a slew of different organizations that are all jockeying to be the best brand in the esports industry. In later articles, I will dive deeper into the role each section plays, and also discuss how this decentralized format combines with corporate influences to sometimes leave players with the short end of the stick. For now, however, hopefully this brief overview provides some insight into the wonderful circus of modern day esports.