WESA Launches, Misfires
The World Esports Assocation is looking out for someone...and it isn't you.
I have been around the Counter-Strike scene since beta 6.1 was released over 16 years ago, and have been directly or indirectly involved in its ties to esports for much of that time. I've been a part of many successes, failures, moonshots, and attempts at legitimizing the sport (creating GameSense, working for Gotfrag, managing pro team e7, helping organize the CAL-Draft league, writing software for the anti-cheating company Punkbuster, etc). The scene has had no shortage of loud people, bold proclamations, and preemptive crowning of organizations or events. I normally avoid opinions on my blog altogether, but Friday's announcement of the World Esports Association was one of the most tone deaf and self-aggrandizing announcements I've ever seen in esports and I feel compelled to write my thoughts.
The announcement was a complete misfire, and it was obvious that WESA did not expect such a swift backlash. I believe they were expecting universal praise and support - it was evident from holding the self-important press conference, preemptively agreeing to a Reddit AMA, and having puff pieces written from various large news corporations. I'm sure the hubris comes from the years of sustained success by ESL and WESA's 8 founding organizations, but it completely misjudges the players and fans who follow esports. If those 8 teams disbanded tomorrow the community likely wouldn't bat an eye or shed a tear; fans just want to watch the top players compete against each other regardless of the name of their team. ESL and those founding organizations made the mistake of thinking they are competitive Counter-Strike.
So why was WESA really formed? Self-preservation. Esports was always viewed as a joke or cute niche by the rest of the world. It is now being taken very seriously because its user base is the ultimate sweet spot for companies to sell their products to: mass numbers of young professionals with few commitments and lots of disposable income who are willing to part with their money. Outside funding is starting to pour in as the likes of professional athletes and traditional media companies become involved, and they could pose a threat to existing organizations. These outsiders have loads of money - what do they need the existing structure for? They could enter the scene and say, ESL who? WESA likely recognized this awhile back and asked themselves "how can we make sure we maintain our piece of the pie?" They probably figured that if they created an organization like FIFA and became the standard, outsiders would come in and just assume they needed to go through WESA. On the flip side, WESA could then strong-arm existing leagues and teams into joining and paying dues or suffering the consequences, i.e. "Nice league you got there...it'd be a shame if none of the top teams played in it."
Let's be clear: an attempt to have standards, regulations, and open discussions is not a bad thing. It's a shame that WESA is not actually interested in doing any of that. Sure, you can go to their website and the words are there, but those words are a thinly-veiled layer on top of WESA's and the founding teams' true goals of controlling the industry and looking out for themselves. Is there some inherent evil in looking out for yourself and trying to protect your business, your relevancy, and your livelihood? Of course not. ESL and those 8 teams have spent years creating successful brands and want to stick around, and there's nothing wrong with that. Hiding those intentions under the guise of altruism and expecting everyone to just go along with it, however, appears disingenuous and deceitful.
Could I be way off-base? It's possible, but the Reddit AMA and Richard Lewis interview with James Lampkin reveals enough to convey otherwise. In the Reddit AMA, when WESA was asked about why this was done secretly for 18 months with no transparency they responded with:
"It is really impossible to do this completely open"
Why? Is it really impossible to do this completely openly? Of course not, unless there's something to hide.
"the transparency starts today with the announcement."
No, no, no. Selective transparency is NOT transparency at all. It is the antithesis of transparency. You do not get to choose when you start being transparent.
From the James Lampkin interview, he directly states that only one organizer was allowed a seat at the table, citing "too many cooks in the kitchen" as the reason. However, the masthead on WESA's website says that it is an "open and inclusive organization". If you want to exclude other organizations that's your choice, but then you cannot claim that you are open and inclusive. Quotes from numerous other teams and leagues all verify that they weren't even contacted to begin with, further invalidating James's statements.
If WESA was really interested in benefiting the community instead of themselves, they would have been open about it from the moment it was conceived and allowed all teams, all players, all leagues, and all organizations to join in the discussion, regardless of size, experience, reach, or level of success. Transparency is about having honest discussion, including bringing forth ideas that may be viewed unfavorably but can then at least be discussed. If you want to form an organization where the initial teams are paid to join and must be exclusive to the organization, while new members must pay dues/fees/percentages of profits in exchange for protecting their interests, that's perfectly fine but just say so. If you tout transparency, list the details of the money that was exchanged, publish the bylaws, and publish every written conversation that took place over the past 18 months (and if it really took 18 months to get to this point, that's another problem altogether). Saying "financial details are something private to each business" is valid in some instances, but not this one.
I could probably write several-thousand more words on the subject of esports, and perhaps I will in another post. Instead, let's look for a solution to the issues that the WESA purports itself as trying to solve. I am a software developer by trade, and much of my work has been focused on the PHP programming language. Several years ago PHP was in a tenuous state; coding was either done completely from scratch or through frameworks that started appearing, which were meant to handle foundation and structure so developers could simply worry about creating their applications. None of the frameworks played well with each other or 3rd party libraries. So as a solution, the PHP Framework Interop Group (PHP-FIG) was formed. PHP-FIG is a collaborative effort to improve PHP across frameworks and repositories through a common set of recommendations (note: recommendations, not requirements or standards). Even though it is the "Framework" Interop Group, the organization also includes non-framework members as they are equally a part of the community. Their bylaws are publicly posted and absolutely anyone can join and contribute to the discussion. All input is welcome and encouraged. I haven't always agreed with their recommendations or choices, but I've never been pushed or forced to use any of them. They are not a business. They aren't receiving monetary profits. Yet, they are still managing to vastly improve PHP and its community with no ulterior motive. It isn't a perfect solution, but it is one that has worked.
Could an organization like that improve Counter-Strike or esports in general? Maybe, maybe not. Large outside companies could just come in and ignore it anyway, do their own thing, and still be wildly successful. Perhaps none of this is even necessary and everything will just work itself out over time. But at least an organization that took an approach like the PHP-FIG would be truly transparent, inclusive, open, and honest. So far the World Esports Association has been none of those things, and it's probably too late to change that now. WESA, ESL, and the 8 founding organizations have shown that they are looking out for someone, but it isn't players, it's themselves.