Untangling the mess surrounding WESA, the 'FIFA of esports'

The World Esports Association has stumbled from one public relations disaster to another, and it hasn't even been a week yet.

Maybe, just maybe, WESA shouldn't have introduced itself to the world on a Friday the 13th.

A new group aiming to establish itself as a major governing body -- think the Olympics Committee or the NFL -- for videogame competitions, the World Esports Organization was ostensibly off to a good start with the backing of some major teams and a foremost tournament organizer, the ESL. Unfortunately, its announcement press conference was all shades of awkward -- PCGamer's Chris Thursten describes it charitably as "a number of good ideas struggling to make themselves heard above the furore," with a well-intended comparison to international soccer league FIFA bringing to mind widespread corruption rather than unification.

On paper, it sounded like the World Esports Organization would be, at its worst, ineffectual: WESA is presently only focused on professional Counter-Strike; its members can continue to participate in non-WESA games; non-WESA members can participate in WESA events. With the organization supposedly funded through membership dues, it could theoretically sustain itself in its own corner of the esports industry for quite a while, perhaps gradually gaining the numbers and recognition to assume the kind of leadership to which it aspires.

Problem is, that doesn't seem to be the case. IGN's Kevin Knocke reported yesterday that one of the teams associated with the organization is already parting ways with WESA, and not under amicable terms. The FaZe Clan -- a notable CS:GO and Call of Duty team captained by MLG gold medalist James "Clayster" Eubanks -- reportedly decided to split after pressure to sign an exclusivity agreement with ESL, and now faces $50,000 in "penalties" for leaving the association.

Exclusivity agreements would appear to run counter to WESA's stated goals, namely that its members would continue to be allowed to participate in non-WESA competitions. The details are also anonymously sourced and so at present writing can't be independently verified -- but as Kotaku Australia notes, the team also hasn't commented publicly to deny or offer clarity on the story.

If it is true, then in addition to contradicting what WESA has told the public, it turns the whole situation into one of cruel irony: back channel disruptions are already beginning to undermine the organization, when that's precisely one of the things WESA says it hoped to avoid through transparency and structure. From Thursten's piece:

This is an industry used to conducting its affairs through [private messages] and private Skype channels, where transparency (i.e, a leaked chat log) is usually a consequence of a fight getting out of hand.

WESA’s most appealing stated aim is its desire to structure and professionalise exactly this kind of conversation; to provide a way for esports orgs to talk to one another in a way that avoids exactly this kind of unhappy fallout.


“Teams, and players, have come together in very unofficial ways,” [ESL's vice president of pro playing James] Lampkin says. “We deal with a player union in Dota and a player union in CS:GO. But the significance of those unions is fairly small -- the Dota union, for example, exploded because of a Twitter fight between two players. An entire union destroyed because of a Twitter fight between two players. If we're talking about how to make this work, it has to be official.”

So what is the state of things right now? Despite gaffes, reports of teams getting pushed into exclusivity deals, and apparently punitive member fines for breaking ranks, WESA still presents itself as an organization wanting to do good. And maybe in the hearts of its key people, that's true: esports would benefit from further professionalization; its players do need more protections and avenues for recourse than many currently possess. One of the best things WESA has outlined to date is a concept for an arbitration court, for example.

But we still have what Thursten calls "the ESL-ephant in the room:" as the only major tournament organizer attached to the association, ESL stands to gain quite the upper hand if it's allowed exclusive rights to major teams and clans. Critics including Thursten have challenged WESA on this, but all we know is that ESL reportedly did approach other tournament organizers, only to get turned down. "After months of this process, hmm-ing and ha-ing, we came to the realisation that, no, it fails," Lampkin says in the Thursten piece. "As leagues, we are too competitive with each other across the esports ecosystem."

It would appear -- if IGN's report of exclusivity deals are true -- that ESL is quite content to remain competitive, even as the backbone of WESA. And if that remains the case, it's difficult to imagine the self-styled global esports association gaining the foothold it desires, no matter how benevolent its ideals.

Top image source: Helena Kristiansson, ESL.