Why I Changed My Mind & Believe eSports is a Sport, Part 3: The eSports Structure

Here we go with Part 3 in this four-part argumentative series. The eSports competition structure is quite different from traditional sports, though there are certainly parallels that raise it to an equivalent level. In my opinion, I believe that traditional sports could actually learn something from the eSports structure. So, to illustrate the last bit of facts before advancing my argument as to why eSports is a sport by applying facts to the definition's elements, I will break it down into two pieces: (1) the league structure, and (2) the overall business structure.

The League Structure

eSports league structures not only differ from game to game but they differ from region to region and also by level of play. This becomes more complicated, though, because since the game developers hold the intellectual property rights to their games, each developer has the power to regulate its game and image as much as it wants.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49603726

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49603726

Let's look at two examples. Riot makes League of Legends and strictly regulates its tournaments and polices its rules whereas Valve, who makes Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, essentially takes zero control over regulating and policing tournaments. Instead, Valve lets organizers take care of running tournaments across the world. So, eSports organizers such as Major League Gaming and Electronic Sports League host tournaments of all levels of play for games from every developer except Riot (i.e., every developer except Riot has organizers run tournaments for its games). In contrast, Riot take on all roles; it acts as developer and organizer, and it also acts as prosecutor, judge, and executioner in disciplinary cases. That latter portion is a whole separate story, and I could write an entire series called "50 Shades of Deflategate in LoL". In all seriousness, though, Riot does a fairly good job representing its community because it genuinely wants to help grow eSports and its legitimacy.

Here is an illustration of what an eSports league structure looks like:

  • League of Legends players start a season at one of seven levels based on their ranking: (1) Bronze, (2) Silver, (3) Gold, (4) Platinum, (5) Diamond, (6) Master, & (7) Challenger.
  • Within each level (excepting Master & Challenger), League of Legends players are separated into a divisional tier - I (highest), II, III, IV, & V (lowest) - which makes sense because there are so many players at so many skill levels.
  • Riot lists requirements for players to be promoted a level as well as what will cause a player to be demoted a level. [If you want more detail on these scenarios, LoL Smurfs wrote a detailed explanation for Season 6 play on its blog.]
  • The best of the best League of Legends teams play two seasons - spring and summer - in one of five regionals. For instance, teams from the United States play in the North American League Championship Series. Those teams play through a series of tournament sets in each season (promotion, split, and playoff) to get into the World Championship ("Worlds") that takes place at the conclusion of the summer season. Worlds has a round-robin style group stage followed by a knockout stage. [Note: The 2016 Worlds was at a sold out Madison Square Garden. The prize pool totaled over $2 million, with the champion winning $1 million. You can read about how cool it was here from a true novice who was not an eSports follower before attending.]
  • Riot also runs University League of Legends where over 200 school club teams compete in the Campus Series. The top eight teams from the North, South, East, and West conferences compete in the League of Legends College Championship. Schools are even starting to offer scholarships to its club team members. Separately, Riot partnered with the Big Ten Conference to create the BTN League, and the BTN League winner will get a bid in the College Championship.

The Overall Business Structure

Source: "Player Contracts: Defining Expectations to Avoid Conflict" by Stephen D. Fisher, from the Foster Pepper PLLC's  League of Legends Article Series

Source: "Player Contracts: Defining Expectations to Avoid Conflict" by Stephen D. Fisher, from the Foster Pepper PLLC's League of Legends Article Series

The business of eSports truly catapulted with twitch.tv ("Twitch"), "the world's leading social video platform and community for gamers, video game culture, and the creative arts." Twitch is like the ESPN of the gaming world. It has nearly 10 million daily active users who each watch on average 106 minutes of streaming per day. Not every developer uses Twitch as its preferred broadcast stream, but the majority do because it is the most popular streaming service provider among players and fans.

Twitch, as well as other streaming providers, is only one player in the eSports business structure. There are also the players, teams, organizations and/or developers, and sponsors just as there are in traditional sports. The cool part is how they all interact contractually with each other because it is a model that traditional sports could learn from:

  • Twitch/streaming providers have contracts with players (and now with a couple North American teams as an official sponsor sales rep who does "brand building"). Players may be on a team or they may stream and play as an independent.
  • Players have contracts with everyone at every level, pretty much - Twitch, their respective team, the developer and/or organizers, and sponsors.
  • Teams generally have contracts with players, the developers and organizers, and sponsors.
  • The developers and organizers have contracts with teams, players, and sponsors.
  • Sponsors have contracts with players and teams, and some of them use a platform like Twitch to develop those relationships.

Currently, there is no eSports players' union, unlike many traditional sports, nor is there a single international oversight committee that some traditional sports have such as FIFA for soccer. A few oversight groups have popped up, but most of them do not have much appeal. I am a fan of the eSports Integrity Coalition, though, because it is an anti-fraud group that focuses on addressing doping, match-fixing, and in-game cheating.

With that said, now may not be the best time for either one eSports oversight organization or one eSports players' union. eSports has grown at an exponential rate, especially within the past few years. The business structure probably does need to incorporate more legal undertones to adjust to the popularity and accompanying complexities, but it needs to do so without getting in the way of continued growth. Developers, sponsors, and streaming providers are starting to realize they have to start treating their players better because some of them have taken advantage of these kids and young adults and, thus, have received criticism. An oversight committee would likely have trouble getting all the developers and organizers on board since there are so many different games and competitions to monitor and regulate. An eSports players' union would likely have trouble truly representing its constituents internationally since the prize pools, contract styles, average time spent as a professional gamer, and employment laws internationally - among other variables - differ greatly. Hence, the business structure needs work, but as a whole, it is a pretty neat web.

Last year, ESPN's John Skipper stated that esports are "not a sport" and that on ESPN he's interested in doing "real sports." This video by The Game Theorists explains some of the intricacies and comparable features that many people do not think of when it comes to eSports relative to traditional sports.

In a nutshell, these facts paint a picture of what eSports is and how the community operates. By now, you may see where I am going to go with this in my upcoming analysis, applying these facts to the six elements I identified in Part 1 of the series, and that is fantastic. If not, keep an open mind because I will be able to provide additional support after going through all of this that may knock out any preconceived notions against eSports as a legitimate "sport". Stay tuned!