The esports industry is as volatile as the traditional sports industry. An incredibly small number of professional players are able to make it to the highest level and get signed by a team. What sets them apart besides talent and hard work? The majority of those players have professional representation.
Even then, the power is not on the side of the player.
"I would say the power balance is definitely getting better, even though the vast majority still isn't represented," said ULTI agency CEO Asgeir Kvalvik, who represents a number of major Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive players. "I strongly recommend all players to look into representation, so they are protected and always get what they deserve."
The landscape of esports player representation
This industry, like many others in their infancy, used to be just like the Wild West. Tournaments were held in dingy hotel lobbies, there was little to no oversight, and players were often on their own when dealing with the few organizations in the space.
Without representation, esports pros face conditions akin to those of pro athletes before the dawn of free agency. It was a time when teams had a lot of control when it came to player contracts.
"In general, the esport industry is still new and ‘growing up’ regarding representation between athletes and organizations," said esports agent Simon Ottesen, who works mainly in CS:GO. "If you’re a S-tier player in any given game, you obviously -- in a perfect world -- would have more offers on the table and therefore also more strength to pull with on your end as a player."
Esports talent agencies, attorneys and agents have become commonplace within competitive gaming, although usually only the highest tiers of players are represented.
Scump and Shotzzy are teammates on OpTic Gaming. Photo credit: OpTic Gaming
VALORANT stars Tyson “TenZ” Ngo and Adil “ScreaM” Benrlitom are both represented by Prodigy Agency. Underscore Talent represents Call of Duty champs Seth “Scump” Abner and Anthony "Shotzzy" Cuevas-Castro as well as others in the gaming and digital media space. Likewise, Loaded.gg manages former League of Legends icon Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng and others in the general gaming space.
University-educated attorneys and former aspiring pros alike have worked to fill a void by representing players in major contract negotiations. Their presence in the space represents one step in the direction of making the esports industry a more stable one. The nature of esports -- where the bar for entry is much lower than the NBA or MLB -- means that it's near impossible for the majority of players to be represented.
"But if you’re not up there, there’s plenty of people waiting in line to take your place," Ottesen said. "Being represented by an agent, who works for you and can negotiate on your behalf evens out the power balance between both parties."
It's hard to equate the esports industry to the Wild West anymore, but things are far from regulated and secure. The sheer number of games themselves -- not to mention players and teams -- dwarfs the number of organizations that are equipped to pay players a salary.
"We did a screening on CS:GO last year, where we found that 80% of the players in the top 30 ranked teams on HLTV did not have any form of representation," Kvalvik said. "And in other games, my impression is that it's even fewer players that are represented."
The players that are represented are currently navigating a volatile industry that's dealing with the tightening of budgets, franchised and partnered leagues that close off opportunities and a world where competition is not the first priority of most organizations.
The role of an agent is to help players navigate an industry that's constantly changing. Even if a player had the know-how to represent themselves, it'd be difficult to balance that with the increasing amount of work and pressure that's put on them every day.
Many players got into playing Fortnite, VALORANT or CS:GO competitively due to their love of the game. They spent dozens of hours every week training in order to earn the opportunity to prove that they are one of the best.
Players are more than just competitors for organizations
TenZ is both a popular VALORANT player and streamer. Photo credit: Riot Games
With the United States potentially now in a recession, organizations are asking their players to be more than competitors. They want content creators who can bring eyes to their brand and build an audience that will purchase merchandise and support the organization financially.
"At the end of the day, it all comes down to content creation," said Fortnite agent Reed Rosen. "That's how orgs make money and increase their brand awareness."
The demand for content creation may seem obvious. Only a handful of organizations are making any money off actual competitions. After all, there can only be one winner. Organizations, according to agents like Rosen, are getting smarter.
"A lot of these players go into Fortnite making hundreds of thousands of dollars. They don't enjoy content creation," Rosen said. "A lot of guys have to see the numbers before they do the work. A lot of these people are private people … you know, they have an anime profile picture."
The role of an agent is about more than landing that big number within content creation. It's about making sure the players understand how much work they're taking on and ensuring that the players' own brand is growing as much as or more than the organization they are signed with. Making career longevity a consideration in every contract is also important, considering esports careers are typically short, four to five years on average according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Longevity is important as major esports like VALORANT shift toward a franchised model, where only a select number of teams will compete in the top tier publisher-run league every season. Riot Games is still in the process of finalizing the franchised format and figuring out which teams will be a part of it. A report from Dot Esports indicates it might be as few as eight but no more than 12 for the combined North America, Brazil and Latin American league.
Even still, VALORANT teams are trying to lock in their talent before those decisions are made. Agents, even when sharing general knowledge on social media, help make sure that fewer players are taken advantage of.
"If you are a Valorant player, DON'T sign a contract or an extension until we officially know the list of the Franchised/Partnered teams," said VALORANT agent Jérôme Coupez in a tweet. "If you sign now, you take the risk of being in a team that will NOT be in the Partnered league.It means you won't play the main league; and if you are good enough to be in, then your buyout will probably be massive if you just signed or extended, potentially ruining your chance."
Agencies, even if they are unable to represent the majority of players, help bring about greater protections for players in an industry that's known for abusing them. They have their own agendas -- and are often paid a chunk of the earnings that players make -- but are vital in making sure that players aren't on their own.
"I still think there’s a way to go as to maturing the industry and professionalizing it, but players are smart and can handle a lot of stuff themselves," Ottesen said. "The important part is to show them that they don’t have to do it all alone."
Lead photo credit: Alexander Dumon / ESPAT