In 2008, James “Clayster” Eubanks, then 16, decided he had what it took to be the number one Call of Duty player in the world. Growing up in Virginia, Eubanks owned all the latest consoles and specced-out gaming PCs; his house was the first on the block to have DSL. Now, he put all that practice to use, grinding up the Call of Duty ranks every single day, balancing his competitive ambitions against school, part-time jobs, girls. Playing the game professionally wasn’t an established career path yet, but there eventually came to be a loose circuit of tournaments. “It was really hectic,” Eubanks says. “But it became more and more sophisticated as the years have gone on.” Every year, tournament prizes got a little bigger. The competition got harder. He got more famous.
Then, the esports industry ballooned, as the massive popularity of League of Legends and Starcraft II esports kicked off a wave of big-money sponsorships and international stadium events. Publisher Activision began looking at competitive Call of Duty through a new lens. In 2020, Activision launched the Call of Duty League: 12 teams with five players each, representing 12 different cities around the world. As a top competitor playing on the Dallas Empire, Eubanks helped his team take the first Call of Duty League championship in July. He was thrilled. Then everything changed.
In August, Activision decided that professional Call of Duty games should be four-versus-four, not five-versus-five. Twenty percent of the league’s players had to go. Days after his big victory, the Dallas Empire dropped Eubanks, who had been designated fifth on the roster. “Got about 24 hours of happiness before I got thrown back into the blender, but that's the story of my career,” Eubanks wrote on Twitter.
CDL commissioner Johanna Faries says Activision’s decision was “an outgrowth of a very extensive process” that included feedback sessions with teams, players, and “all key stakeholders.” While Eubanks believes that the new format is better for the game overall, he says he was never consulted about a move that would directly impact him and has “no idea how it happened.”
As esports expands—generous appraisals put the global esports market at $1 billion—it has come to resemble other professional sports like soccer: international leagues, slickly branded teams, investors seeking vanity projects, 18-year-old wunderkinds. There is, however, still one major difference: Nobody owns soccer. The beautiful game isn’t anyone’s intellectual property. Esport games are.
This simple fact, for esports game publishers, incentivized the creation of these leagues in the first place, as a way to advertise their products. For professional gamers, it’s helped stabilize a tumultuous line of work: A regular paycheck, and benefits, too. Balenciaga sneakers. Hair and make-up. Well-attended Twitch streams and vlogs from a clean pool behind the Los Angeles team house. But at the same time, franchised esports is a modern experiment in what happens when a marketing initiative becomes its very own industry. While players acknowledge the opportunities they've been given to literally game for work, they're wary of how much power the publishers hold.
“If they truly cared about competitive Call of Duty, and it being a competitive esport, a lot of things would be done differently,” says Eubanks. “Call of Duty esports will always and forever be a marketing tool for Activision and for Call of Duty.”
Publishers made a game. They sell the game. They own the IP. Anything having to do with the games has to go through them. And now they own the leagues, too: In 2013, Riot Games launched its own League of Legends league, the League of Legends Championship Series. Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch and Call of Duty followed years later. These game publishers sell spots in their franchised esports leagues for anything from a reported $10 million to $60 million. Activision Blizzard charged a reported $20 million as an entry fee for the Overwatch League’s original 12 franchise teams, which attracted investors like Robert Kraft and Jeff Wilpon. (Tom Martell, Riot’s director of operations for global esports, told WIRED they intentionally charge under market value to promote long-term stability.) There is, of course, just one top-level league for each game; and at least for Call of Duty, fan-favorite teams like 100 Thieves have been unable to participate because of the huge buy-in.
It’s a good setup for the publishers. The leagues are essentially subsidized. Game publishers also make money off media rights and advertising, some of which is shared with teams. Twitch paid a reported $90 million to Activision Blizzard for exclusive streaming rights to Overwatch League. These cash injections keep the high alive, but do not forget the slow-release tablet magnifying this corporate euphoria: constantly refreshing years-old games’ relevance.
The franchising frenzy has coincided nicely with a trend in game design (and revenue-generation) called “games as a service”—a term that applies to Overwatch, League of Legends, Fortnite, and other blockbuster hits. Compared to a GameBoy Pokémon cartridge, these online competitive games are designed to stay alive forever, or at least, until their next iteration comes out. Players pay anywhere from $0 to $60 as the initial buy-in, and then can keep shelling out as the game continually adds new characters, outfits, loot boxes, and events. Publicly traded game publishers, like Activision Blizzard and EA, have boasted of gargantuan revenues from this sort of thing. And their esports leagues keep fans’ attention going, constantly generating headlines that tickle memories of the game in players’ heads.
“Esports is what sports would look like if traditional sports could have monopolistic control over their ecosystem,” says Will Partin, an esports consultant writing a book on the industry. “Esports is an attempt to create a version of a sport aligned with the financial incentives of game publishers.”
Executives in charge of esports leagues disagree with this characterization. “There’s no question a healthy esports program can keep a game healthy,” says Pete Vlastelica, both CEO of Activision Blizzard Esports and commissioner for the Overwatch League. But he adds, “Our top priority as Activision Blizzard Esports is not to market the game. That’s not how our success is measured. We’re trying to build successful esports programs, period.”
It wasn’t always like this, of course. Quake players will hound you with stories of lugging CRTs across state lines for small, networked tournaments at local LAN centers in the ’90s. Players of 1999’s Counter-Strike, originally a mod for another game, will recall basement money-matches at neighbor’s houses. Local tournaments ballooned into regionals and nationals. After the success of 2010’s Starcraft II and 2009’s League of Legends, the esports industry gelled into an international network of big-money tournaments flush with hundred-thousand-dollar payouts. Eighteen-year-olds were getting plucked out of in-game ranking systems and placed onto backlit stages in packed venues. It looked luxe from the outside, but like any McMansion, it had some structural issues.
“For a long time, esports had a problem with payouts and empty promises. It still does, but it used to be very bad,” says Malik Forté, an esports caster and former Rainbow Six pro player. “I saw those big-money companies getting in but heard rumblings from players about not getting paid.”
Franchising gifted security, with the centralized structure of a league and its teams. These players are full-time employees with guaranteed salaries and health benefits, not independent contractors. “It wasn’t a job I hated. I had so much fun doing it,” says Jay “Sinatraa” Won, who was the 2019 Overwatch League MVP before retiring this spring. He’d wanted to be a pro player ever since he was 12, and when Overwatch came out, he dropped out of high school in Washington state to pursue it professionally. By age 16, he was making $1,700 a month as part of Selfless Gaming, a short-lived Overwatch team that disbanded before the league launched. In 2017, Won signed a contract with the San Francisco Shock Overwatch League team for $150,000, according to ESPN. He was eventually the highest-paid player in the league.
As an on-air commentator for Overwatch League in 2018, Forté was on-the-ground at tournaments, socializing with competitors and fans. He met kids who’d left high school or college in South Korea or China to play Overwatch in the Burbank arena. He watched them practice day in and day out. It was, of course, the dream; at least, at face. But Forté says he worried about the players too.
“To put it bluntly, I felt bad for some of them. The pressure was on all of them to win,” says Forté. “You saw the stress and pressure of all that mix with this crazy practice regimen and crazy schedule of playing four games a week. You saw it come into play almost immediately.” One team, the Shanghai Dragons, went 0-32 in the inaugural season, with a practice schedule that lasted from 10:30 am to 10:30 pm six days a week, Dot Esports reports. Players’ minimum salary was $50,000, per league rules.
Activision Blizzard has a player bill of rights, but three sources formerly involved with the Overwatch League say it didn’t do much else to ensure players’ health and wellness. There were serious inconsistencies with the ways teams cared for pros, and one source said it was hard to convince some owners to hire translators. “The players are just grinding, grinding, grinding all the time. A lot of players who come in are very young. You’re getting 18-year-olds plucked out from behind a computer who are expected to integrate and function as an adult. I don’t think teams were as prepared,” says one source who asked to be anonymous. Players reported stress, depression, and panic disorders.
Then, there was the travel. Overwatch and Call of Duty’s leagues made a play for local fandoms by branding teams after cities: the New York Excelsior, the Paris Eternal. While the leagues initially played in Burbank, California, the goal was to offer local games with these locally-branded teams by 2020. As the 2020 season approached and plans for home and away games moved forward, several players shared concerns with Kotaku about burnout. Players would have to travel from Europe to the United States or China after grueling practice schedules. After the 2020 Overwatch League schedule was released, Upcomer estimated that teams would fly between 20,000 and 70,000 miles. The league says this estimate was incorrect, and that at most a team would be expected to travel around 52,000 miles over a season, a range comparable to other sports leagues. Vlastelica says the league did a lot of work to make sure travel within a region was concentrated. Still, it was slated to be a labor nightmare. Then, Covid-19 hit.
Most other major professional sports today have labor unions, such as the MLB Players Association or the Professional Footballers’ Association, that negotiate agreements with leagues over athletes’ working conditions. In esports, however, unions are still a rarity. League of Legends has the North American LCS Players Association, which is not a recognized union, but an advocacy group. “The idea is to provide players with the opportunity to work and use their collective power to achieve their objectives as professionals,” says Hal Biagas, who was elected to lead the North American League Of Legends Championship Series’ player advocacy group in 2017. Working together, Biagas says, they’re able to accomplish so much more.
After launching a database to capture players’ hours worked, salaries, streaming requirements, housing stipend, severance, and other data, League of Legends players compared notes and negotiated. (Biagas admits that some teams pushed back against the database.) Now the average salary of a player in the North American players association is $410,000. The average Overwatch League salary in 2019 was about $100,000, says Vlastelica.
Publishers are also uniquely in control of their leagues because they completely control the dynamics and rules of their games. Riot Games could delete a top player’s favorite character and single-handedly reshape the League of Legends competitive landscape. Multiple times a season, Blizzard introduces patches that make some Overwatch League teams less powerful and boost others. (An Overwatch League team with a 4-17 record may win the playoffs.) For Call of Duty, a new game launches every year. Eubanks says this can be annoying, but finds it pretty hype overall: As a time-tried veteran, it lets him show off how good he is. More frustrating, he says, is that Call of Duty developers might release a patch right before a tournament, impacting the competitive integrity.
“With the Call of Duty League and teams investing millions of dollars,” says Eubanks, “one of the basic things I think Activision could do is force the developer to listen to us, and release patches on a timely note and not right before a tournament.”
“Game publishers having control over so many of these tournaments and leagues is a huge issue,” says Forté. “The esports is ultimately a device for them to sell more of their game. I understand that. It makes sense. But the integrity of these leagues come into question when you think about that.”
This power imbalance applies to teams, too. While esports is widely seen as a growth industry, according to a Kotaku report last year, esports teams rarely if ever break even. Teams are expected to raise money for their operations from investors, sponsors, and fans. Three sources involved with Overwatch and Call of Duty’s leagues say that the publisher sometimes vetoes players’ and teams’ potential sponsorships, as they conflict with greater league plans; Vlastelica says only a couple sponsorship categories are off-limits for them, and that this helps “deliver more value at the highest level.” Activision asked teams to front the cost of renting out hugely pricey local arenas, like New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. A source who worked closely with one Overwatch League team says team owners were concerned early on that it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a day for a three-game home stand, and that ticket and merchandise sales would not be enough to recoup the expenses.
“There was no way to make money off that,” they said. “They [Activision Blizzard] would say, ‘This is our plan.’ And it was completely bonkers, on more than one occasion. And we’d have to have our owners and investors go up against the league.” Vlastelica refutes this and says that some events have broken even or even made money.
Esports is not a trickle down economy. Activision Blizzard’s CEO pulled in $40 million in 2019, according to Bloomberg. Another executive received a $15 million bonus after his appointment to CFO, on top of this $900,000 salary. That same year, Activision Blizzard announced huge layoffs that struck at its esports initiatives. “All these football team owners invested all this money. And here I am being told, ‘You’re lucky you have your job today.’ That was super strange to me,” says Forté. This year, the pandemic has shut down most large indoor events, including esports—cutting off a major revenue stream. In July, ESPN reported that the parent companies of eight Overwatch League and Call of Duty League teams were approved for between $150,000 and $2 million of loans from the Paycheck Protection Program.
Moves by league executives do trickle down to team and players in other ways, though. Controversy erupted this July when Riot Games announced a sponsorship deal with Neom, a $500 billion city development project in Saudi Arabia overseen by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. League of Legends fans, esports casters, and Riot Games employees were furious, in part, because of Saudi Arabia’s bad history on human rights. (The city also pushed the Huwaitat tribe off native land). The deal was terminated shortly after it was announced.
“In an effort to expand our esports ecosystem, we moved too quickly to cement this partnership and caused rifts in the very community we seek to grow,” said Alberto Guerrero, Riot’s director of esports for the EMEA region. “While we missed our own expectations in this instance, we’re committed to reexamining our internal structures to ensure this doesn’t happen again.” Riot Games now plans to establish an ethics committee.
Says former League of Legends European Championship team co-owner Susan Tully, “Riot owns the IP. They have all the control, they have all the power, right? No doubt about it. This is an example with this Neom deal, you know. You’re in an org and they can bring in a sponsor like that without consulting, and you have literally no control over it.” Of League of Legends esports, she adds, “Only time will tell whether or not this is a good investment [for orgs]. But who it is a good investment for is Riot. It’s great marketing for their game.”
This is the brand grift. Everybody feels lucky to be there, including those best poised to be exploited, and it’s taken as given that power is concentrated at the top of the pyramid. A lot of players don’t think of these leagues as anything but dream jobs. And they might be right. After maxing out his fame in the Overwatch League, Jay “Sinatraa” Won transitioned to another shooter, Riot Games’ Valorant, which a couple months after release does not yet have a franchised league. (Riot says they want to wait until the community establishes its own infrastructure before entering officially.) Now, Won says he doesn’t think much about Activision Blizzard and his role in marketing Overwatch.
“Honestly, not really,” he says with an athlete’s swagger. Then, he reconsiders: “Actually, just recently, all my friends from high school sent me videos of them going to the grocery store and picking up a Cheez-It Groove box that my face is on. I guess that’s cool if you think about it.”
Correction 9-10-2020, 3:40 pm ET: This story has been updated to add that the Overwatch League disputes Upcomer’s travel estimates for the 2020 season, and to include travel estimates provided by the league after publication.
Updated 9-11-2020, 4:15 pm ET: This story has been updated to include additional comment from Pete Vlastelica about the profitability of Overwatch League events.