Last year’s TI6 finals pitted the Chinese team Wings’ against the Cinderella-story team Digital Chaos. None of the 10 players from either team will be at TI this year, marking the first time the winners will not be present to defend their title. The players a missing for different reasons that give a little bit of insight into some of the challenges of the evolving world of esports, including Dota 2.
Wings, the defending champion is a team no more, and the players found themselves blackballed by the Chinese esports team organization Ace. The players were unhappy with management and left their team to reform as their own – a not uncommon occurrence in Western (non-Chinese) Dota 2. But the Ace league decided they had violated the terms of their contracts inappropriately. Team Wings Gaming disbanded, and the players were banned from participating in any further Chinese events over financial disputes.
Team Wings Gaming disbanded, and the players were banned from participating in any further Chinese events over financial disputes.
This was pretty much unprecedented in professional Dota 2, and something you would not have thought could happen the way Valve supports esports. It was something that seemed out of the old days in traditional sports when the team franchise owners controlled the league and the players completely.
In American sports, those old days ended with a landmark court case (Flood vs. Kuhn, 1972) decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. That decision ended a system that had given the owners complete control over the sport (of baseball). Of note, prior to that point, almost all the money that came into the game went to the owners – players were paid very poorly (with a few exceptions for superstars). After that case, players had more control through free agency. That led to the development of the now familiar system of contracts, agents, trades, and drafts, which is often mediated by negotiations between a players union and an ownership league group.
...Valve’s model is prize-money based and more about players than franchises.
But esports is new, with new technology, new distribution and viewing models and we don’t really know what system is going to work best to both protect/reward the players but also lead to a robust, stable ecosystem. Some companies, like Riot and Blizzard seem to be investing heavily in a franchise-centered model based on player salaries (and contracts), whereas Valve’s model is prize-money based and more about players than franchises.
Chaos of a Digital Nature
Valve’s system seems like it will be good for at least the best players (e.g., the ~100 who make it to TI) but leads to its own sometimes stunning instability in the player/franchise relationships. The other team from the finals last year, Digital Chaos, is a good example of this issue.
Digital Chaos was a new team started in early 2016 with a mix of up and coming NA players and some familiar names providing experience and stability. However, in March of that year, a spasm of team shuffling (from EG and Secret) led to a sudden poaching of their players by other teams. This was pretty surprising to fans watching and in a subsequent podcast, one of the owners (Sunsfan) was asked how that had happened if the players were under contract. Without going into detail, he raised an important question, “what would we do if they were under contract?”.
DC's TI6 lineup still plays together on Team Planet Odd, but failed to qualify for TI7. Team Digital Chaos returns to TI7 this year with a brand new list of players.
What's an Esports Contract?
In a franchise-ownership sport, contracts mean that everybody else in the league respects them – and breaking a contract could lead to trouble (like Wings). But without a league structure, who holds a player to a contract? If a player breaks a contract, what’s the owner supposed to do, sue them? Esports is international, so in what court and what country do you file suit? And if the owners win, is that player going to come back to play and really try to win for that team? And will any other player want to play for an owner who goes after his players? This results in a situation that the contracts are nearly unenforceable on the ownership side. Probably on the player side as well, as many players learned the hard way back in the bad old days of early Esports when teams and tournament organizers frequently went out of business without paying up and leaving early pros with little.
In actual practice, DC let the players go, but then we able to pull together a brand new squad almost immediately from the players who had been let go by the other teams in the big shuffle. That team turned out to be pretty good, went to TI6 and made the finals against Wings.
As a fan, that looked like the establishment of a new, strong franchise that would continue to compete at the highest level. But that wasn’t to be. In April, the players left DC to form Thunderbirds, and DC signed a completely different group of NA players to play under their banner. The old DC team was picked up by another organization soon after and now plays as Planet Odd, but this team was unable to make it through the qualifiers to return to TI7 (ironically, losing to the new DC squad in the qualifier playoffs).
If I have a Chicago Cubs team jersey, I know I can wear it next year. It’s not so clear how that's going to work in esports.
If you were watching TI6 and become a DC fan, who do you root for now? The new DC with completely different players? Planet Odd? If I have a Chicago Cubs team jersey, I know I can wear it next year. It’s not so clear how that's going to work in esports.
Freedom vs. Stability
What’s better? Giving the players full control and live with the chaos of constant shuffling to find a team that has the best shot at the gigantic prize pools?
It seems like it would be nice to have a little more stability to help build fan bases in ways that are more familiar, like traditional sports. It also seems a little worrisome how the prize pool is distributed so top-heavily to the best teams. Is that going to make it harder to find the new blood and next generation of players who should be coming up from the Tier 2 teams but who can’t make any money to stay in the game? Is this system going to be stable across the years?
A robust franchise system that treats the player fairly seems pretty attractive. The Chinese league is rumored to provide amazing salary support to their players. But what happened to the Wings players also raises concerns about whether everything always gets done fairly in that league, too. Who is supposed to keep an eye on the league decisions and keep everything fair? It’s also pretty cool to see a $22 million plus prize pool for Dota 2 -- you don’t see that in the franchise-oriented leagues where more of the money is distributed by salary.
I’m not going to pretend I have the answers, either. I think a lot of smart people are trying to figure out how to make esports work and how to make money off it. As a fan who hopes to see esports grow every year, though, you should probably keep an eye on how the players, teams and franchises interact and hope we find a system soon that works for everybody reasonably fairly.