By: Celestina Macareno
This paper is meant to explore the financial and living situations of professional video game athletes and intended to make an impact in how they are paid in the United States. The paper primarily focuses on Esports players in the United States and South Korea, comparing their living situations, benefits and how they are paid. The pay of traditional sports athletes in the United States is also compared to how Esports players are paid focusing on salaries and involvement of associations and leagues. This paper looks into how the sport itself has grown – even becoming an Olympic sport – and any laws that have come in place that may help or harm players in either country, mainly employment law and visas. A solution is suggested through change in employment law and through increase in publicity of Esports.
The Life of a Professional Gamer
The biggest prize among video game tournaments is from the Dota 2 International, a tournament that raised an astonishing $18,429,613 for its prize in the 2015 tournament. One may never believe that one can make a career out of playing video games, but when gamers are good at what they do, they can make more than enough to sustain themselves. Like many traditional athletes, professional gamers go through much training and practice before competing. Unlike traditional athletes, however, they do not get a stable salary. This causes many athletes to face uncomfortable living arrangements if they are not always at the top at all tournaments. If an Esports athlete wins tournament money, it is usually enough to cover living expenses for a long time. The challenge that these athletes face is choosing to live an average life with a normal job, or to pursue their gaming career in which even with a set contract will not guarantee them of making a living at all, much less hitting a jackpot. Because the chances of losing a tournament are high for professional gamers, Esports athletes should receive a salary to help with living expenses, an action other countries, such as South Korea, have begun to address for the Esports community.
For those who do not know what Esports is, it is professional competitive gaming defined as, “a competitive way of playing computer games within a professional setting” (Wagner 2). This definition puts Esports in an academic perspective. Found on the Major League Gaming’s (MLG) news network website, an article by Kyle Magee on how to become a professional gamer states steps needed to reach that goal. He describes, just like in traditional sports, a lot of practice, recruitments, and scrimmages take place in which a player not only has to play by the rules of the game, but also by any rules that MLG sets (Magee 1). This changes from country to country as the MLG is the circuit for the United States.
Most Esports players are paid from winning tournaments, though extra money is possible through sponsorships. The primary source of income earned by these players is through tournaments that require athletes to spend hours and hours training, usually causing them to withdraw from traditional aspects of life. An integral thought Esports athletes keep in mind when entering this career is that though they go through extensive training, they cannot expect to win all the time. Since these athletes have to withdraw from traditional aspects of life due to the time commitment of this career, the commitment does not insure financial stability. Traditional athletes make a salary regardless of whether they win or lose. For instance, a NFL athlete makes an average yearly salary of 1.9 million dollars and a NBA athlete makes an average yearly salary of 5.15 million dollars (Doyle 1). An Esports athlete, though they do not get a salary, is able to make that amount or more in one day as soon as they win a tournament. However, if they lose, they may not have enough to sustain themselves. Many sponsors are now appearing as the popularity of Esports rises. Among these sponsors are Coca-Cola, Intel and Red Bull. Most of these sponsors help by providing events and paying for flights among other things necessary for a tournament. Besides just focusing on the big picture, some sponsors represent the players themselves. In fact, Red Bull states they, “sponsor pro gamers and treat them the same way they treat real athletes, complete with health and nutrition tips to enable peak performance,” though this cannot be said for every player involved in Esports (Gaudiosi 3). In South Korea, where Esports is widely popular, the Korean Esports association (KeSPA) proposed a minimum wage for these players so they can sustain themselves and be more with traditional sports athletes (Chalk 1). This is a solution that other countries including the U.S. should follow.
The three largest game competitions worldwide are the Dota 2 International, League of Legends Tournament and Smite Tournament as of 2014 (Bednarski 1). The biggest prize has always been Dota 2 International’s, which in 2015 was $18,429,613. This is split among 16 teams. This usually is not the case in all tournaments in which almost all teams get a little money. Depending on the game, some tournaments may only award the top teams.
In an interview conducted by Sean Farrell from the New York Times and from the documentary Free to Play, it is shared professional gamers spend at 12 to 15 hours or more a day training (Farrell, Valve). In regions in Asia where professional gaming is popular, it is common for gaming athletes to live with each other as examined by the documentary Free to Play. This allows athletes to train together letting them get used to each other’s strengths and weaknesses. This has started to develop in the U.S. and parts of Europe. Not only does having athletes live together provide a great environment for training but also secures a home for these players. Esports players rarely have time to be with family, have a regular job, or go to school when training. Some will drop out of school in hopes of making a successful career out of their passion for gaming. Others do not get support from or taken seriously by their family or friends, sometimes to the point that they end up getting kicked out from their home. Because Esports is still not as widely accepted as other sports, these athletes are often mistreated. This is another reason why a minimum wage should be enforced, that way not only will the lives of these athletes be secured but the sport itself will gain recognition.
Esports athletes are gaining more momentum as the interest for Esports rises. Esports athletes not only sell out stadiums, but also begin to receive benefits similar to those of traditional athletes. In the U.S., the government has now recognized Esports players as athletes and will provide them visas when competing in the U.S (Tassi 1). In South Korea, Esports has been approved as a second level Olympic sport (Toledo 1). Recently, the United Kingdom has made its own international gaming tournament that will be presented at the same time as the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. It will be a competition formatted in a similar way as the Olympics, but not associated with the Olympics (International eGames Committee). Based on these similarities, Esports is finally being taken seriously as a sport along with Esports athletes. It is only reasonable that they are provided a salary like traditional athletes. With all the same reliable benefits, the only thing keeping Esports athletes behind is the fact that they are without a salary.
A possible solution to how Esports athletes could be paid would be to do as KeSPA wants to do in South Korea and provide Esports athletes with a minimum salary and yearly contracts (Chalk 1). In traditional sports, the owner provides the athlete’s salary. The problem that arises in Esports is that not all teams have an owner, it is not always teams that participate in Esports tournaments; there are solo players too. The next question to consider is, who would provide the salary if there are not always owners? Seeing as every country observed had a special division for Esports, such as the MLG in the United States or KeSPA in South Korea, these associations could be possible contenders to providing a salary to the players.
These are not the only questions to take into consideration. Legal issues would also have to be settled. Many Esports attorneys have looked into the matter of legal issues and employment of Esports athletes. A common problem found in the U.S. Esports community is that these players are identified as independent contractors instead of employees when working under a sponsor. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, Esports athletes should be identified as employees. If a sponsor/owner and its team were to face courts, they would be challenged by the Economics realities test, in which states through the Fair Labor Standards act that “A worker who is economically dependent on an employer is [employed]” and therefore an employee not an independent contractor (Peskin 1). It is believed that Esports athletes are classified as independent contractors because “Contractors are not held to employment law, while employers have a mountain of obligations to their employees”, these in turn makes it easier for both parties (Walker 1). Attorneys Bryce C. Blum and Stephen D. Fisher who have looked into the problem on small scale through the League of Legends Esports community have found that more than classification of employment matter. Liability and compensation issues would be settled based on how the Esport athlete is classified and those issues would grow in court since those players are classified as an independent contractor and not an employee (Blum, Fisher 4). When making of a salary, the common questions are what is a Esports player classified as? What are the rules on compensation, rights and liabilities? All these questions would have to be brought up to the division (MLG in the U.S.), the organizations that create the tournaments such as Valve and Riot, owners of Esports teams and Esports athletes themselves.
When one looks back on how traditional sports came to be, salaries for athletes were not always as they are now and there were not always owners. In fact, most sports started out with a few people playing and grew to a competitive sport after finding other teams who did the same. Once these sports became more popular, the athletes who were good at what they did were paid about $100 to $300 per game (Stephenson 1). This changed with the invention of the television. Once more people came to watch these game tournaments, the popularity of the Esports rose and these players gained popularity. With more revenue and popularity, these sports grew and the salaries of the athletes did too. If Esports introduced to everyone in the same manner, it is possible that salaries for professional gamers can be available. Esports has tried to take the TV approach by broadcasting Dota 2 International and Call of Duty Tournament on ESPN (Schwartz 1). Of course, Esports isn’t something many have embraced as a sport yet. Many people were upset that these tournaments were shown on ESPN and some were very glad it happened, as it helped Esports gain recognition as a sport. The acceptance of Esports on sports television would be another step in helping it be established as a sport along with providing publicity that will inform the public of the sport. Many do not know about the Visas provided to these players, the extensive training, the pay, or lives they live, but everyone watches TV.
Esports athletes train very hard to be the best at what they do and are passionate about it. They do not always get paid but we are beginning to see them receive just about every other benefit traditional sports players receive. Many people are unaware that competitive gaming is a sport; informing the public about Esports may be the missing link to helping these players get a salary. Publicity should be the first step to inform the public of the sport. The second step would be up to the public to take this Esport seriously, and the third step would be the settlement of legal issues. These steps are not far to creating a sound future for these athletes and getting them to the same level as our traditional athletes.
Bednarski, Scott. “Top 5 Largest ESports Games and Their Prize Pools.” XY Gaming. 15 Oct. 2015. Web.
Blum, Bryce, and Stephen Fisher. “The Rise of eSports League of Legends Article Series.” Foster. 1 Feb. 2014. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.
Chalk, Andy. “Korean E-Sports Association Proposes Minimum Salaries for Pro Gamers.” PC Gamer. PC Gamer, 30 Oct. 2014. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.
“Dota 2 – Prize Pool.” Dota 2 – The International. Valve. Web.
Doyle, Frank. “How to Make Money in Pro Sports Infographic.” Sports Interaction. 24 Oct. 2013. Web.
Farrell, Sean. “Are Video Games a Sport?” New York Times 28 Sept. 2013. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
Free to Play. Perf. Benedict Lim, Danil Ishutin, Clinton Loomis. Valve, 2014. Film.
Gaudiosi, John. “Big Brands Gravitating Towards eSports.” Fortune. 24 July 2014. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.
Magee, Kyle. “How to Become a Professional Gamer.” Major League Gaming. 16 Feb. 2007. Web. 18 Mar. 2015.
Peskin, Harris. “Esports Employment Law : Considerations and Risks.” Esports Entrepreneur. 05 Apr. 2016. Web.
Schwartz, Nick. “ESPN Embraces ESports, Broadcasts Dota 2 Championship ‘The International’” USA Today Sports. 21 July 2014. Web. 7 Apr. 2015.
Stephenson, Debbie. “When Did Athletes Start Getting Rich?” The DealRoom. 24 June 2014. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.
Tassi, Paul. “The U.S. Now Recognizes ESports Players As Professional Athletes.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 14 July 2013. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.
“The Pinnacle of Competitive Gaming.” EGames. International EGames Committee. Web.
Toledo, Efigenio. “ESports Now Recognized as 2nd-Level Olympic Sport.” Inquirer 28 Jan. 2015. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.
Wagner, Michael. “On the Scientific Relevance of ESports.” Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
Walker, Dylan. “Esports Is the Wild West: The Sad Truth about Gaming Orgs.” Yahoo. 9 Mar. 2016. Web.
Celestina Macareno originally comes from Houston but since fourth grade had planned on moving to Austin; she found that opportunity in St Edward’s University in 2014. Formally a Computer Science major, her advocacy for technology and the arts and her passion for videogames had her transition to being an Interactive Game Studies major. She is a huge supporter of S.T.E.A.M (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) and has volunteered time at the Thinkery to help teach kids of these disciplines. Through St. Edward’s, she has gotten to study abroad in Japan, Malaysia, and Thailand and learned about the culture and language in these regions. Celestina plans to graduate in 2018 with a Bachelor of Arts in Interactive Game Studies and hopes to be able to work in the video game industry, utilizing the passion and ambition she carries.