Editor’s Note: Richard Lewis is a veteran journalist and former host of Turner’s ELEAGUE. You can follow him on Twitter at @rlewisreports.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
After a year of waiting for more details, Riot Games has finally issued a statement regarding their proposed players’ union for their franchised-but-not-really league, the LCS. Since the initial announcement in 2017, I’ve been waiting patiently, never really believing that anything would come of it or that Riot was doing it for anything other than headlines. Yet, I hoped that wasn’t true. I’ve seen and reported first hand why League of Legends needed a player association. I’ve seen players and player’s families threatened. I’ve seen young adults emotionally manipulated and forced into working hours that would shame third world sweatshops. I’ve seen the same players pumped full of unprescribed Adderall and Xanax. I’ve seen the bogus contracts, the unenforceable buyout clauses, the empty promises of salaries and bonus payments that never materialize. I’ve seen the team houses that end up having players and the team entourage crammed into rooms, some with mats on floors with no furnishings. All this while the owners set aside the largest room in the house and treat it as a summer home. I’ve seen the players who are self-harming, threatening suicide or even murder be given a pep talk and sent back to their computers–all of it happening on Riot’s watch. Some of this with Riot’s knowledge. The kicker is that they only care when these types of stories go public.
The announcement of a player’s union suggested a realization that they did have a duty of care for the players who make their league such a spectacle. That they must at least give them the tools to protect themselves from unscrupulous team management and unreasonable expectations. Despite my obvious cynicism towards the announcement, I pushed that feeling down because there was still a chance something good could come from it. Also, by publicly announcing it, Riot was on the hook to make sure it forged ahead.
People have often accused me of being biased against Riot but let me tell you the truth of that matter. In esports there will always be one company or group that tries to be the big swinging dick that will happily abuse their wealth and status to the benefit of only themselves. They’ll bully the little guys and threaten anyone who is critical with excommunication from an industry that they had no part in building. I saw this with CPL, a company that propelled us all forward before collapsing in on its own greed, ran by a swindler who lived in luxury while owing tens of thousands of dollars to the brands who bought in to the project. I saw it with CGS, the Murdoch funded project that overpaid for credibility, treated esports like a reality TV show and handled partnerships in the same way as the Cosa Nostra. I saw it with ESL who openly robbed Peter to pay Paul but tried to intimidate anyone who ever spoke out about it. I saw it with the rise of Starcraft II, the chortling Old Boy’s Club who meted out jobs for their pals, lined their own pockets and then still went back to the community to rob them all blind with crowdfunding for old rope. And yes, Riot Games, who have, at various points, perpetrated unethical, unfair and sometimes potentially illegal activities–all in the name of growing as a company. In the purest sense, I was biased against all of this in the same way you might be “biased” against corrupt politicians or corporations that work children to death in sweatshops. Despite that feeling I never wrote anything but the truth. Even in the face of those here only to capitalize on investments or mindlessly enjoy the games.
In case you are new, let me tell you the penalties related to writing honestly about Riot Games. They have stopped me working desks for tournament organizers on titles created by other games developers. They’ve pressured sponsors into not supporting my video content costing me thousands of dollars. They have told professional players and personalities not to appear on my podcasts or to give me interviews. They even incorporated my name and my work into their interview process for a time, asking the now infamously loaded “what do you think about esports journalism and the work of Richard Lewis?” Their employees have publicly defamed me on more than one occasion. They’ve feigned co-operation on stories only to then “scoop” me out of little more than spite. They’ve pressured League of Legends personalities and figureheads into denying my published stories. Their executives, back when they believed I could be bought off with some Teemo hats and advanced access to game elements, warned me that I “wasn’t making any friends” and “it’s a small industry.” So yes, all things considered, I have come to view them as a throbbing tumor slowly simultaneously feeding on and squeezing the life out of the esports I know and love. Now they’re poised to take credit for creating something they deem necessary, engaging in a seemingly endless deluge of PR bullshit and spinning how they altruistically did something for the betterment of all their players, on their dime, without it being in any way a ploy. The mainstream gaming press, what’s left of it, will gobble it up too. League of Legends money and clicks is one of the few things they have coming from the world of esports after years of transgressions and slights against its enthusiasts.
Of course, the reality is Riot is the classic embodiment of the new wave of esports. A lot of talking about “community” and “industry” and “ecosystem” that makes it sound like they are committed to building on the efforts of those who were around before them. If you ever want to know their true intentions for any of these newcomers, simply substitute the word “esports” for “our thing.” Try it. “We genuinely are passionate about our thing and we want to continue growing our thing until our thing is bigger than mainstream sports.”
In fact, few things make me laugh more when I hear these companies use the term “ecosystem” and state how important they are. Let’s be clear on what an ecosystem is. An ecosystem is a combination of different types of living organisms and all the forces that sustain them, coming together and maintaining a balance that allows life to flourish. While individual elements must perish to act as fuel for something else, rarely does this happen in sufficient numbers to render something extinct. There is a harmony even in this cycle of conflict. If you understand this then you understand companies like Riot care about our ecosystem the same way an oil company cares about the environment. It’s an afterthought and only are these concerns ever discussed after every facet of the industry has been reduced to how it serves them. “What do we need to do to stop these environmentalists” a serial polluter will ask, never considering for one moment the answer might simply be to stop ruining the environment. Yes, Riot Games pose as Jainists, walking around in special sandals that can’t crush the insects beneath their feet. The reality is they have treated the esports ecosystem with as much respect as the Vikings did churches.
Did they care about the precious esports ecosystem from their inception when they went out of their way to either assimilate or destroy assets that belonged to the Dota community? Did they care about ecosystem when they tried to blackmail esports organizations into choosing between a LCS team or a Dota team? Did they care when they leveraged tournament organizer ESL into giving them MOBA exclusivity on the Intel Extreme Masters ticket? What about when they filed a ludicrous trademark application for “Dota” to simply interfere with and potentially delay the outcome of an existing ongoing and valid dispute between Valve and Blizzard? What about their nuisance patent for spectator mode they filed? Did they care about the ecosystem when they threatened their players with punitive measures for broadcasting Hearthstone and other games on their personal Twitch channels? Or what about when they turned around and screwed over partners who had helped build their game with esports fans by telling tournament organizers they could only run LCS matches at their events? Did they care then? The answer to this is obvious and I’m leaving out countless other examples because we’ve just gone past 1300 words and that’s considered “War and Peace” in esports writing. Well, let’s hope you’ve got time for Anna Karenina as well.
All of this is why I felt the player’s association being not only funded by Riot Games but also having the representatives selected by them was a potential nightmare. A player’s association with that level of control from the game’s developer would easily be worse than none at all, but it was only the initial proposal. Riot had also stated that players could select their own person and Riot would only fund it until the players took over. That’s why I waited. One year later here we are, with virtually no change from the vague proposal one year previous.
Hal Biagas was Riot’s selection to “lead” the inaugural players’ association.
I hope that you as a regular reader understand why this is an issue. Let me speak condescendingly to you for a moment—just in case. The bulk of any player negotiations and bargaining for better positions will either directly or indirectly involve Riot Games. Maybe the players want a higher stipend to come from the league. OK. Now the person directly involved in applying any leverage the players have to that end is paid by the company that they have to clash with. If that seems a glaringly obvious example, then how about a more subtle one. A top North American brand is mistreating its players and due to a non-disparagement clause in the players contracts they don’t want to get caught leaking it to the press. They take it to Biagas, who then takes it to Riot. Riot is clear that while they don’t approve, they really can’t afford to have a brand that makes up a huge percentage of the fan base threaten to pull out if they interfere. There’s the shared revenue streams of merchandising to consider as well as viewership. A massive financial hit and maybe Riot has to do some downsizing, perhaps starting with a costly player’s union. How hard can you trust a guy to fight if the reward for “winning” is losing his job?
So yes, as it stands, this is a disastrous implementation of something very necessary for the young professionals that are the oil in the League of Legends machine. Still, at least Riot Games have recommended someone who we can trust, an experienced veteran of the NBPA. Well, reading up on Biagas’s background doesn’t inspire confidence there either. He was part of a sports agency called Excel where he handled negotiations for coaches. That agency was at the center of a debate about the conflict of interests after Jason Kidd left the Nets in 2014. In having one entity negotiate for both players and coaches, admittedly a common practice in the league, it can be argued this was circumnavigating rules put in place to protect players. After all, even though different agents handled the negotiations for management and players what is stopping them sharing information periodically? All they have to do is walk down the hall and ask. It’s a murky world for sure and I’m in no way singling him out. I’d have felt better about a person that had pushed back on skirting the edges of these rules rather than taking part in them. “Everyone does it” has never worked as an excuse where I am concerned. Given the opportunities for corruption, collusion and double-dealing in esports I’d have felt better with a sabre rattler.
Still, this was being over-critical so once again I tried to suppress these preconceptions and wait to hear what he had to say. The method of delivery was standard operating procedure for Riot. Find a friendly journalist, in this case Travis Gafford, and have them ask some softball questions that read like the outline for a press release. There’s a basketball analogy here too because Travis is definitely king of the lay-up when it comes to Riot Games. I don’t dislike the guy and we talk about it privately, but he needs to know it’s not a compliment if companies see you as “their guy.” As a journalist I’d be mortified if I was well-liked by any corporation. Fuck it, I’d hate to be well liked by the “fans.”
The interview contained some laughable quotes, but one stood out to me.
“On the surface I understand why their appears to be a conflict of interest” Biagas said “but I’m a lawyer and I’m very aware of conflict of interest and seek to avoid it at all costs. This is an instance where there is an appearance of a conflict of interest but the reality is that’s not the case. Riot is funding the… Has committed to fund the first couple of years of the player’s association which frankly I give them a lot of credit for because they were progressive enough to recognise that this was a need that their players had and they felt it was something the players were going to find difficult to get off the ground on their own so they stepped into the breach and helped them facilitate this.”
As a lawyer I would expect him to know that the term “conflict of interest” doesn’t mean any wrongdoing is taking place. It means there is a chain of relationships that could lead to such activity. The appearance of a conflict of interest is, by definition, a conflict of interest. It doesn’t matter whether or not anyone ever engages in using their influence in an undue manner. The fact that there is a path for them to do so is the issue in and of itself. When you tie this quote to his time at Excel Sports Management it seems that maybe his avoiding conflict of interests “at all costs” doesn’t apply to the costs he puts on his expense sheet at the end of the month.
This isn’t to say Riot is entirely to blame for this situation. Far from it honestly. You have to look at the players and say this was a wasted opportunity to actually implement something important, not just for them but for the esports model as a whole. There’s going to be a wave of player associations coming out and some are going to be more effective and player driven than others. League of Legends players are rightly intimidated to take point because of the record of Riot’s behavior I’ve listed in this article, but if we’re shooting straight, League players in particular are like a lot of people in esports; in summary, as long as their money is right, fuck everything and everyone else.
I talked with a few professional players and they clarified what I suspected. After Hal Biagas was put in the frame the players didn’t look for any alternatives and didn’t challenge Riot’s selection(s) in any fashion. When they voted on it sources told me the turnout was under 50%, less than 40% by some estimates. The players also have little interest in funding it themselves as soon as possible, which is crucial to separating Riot potentially holding the aces in any game of poker the association would have to engage in. Hal’s salary will be coming direct from Riot until the players, which is all LCS and academy players plus any additional subscribers, decide they want to take on that financial burden through a subscription payment model, which is how sports players associations work. There’s no doubt that what veteran player Daerek “LemonNation” Hart said about the player’s being too lazy to set it up rings true to a certain degree.
As it stands they are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Either watch the players do absolutely nothing or set up an apparatus that could be easily used as a subtle instrument of control and intelligence gathering for the illusion of propriety and progress. Neither is a solution to the systemic problems around competitive League of Legends. Given Riot’s track record though, I have to say I’m beyond disappointed that players would essentially be complicit in setting up something that is potentially wide open to abuse.
What a mess. Even though I barely follow League of Legends anymore, this sticks in my craw because this may well be used as the model of how we do player associations in esports. Some may take their cues from Riot Games because of their success without ever thinking if they really want to be like them. Developers already hold inordinate amounts of power in the esports pyramid and it’s highly unlikely they will simply let a player’s association they fund do its thing if it’s against their own interests. Especially true – a player’s association potentially run by Riot Games would be like wolves running a sheep farm. Lamb will be on the menu sooner rather than later.