Overnight, Snoopeh, jungler for Evil Geniuses and all-round top bloke, has come out saying that he thinks a player union would be a good idea. This has brought on a range of comments from people within the eSports community. Most comments seem to revolve around whether players waging war against team owners/Riot would be a good/feasible thing, and given that unions in the rest of life seem to hell-bent on a combination of rent seeking, class warfare and (at least in Australia) maintaining their monopoly on their patch of union turf, it seems pretty reasonable to be skeptical.
However, it doesn’t need to be this way in my view. I think there is a way of having player unions that don’t revolve around what traditional unions do in the US/Australia. If I were to run a player union, and it is something I would love to do, I would run it more along the lines of a friendly society. Friendly societies, from what I understand, were a mainstay of working life prior to the formation of massive government welfare programs. Essentially, people would pool their money to provide for insurance of various sorts, as well as banking and a whole range of other services. There was some times a social aspect to it too, with regular meetings for members where they could provide support to each other. Friendly societies enabled cooperation and mutual assistance for working people.
So what purpose could a player union serve in League of Legends? The pro community, made up of existing pro players and aspiring ones, is primarily made up of males in their teens or early 20s – not a demographic known for wisdom or making sound life decisions. If eSports continues to grow like it has, all these young guys coming into the sport will need some kind of support. There is the obvious risk of exploitation and League of Legends already has some reasonably high profile examples of teams ripping off players. A player union can advocate for their members in this situation but the need for legal advice goes beyond this situation.
While many newly minted pro players will have parental guidance, a player union can supplement this with experience and specific knowledge around the contract law and the like. I think that going for a friendly society approach, as opposed to a class warfare approach, will help facilitate player/team interactions, rather than pitting players against them in some false dichotomy. A player union can assist both current and aspiring players
Beyond the legal issues, I think there is a real place for pastoral care. Young men, for all their tough talk, can be quite fragile and the macho environment that comes whenever lots of blokes come together isn’t always conducive towards helping guys in need. Living in a team house like in the US or EU can a non-stop work environment and the focus of team management (rightly in my view) is about getting the best out of their players on game day – they aren’t necessarily equipped to deal with a young guy who is struggling mentally. Ordinarily parents would provide this sort of help but this will be hampered substantially if players are living in a gaming house or if they aren’t supportive, most famously seen with Doublelift. A player union can provide someone friendly to talk to or can provide players with psychologists, for those who have serious issues that need professional help.
Probably the third big area that a player union could really help, as Snoopeh points out in his Reddit post, with is financial planning. Very few people, like in traditional sports, will be able to make a life-long career of eSports so planning for the future is essential but as I well know from my own experiences, young males are pretty useless at that. Many of these players will only play at a pro level for a few years and then will need to go to a regular job or go to university so they will need help to plan for that inevitability. Add in the potential to earn big money in that short period of a career and the need for pro players to get good counselling on how to make the most of this short period in their life becomes very apparent.
There are a range of other services that a player union could provide, like health insurance, but I think there is a really good case for League of Legends professional player unions. If you go for a class warfare, them-against-us approach to player unions, I think it will be a spectacular failure and detrimental to the interests of everyone (which I might explain in a further post). But I think taking a friendly society, mutual assistance approach has real prospects for helping players do what they love, which is good for players, teams, sponsors, Riot Games and ultimately, for the viewers.
Edit: I’ve seen quite a number of people suggest calling it an association, not a union. For me, that is semantics – what matters is how you structure it, not what you call it. If you think my idea would work better if called an association, then by all means call it that. Potayto, potahto.