The topic of unions has been coming up again and again on social media and within Overwatch communities. Issues with burnout, player conduct, training schedules, publicity, and other pressing problems have made it clear that players need to organize in order to look out for their own interests.
Unfortunately, you won’t see many players talking about the need for a union. No players responded to Heroes Never Die interview requests and many declined to answer questions about the topic in-person at the 2019 season media day. Despite silence from the majority of the league — players need to realize that organizing should happen early on in the Overwatch League’s lifespan.
“I think it’s important for sports that are being created today to not make the same mistakes or end up in the same legal arguments we’ve been through in the past,” sports attorney Ellen Zavian, who is aiding efforts to create an OWL union, tells Heroes Never Die. “We have enough sports law precedent to learn from and it would behoove the employers and employees to build these structures so you don’t end up in court. Then the product itself can grow without as many stumbling blocks.”
Unionization, the process of organizing employees into a labor union that mediates between employees and their employer, is incredibly important to the health of the Overwatch League, given Blizzard’s ambitions. A players’ union or association can help players have a say in how global trades work, how league scheduling happens as new teams are added, they can help make sure players are compensated fairly, and so much more.
Zavian and former player Thomas “Morte” Kerbusch are working to unionize professional Overwatch, although they won’t announce any firm details or an organizational structure until they’re ready. Luckily, organizing in sports is just like organizing in any other profession. “It’s just like any other association, we need an aggregate amount of people to collectively get together to communicate to their employer,” Zavian said. “At the same time they need to get together to meet their own needs — it’s about them helping themselves as employees.”
Before that happens players will need to realize that unionization is a legal right in the United States; that their labor, talent, and contributions to professional Overwatch are instrumental to the league’s success; and that it can guarantee them a spot at the decision-making table. But according to Biagas and other labor experts, a clear crisis, like payroll issues, is usually needed to push players in the direction of organizing.
“We’re still at a very early stage of the lifespan of esports and it may take a while for people to realize that there are issues that need to be resolved, and sometimes it can take time before those issues become prevalent enough in players lives,” said Hal Biagas, executive director of of the North America League of Legends Championship Series Players Association (NALCSPA), who also worked for the NBA’s players’ association. “It’s also about not being on the radar. Young athletes, many of whom are coming from outside North America, especially places like China and Korea, may not have been exposed to that side of organizing.”
“The longer the players play the game they recognize that there are things they need to do to level the playing field,” Biagas added. “They can be treated very well or treated very poorly — and when they’re treated poorly that’s when they realize they need to do something.”
Unlike other pro sports leagues, Blizzard has complete control over Overwatch and its league isn’t controlled by the owners. The league can make the majority of decisions unilaterally without input from team ownership. Blizzard having that level of power makes it all the more important for players to organize, even if they believe they’ve been treated fairly by their teams and the league.
“Issues aren’t that different across sports. There’s always issues about practice time, off-time, compensation, being treated fairly. It’s a different sport but the common issues are all the same,” Biagas said. Biagas also notes that the Overwatch League is trying things that haven’t been done before in esports that will affect players in a major ways. “It’s a big thing to be traded from Utah to New York, it’s a whole other thing to move from Los Angeles to Paris. I think those are things that players should have representatives think about.”
“Translators, housing, families. There are dozens of issues that have to be addressed and dealt with.”
Getting started is no different than from most other organizations. Players need to come together to form some sort of group, find common needs and interests, and then address a few other issues unique to their specific case. Players will need to decide if they want to form a union or a players’ association (employers aren’t required to collectively bargain with associations, although they have other benefits). They’ll need to decide if they want to form a union or a players’ association (employers aren’t required to collectively bargain with associations, but they have other benefits) and work with legal support to address issues that come with creating a global labor organization where country-specific labor laws may collide (labor laws in the U.S. and France, for example, aren’t the same).
They’ll also need to find a source of funding. Unions are traditionally funded by dues paid by members, although other options are available. “Make sure your organization is independent in its entirety,” Zavian said. “The [NALCSPA] is funded by the employer. So if the association and the board decided to prioritize something that would negatively impact the employer, the employer could easily stop the funding.”
In an interview with the Telegraph last year, Overwatch League commissioner Nate Nanzer said that organizing efforts would need to come from the players. So it seems unlikely that Blizzard would take a similar route to Riot Games in funding and organizing an association for players.
“I’d rather see players have an association even if it’s funded by the game developer than nothing at all,” Biagas said. “The hardest part about forming a players’ association is coalescing the players and figuring out where your getting your resources from.”
If Blizzard does end up funding an organization like the NALCSPA, it will be important for players to be vigilant about who gets appointed to run the organization, and to work toward a way to find independent funding.
“There are always going to be problems when you start something new. If all those issues still exist a year from now that’ll be a big problem,” Biagas said. “It could be quick or it could take a long time. The most likely scenario is that it’ll happen after some sort of igniting act, although it’s important that it happens nonetheless.”