The Last Week In E-Sports of 2016: The PEA’s big year end controversy

And here I thought the last week of 2016 was going to be a slow and easy time full of tournament retrospectives and roster changes. How foolish was I?

One of the biggest e-sports scandals of the year came to a head last week. So while we were all getting ready to come together with family and gorge ourselves on a holiday feast, the very future of the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive scene was being decided. But, why? What could possibly threaten one of the strongest tournament scenes in the e-sports world?

Too Good To Be True?

It all started with the PEA. Formed back in September, the brand new league brought together seven juggernauts of the CS:GO scene (TSM, Cloud9, Counter Logic Gaming, Team Liquid, Immortals, NRG Esports, and CompLexity Gaming). The goal was to improve the way that e-sports operate. Player representatives would have a voice in league operations, allowing them to discuss rules and working conditions with league operators. In fact, one of the stated purposes of the PEA was to develop a league that eventually would avoid forcing players to choose between tournaments due to scheduling and financial conflicts. Remember that… it’s going to be important later.

When the PEA was first formed, there appeared to be no plans to change the face of existing tournaments. League members would be able to compete in other leagues just fine. While this was inevitably the best option, it was also unorthodox. It brought up the question, “Where does the PEA get its power?” After all, if any PEA team doesn’t like the way the PEA is doing things, they can just head on over to the ESL and make the same money they did before the PEA was formed.

Well, it turns out the PEA’s stated intentions weren’t completely explained. In order to not change the tournament scene, they were going to take the place of the other major North American tournament series. On December 7th, PEA’s Jason Katz revealed that the PEA had given the ESL an ultimatum. They were to disband the North American division of the ESL Pro League and let the PEA take its place. All league operations would remain the same, with the PEA and the European ESL Pro League winners eventually facing off in an international tournament, but the PEA would have control over rules and regulations in this region.

The ESL Pro League did not like that proposal, but they were still willing to work with the PEA. They offered revenue sharing in their league as a compromise, allowing the PEA to make money off the ESL but not to have direct control over it.

Players React

This is where the PEA’s power comes from. They could, effectively, threaten to pull all of their teams from ESL competition, leaving a massive void in North America. No teams, no tournament, no league. But there’s another level to this power. To have a team, you need players. No players, no team. No teams, no power.

And it turns out that the players weren’t particularly happy about the PEA’s attempts to force the ESL out of the North American market. Scott "SirScoots" Smith, acting as an informal player representative, posted an open letter on December 21st asking team owners to stop trying to make their players leave already existing leagues. He said they did not "feel we are being treated fairly or offered the level of transparency we should be able to expect.” The letter spread all over Twitter accompanied by the hashtag #playersrights.

NOA Whinston, CEO of the Immortals and PEA Player Relations Committee Member, responded in another open letter. The letter confirmed that the PEA’s intentions were never to be an exclusive league. However, competing in both leagues is simply not feasible. The core problem? Oversaturation.

"As many have talked about frequently over the last year, CSGO is past the saturation point. There are so many leagues and tournaments that players just don’t have the time to play in all of them on top of fulfilling their streaming and sponsor obligations. Those streaming and sponsor obligations are important because those are the activities that most directly correlate to an organization’s ability to pay player salaries. Burnout risk is at an all-time high because of the demanding schedule. Gameplay quality and consistency are falling as players devote more time to competition and less time to practice. It became apparent that the PEA league is not financially viable as yet another year-round league.

"Despite this over-saturation, core needs of players and organizations still go unmet. Players lack access to profit-sharing, decision-sharing, health insurance, financial planning, and other fringe benefits that increase career longevity and provide a more stable situation for players after retirement. The ability of the organizations to have a meaningful say in the future of our brands and to create long-term value is diminishing. The status quo isn’t sustainable."

So, ironically, the PEA and the ESL cannot coexist because of the same scheduling and financial conflicts that the PEA was looking to avoid.

There were many other arguments laid out in the letter. For example, while the players may stress displeasure with the PEA’s actions, signing to a team basically does sign away their right to decide where to compete, in exchange for a more regular salary and other benefits, of course. But, once again, no players, no teams, no power.

To be fair, the PEA does have a lot of good points. The PEA league offers more money to North American players than the North American division of the ESL Pro League. The PEA has been attempting to offer compromises to the WESA as well, and each compromise has offered to give up more and more control over tournament regulations.

Internal Conflict and Finger-Pointing

As of now, neither the players nor the owners of the teams in the PEA have come to an agreement. But the controversy doesn’t end there.

Most of this process has been relatively civil. The PEA, WESA, team owners, and players all seem to really be trying to work together, despite their clear disagreements. But there have been a few explosions along the way with some unfortunate consequences.

The first was from Cloud9 owner Jack Etlenne. He responded to the original open letter with disparaging remarks against Scott "SirScoots" Smith, accusing him of going out of his way to make teams and team owners look bad. He later apologized to Smith, saying he let personal issues get in the way of a more important issue. While Smith seems to be confused at what these personal issues are, the matter largely blew over.

The next unfortunate piece of the controversy came from Team SoloMid owner Andy "Reginald" Dinh. Reginald was not happy with his players going over his head and insisted that they damaged the team’s name by their actions. Eventually, fingers were pointed at newly signed player Sean Gares. In a Twitter post by Reginald, Gares was accused of manipulating TSM players to put their name on a letter they had not read, which caused damage to the TSM name. He further states that he was never contacted about the player’s worries and, given the opportunity, would have worked with them to address whatever concerns they had. He stressed that TSM does not mistreat their players.

A response from the TSM roster confirmed some of Reginald’s claims. In particular, the team wanted to clarify that TSM and Reginald have not, in any way, mistreated them, and that they did make a mistake in going over Reginald’s head instead of discussing matters with him directly. However, they stood behind the letter they put their names on, and behind Sean Gares. They insisted that they were not manipulated into signing it, but rather all had a call-in with Scott Smith to decide on the content of the letter. They clarified that the “Player’s Rights” hashtag, and the letter itself, were not meant to be an attack on any team owners, nor were they meant to suggest that any players were being mistreated.

And while this would be a nice place for this controversy to stop, it unfortunately continues. It does appear as if Sean Gares will be removed from the TSM roster, though many players are standing behind him. Shahzeb "ShahZaM" Khan and Russel "Twistzz" VanDulken have both said on stream that they will not play if Gares is removed, and Twistzz further elaborated saying that Reginald never spoke with him one-on-one about the letter, something Reginald claimed in his original post.

That brings us largely up to date. But where do we go from here?

On one hand, this may just be a symptom of e-sports gaining more legitimacy. Growing pains, if you will. Now that our leagues are becoming more official, we need similar competing bodies that can advocate on behalf of the players when the player’s desires and the league’s desires don’t line up. Perhaps we need to see an e-sports union sometime in the future?

Most participants in this new e-sports civil war have ceased operations until the New Year, so it’s unlikely that we will hear much from them this coming week. However, this conflict is sure to set the tone for the CS:GO scene in 2017. Its resolution will set a precedent for league, owner, and player conflicts going into the future.

What do you think? Should the players be able to decide what league they operate in? Should teams? Is the PEA or the WESA in the right?