The contentious dance between the Professional Esports Association, or the PEA, and the ESL Pro League, or EPL, has finally come to a close: the PEA’s plan to operate a CS:GO league of their own, which would have been the first team-owned league in the history of esports, has been canceled. “We tried to put together a CS:GO league structure which was innovative and would allow players to help shape operations and execution,” the PEA said in a statement. “This wasn’t our time and we’re looking forward to the future.”
Let’s back up for some context. In September, major esports organizations Team Liquid, Counter Logic Gaming, Immortals, NRG Esports, Team SoloMid and compLexity Gaming came together to announce the forming of the PEA, which would run a 10-week CS:GO league with a prize pool of $500,000.
The PEA was unique in the world of esports; it wasn’t a developer-run league, like Riot’s LCS, nor was it a third party tournament organizer, like its competitor ESL. The PEA was founded, owned and operated by some of the most popular and powerful teams in the world of esports. But in an almost Shakespearean twist, the death blow to the PEA’s ambitions of running a CS:GO league was dealt by none other than the very players operating under the banner of those teams, who voted unanimously in favor of playing in the EPL, rather than the PEA. This is with the possible exception of compLexity, whose players’ vote has not been revealed.
Why would players vote against a league run by their own team owners?
In their official statement, the PEA suggested that financial reasons were behind the canceling of their CS:GO league. “Since the time of the original announcement of the PEA CS:GO league, it has become clear to the PEA organizations that there isn’t sufficient financial support in the ecosystem,” said a PEA spokesman to theScore esports. “Either from broadcast/streaming partners, sponsors or others, to profitably operate a third prominent online league, due to the oversaturation of the marketplace and the recent upward spiral in operating costs.” But surely, the unanimous rejection of their league by the players factored significantly into the PEA’s decision. The question is, why would players vote against a league run by their own team owners, especially one which would offer more money up front?
The answer comes down, at least in part, to trust. According to an open letter from CS:GO players via their representative Scott “SirScoots” Smith, rumors began to circulate that the PEA might force players to drop out of the ESL Pro League to compete in their own. Early statements from the PEA claimed that players wouldn’t be forced to participate, and that the organization wouldn’t be exclusive or disrupt third party tournaments. However, after little to no communication from the organization, players were told that the team owners had the final say where the player would compete thanks to a clause in their contract, and that PEA was making no real effort to work out an arrangement with the EPL enabling players to compete in both. To the PEA’s credit, the team owners ultimately put the question to a player vote, but months of uncertainty and lack of transparency did not breed an abundance of faith.
This was a telling moment for how the year might look for esports
Smith, in a subsequent letter, offered another explanation: that players believed the short term benefits of competing in the PEA were outweighed by a diminished presence in an open, popular tournament with a high level of visibility and viewership like the ESL Pro League. “As a professional gamer, so much of your livelihood depends on how you connect with your community,” wrote Scott; players feared isolation in the PEA.
Whether it was purely business considerations or a lack of faith that motivated the player vote, this was a telling moment for how the year might look for esports. It marks the rejection of a model that traditional sports have been using for decades, one which many members of the esports community saw as an inevitable shape the competitive gaming world would eventually take.
“Teams and players need to control their own destiny, need to evolve to the structure which has been successful for all major traditional sports leagues,” said NRG chairman Andy Miller, close to the founding of the PEA in September. He was, at the time, advocating for a structural evolution to a system “which has been successful for all major traditional sports leagues.” Ironically, when players took destiny into their own hands, it looked a lot different than what the teams expected.