In an era when professional athletes earn multi-million-dollar salaries, it’s hard to imagine a time when sporting stars had to work end jobs to make ends meet. Up until only a few decades ago, labor unions in the sporting industry were largely unheard of. Poor working conditions and wage disparity were just a few of the things that athletes had to suffer. Until the late 1960s, most athletes didn’t have access to sick pay and healthcare plans. This all changed with the formation of labor unions.
It’d be fair to assume that esports would have arrived with fully-formed labor unions in place. Sadly, the reality is that esports players and those working behind the scenes are facing an uphill battle when it comes to unions.
Labor Unions and the Gaming Industry
It’s not just esports players that are struggling with unfair working conditions and a lack of union representation. It’s not uncommon for blockbuster game releases to arrive with some controversy. Take Red Dead Redemption 2 as one example. This seminal hit from Rockstar Games attracted a lot of bad press when developers reported having to regularly work overtime to ensure the game was released on time. This is a perfect example of crunch culture, where workers are expected to work up to 80-hour weeks with little prospect of paid overtime for their efforts.
In recent years, the likes of Game Workers Unite have emerged to offer better protections for video game developers and those working behind the scenes. However, the esports sector is a different matter entirely.
Player Unions: Where the Esports Industry Stands
Currently, there’s a severe lack of unionization in esports. It’s been a hot topic for many years, with exploitative contracts and delayed payments being the main bugbears for players. In 2022, the Apex Legends Global Series came under fire when professional players reported waiting almost half a year for prize money to hit their bank accounts. In fact, payment was only delivered to winning participants with the threat of legal action. Sadly, this is just one of many examples.
The Need for Unionization in Esports
It’s not just delayed payments that are causing problems for players. As early as 2019, esports organizations were facing scrutiny for unfair contracts. Contracts can be massively one-sized, locking players into years-long arrangements with no guarantee of financial reward.
It’s easy to understand why up-and-comers are duped into signing on the dotted
line. However, when these contracts prevent players from generating side income from streaming and independent sponsorship deals, maintaining a career in esports becomes financially unavailable for many.
Even successful players who are reaping the financial benefits need unionization. Competing in S-Tier tournaments can take its toll on anyone, with gruelling training and travel schedules.
Why is it taking so long for unionization to be embraced by the esports sector? For starters, the nature of competitive gaming is different from conventional sports. Unlike soccer or basketball, where established leagues experience few fundamental changes, esports is a dynamic industry. Bar a few exceptions, games and come. This means any unionization efforts would need to constantly adapt to an ever-changing landscape.
Furthermore, we’re not dealing with a two-party scenario here. In addition to esports players and esports organizations, there are video game publishers to consider. You only need to look at the esports tournaments at 1337PRO to see how many different entities are involved with a typical event. All of these parties need to have their say at the bargaining table.
The good news for esports players is that the call for unionization is only getting louder. If major organizations want to continue to entice the best talent, they’ll need to ensure these players are given their fair share.