In eight years reporting on video games, it's not irrational to say that WESA (World Esports Association) is the most comprehensively flawed project I have covered so far.
The initial idea seemed reasonable enough: A standalone independent esports council that can introduce new laws, enact regulations and moderate competitions, all under the guiding principles of legitimacy and fairness. Considering the merry-go-round of scandals that have plagued esports since it became Big Business, an independent regulator could provide a step forward.
But mere minutes into WESA's opening press conference, held on Friday in London, it was clear that the initial pitch hadn't left the elevator. WESA is half-owned by the ESL (the world's biggest esports network), yet other groups such as Major League Gaming, CEVO, PGL and Gfinity are not involved. Worse still, its member council is made of eight teams, all currently active in esports. That means WESA members can compete in WESA-sanctioned tournaments, such as the ESL's Counter-Strike Go Pro League, and will be able to shape the rules of the competition.
It's the sheer breadth of problems that is so astonishing. Here, not only are the inmates running the asylum, they're also part-funding it. Via a profit share system, WESA receives income from its pro-team council.
Pro teams also have some influence on which outside teams can join the group, which if abused could create a two-tier system of have-and-have-nots in WESA-sanctioned tournaments. Meanwhile, the newly installed independent commissioner is not independent nor, for that matter, a commissioner.
As the hourlong press conference divulged more extraordinary details, WESA had branded itself as politically garbled, institutionally incestuous, and famously abusable. Following the press conference, I spoke to ESL chief executive Ralf Reichert, and then later with WESA's interim commissioner Pietro Fringuelli, to ask about the core problems facing the association.
GameSpot: In order for WESA to be legitimate, shouldn't it be independent from active esports teams?
Interestingly, I think a lot of people would ask the opposite question. How can you make a legitimate esports association without the voice of the players?
What we tried to do was build this triangle of governance; most of the time the leagues have more of an aligned interest with the actual players, and the teams sometimes have more of an aligned interest with the players than the league, and we are trying to balance that out.
Looking at the way esports has evolved, and looking at its origins, I feel like this is the right way to do it.
But the pro teams on the members committee give money to WESA through revenue shares.
Reichert: Actually no, it's the other way around. The sanctioned leagues give money to the teams and WESA.
That's still the teams giving WESA money via a split in revenue.
Reichert: But the main financing is through sanctioning leagues.
OK. Nonetheless, teams give you money.
Reichert: A tiny amount.
Granted, but it's money, and it's also about how it looks.
Reichert: Yeah, perception is reality.
So let's imagine that WESA agrees on a law that angers one of the member teams. Surely that team would have second thoughts about funding you.
Reichert: But that question would suggest that the German Bundesliga, or the NFL, are solely owned by teams. That would mean that model doesn't work.
Eight pro teams are funding WESA and they are making decisions for competitions. That's how it looks.
Reichert: Actually, I feel that is wrong. They contribute a tiny piece of WESA's funding, and they influence WESA's rules but they don't decide on them.
And my third argument would be how FIFA was founded, or the NBA, all very similar models. That is, a small group working together with checks and balances.
Do you agree with the principle that if the ESL held a tournament for a hundred teams, each of those teams should all get an equal and fair chance of winning?
Reichert: Yes, that is integral.
So, if eight of those teams had a say on how the tournament was run, does that not give them an advantage?
Reichert: If their choices had an impact on operations then yes, but WESA's impact is on rules, not execution. It's a very important difference.
Please explain the difference.
Reichert: So WESA sanctions leagues and tournaments. It doesn't run them. The execution of those ideas is done by the tournament organiser.
So by sanction you mean approval?
Reichert: And approval is on things such as rules, transfer regulation, things like that. Not the actual referee rulings.
My point is that, however much we disagree on how much influence players have, even a tiny amount in a competitive sport is too much.
Reichert: But it won't be things like referee decisions.
Reichert: It sanctions transfer regulation, arbitration, tournament formats...
Right, so deciding on a tournament format can have an influence on play. Hearthstone, for example, has Last Hero Standing and Conquest formats, and both of those benefit certain styles of play and certain kinds of decks. Again, WESA's player council can choose which they prefer.
Reichert: But there are eight member teams, of which the vote is split between them.
And there are more than eight teams taking part in the GS Pro League. Most won't have a say on format or other such rules, but the eight WESA teams will.
Reichert: In reality, no. In reality those eight teams, maybe a few more, have always had a say in how things are run. Because they have the experience, and an informal relationship with the organiser is already there. We want most of the teams in WESA going forward.
So that gap will close. And it goes back to what we started with, and that's legitimacy. Obviously we don't want to discourage teams outside of WESA. So the current WESA team members need to avoid doing things which make them look like they're taking advantage.
How can any independent bystander look at this and think that all eight WESA teams are, for the rest of time, going to behave responsibly in a cash-prize competition? I'm not casting aspersions on any individual member, I'm talking about what you're hoping for with the model you currently have in place.
Reichert: I think first, the group will grow. Second, your argument would remove any legitimacy from the NBA.
You're comparing this to other sports as if they are all deemed proper and legitimate. Is FIFA completely legitimate? Is Formula 1?
Reichert: If we're seen as legitimate as the NFL, we're happy. We probably don't have the same standards as you have.
The reasons I ask this, or certainly one of the reasons, is that esports is on the back-foot when it comes to legitimacy in the public eye. It's boys around computers playing for a big chunk of money. I just think the ESL needs to go the extra mile to legitimise it. You need to punch above your weight.
Reichert: I hear you, but I still think that a single-owned property, be it run by teams or leagues, would be worse than what we have. My honest opinion is what we have is the best model.
Also, if you want more teams, more democracy, why don't you open up membership?
Reichert: No it is open.
So any pro team can join?
Reichert: Any pro team that meets a certain criteria.
Criteria such as?
Reichert: We'll be publishing the details at a later date. But it's mainly based on success and stability. They are the key factors.
How do you even measure that?
Reichert: I think it's going to be pro-league results. We'll need to optimise that.
My suspicion is WESA team members could try and keep rivals away from the table, because that's something they can vote on and influence.
Reichert: That's why we [the executive team] are here, because we obviously have a high interest in other members joining.
Independent from the ESL. Independent from the teams.
What safeguards your independence?
Fringuelli: Nothing. This is exactly the system we are implementing now.
Do you have final say on decisions that WESA is deliberating?
Fringuelli: Currently we have a system where most of the power is in the members' meetings [the pro-team meetings], so the decisions that the executive board [ESL executives] makes is very limited, but nevertheless they have power to make certain decisions.
The role of the league commissioner is, when the executive board makes a decision and the vote is split 50/50, that's when the commissioner steps in and has a casting vote.
Right. Is that the only authority you have?
Fringuelli: Yeah. But from my experience this casting vote over time gets more and more influential, so we have built in mechanisms to safeguard that for its own integrity.
See, when I hear the word commissioner, I imagine it describes someone with authority, who implements and presides over new rules.
Fringuelli: No, and this is different. Other organisations have that [commissioners with authority], but here the power is only in the members meeting.
I see. So you're saying that the group with the most authority in WESA is the pro-players themselves?
Doesn't that muddy the water? This is pro players defining the rules of tournaments they are active in.
Fringuelli: No, actually not.
But it's their choice. It's the active pro players who are voting on tournament policy.
Fringuelli: They can participate. We have here many actors involved, we have the players, the teams, and the organisers of the events, so they all have to find a compromise.
OK, so what if all the teams vote unanimously on a decision that harms the ESL's bottom-line...
Fringuelli: That's part of the game.
Who makes the call in that scenario?
Fringuelli: Currently... look, imagine now in a scenario where there is no WESA. All of the teams who don't want to play for ESL won't. So it's exactly the same situation.
The reason I'm asking all these questions is because WESA has been established to legitimise esports. To prevent scandals. I mean this sincerely, not to rile you, but I think the establishment of WESA will cause more scandals. Not less.
Fringuelli: Really? Why?
Right now esports is the wild west, and that's its excuse. WESA won't change anything aside from politicise it. You have eight pro teams-
Fringuelli: Oh no, but that is the beginning. FIFA started with eight teams.
The FIFA comparison is interesting, and I've heard that made many times today. Just from a PR perspective I don't know why you're doing it, because FIFA is frequently accused of being one of the most corrupt sports associations in the world.
Fringuelli: Absolutely yeah. But FIFA had no compliance rules at all, and no mechanisms, nothing, so it was free to do anything.