Q&A: esports attorney Roger Quiles on player unions, salary transparency and traditional sports parallels

The public discussion about salary transparency among esports players has persisted for almost a week now. Slingshot Esports publisher and CEO Joe Ragazzo laid out his take on the topic yesterday while referencing many other opinions throughout the community (and they’re still coming).

I had the chance to interview Roger Quiles, esports attorneyand founder of player management agency, 1337 Sports Management, about player salaries, comparisons between esports and traditional sports and where the industry should go from here. The transcript is below:

Vince Nairn: So how long have you been in esports, and how did you get the idea to form this agency?

1-c71CzzH8iMUsHP9zidpJswRoger Quiles: I’ve had my own practice for a year and a half now, and I started my practice working for business law and sports law. On the sports side, representing amateur athletes, college-level athletes. Keeping them out of trouble with the NCAA given the very convoluted rules that exist there and also assisting them with their own businesses.

I had always been a gamer, always aware of the esports base. Last November, I think, an article ran across one of my social media feeds regarding an esports player overseas not being paid by his team. All the connections I started drawing in my head between the sports industry and the esports industry, I thought there would be so many parallels.

Who’s helping these people? Who’s making sure these players do get paid? I did a lot of research and found out, by and large, that teams weren’t represented. Players weren’t represented. I immediately started networking within the industry to see what I could do to help. A burgeoning sport like that needs people to guide it and protect its interests as it evolves.

Working with somebody trying to enter the NBA or NFL is no different than the League of Legends player who is 17, 18 years old signing their first professional contract. These people have no inkling (about what they’re signing).

VN: What’s your reach, in terms of clientele? Is it accurate to say this an under-served group?

RQ: (Esports) is easily my largest bracket area at my law firm. It’s probably about 80 percent of the work that I do in a year, which is pretty tremendous. I’m representing players, coaches, teams and businesses within the space.

There’s an increased awareness to (the need), especially among the highest-earning esports like League of Legends. Still, a vast majority of players aren’t seeking any assistance with regards to their contracts. And if they are, it might not be a good kind of assistance. A player’s dad looking at a contract is good because it’s somebody looking at it, but it’s not because he might not be well-versed in contracts.

VN: How does it differ from other pro sports, where there are more agents and a union to regulate things?

RQ: When you’re dealing with pro sports, there’s essentially as close to perfect information as you can have. Financials are reported. The league and union are well aware of what teams are making. Probably the biggest difference is contracts themselves are standardized because they’re part of collective bargaining.

(In esports), every team has its own contract. They range from being wildly illegal to partially illegal to varying degrees of effectiveness.

This debate (about transparency) is slightly misguided in that the salary an esports player makes is not the end all, be all of their compensation. Are they an independent contractor or an employee? What benefits do they get? What streaming percentages do they keep? What prize pool percentage do they get to keep? There’s a lot more that goes into the contract than monthly salary. That’s where the recent conversation about publicizing salaries is astray.

People say the players don’t know what each other make. That’s not true. They’re all friends and they all talk. It may be difficult for them to assess what their own value is, but that’s the case in any sport. Values are always gonna be fluid and based on the market. That’s pretty similar to professional sports.

VN: What are the challenges of having no union or baseline standard for contracts?

RQ: It puts much more of the onus on the player to do their due diligence to make sure their contract is good. Esports players not having a union means there is no standardized player agreement. That means the player has to go out of their way to bring in an agent or attorney to review their contracts, negotiate it, ask the right questions, make the right point. Players need assistance so they don’t sign a bad contract.

VN: What, if any, are the complications of an organization like Riot Games owning the game and also operating the league in which it’s played?

RQ: That’s a very, very loaded answer. The fact that the developer is also serving as league body puts it in a very conflicting opinion. (In other sports), the league body is beholden to the teams. All the teams have a vested interest in the league, and the league acts on behalf of them.

Given esports doesn’t act that way, we have three entities involved: The game developers, acting as a league body, the teams and the players. Because of that, if we were to ever have collective bargaining, it would be a disaster.

There’s a lot that can be done with respects to implementing rules, grievance procedures, or an appeals process to disciplinary rules…as the developer and league body, the rules could go a lot farther to protect players and protect teams. I don’t think they do enough.

VN: How much leverage do agents and players really have in negotiating in esports right now?

RQ: If you want to continue the analogy with pro sports, it’s still very similar. You wanna talk about in-game performance. Awards, tournaments, and any sort of accolades they achieve. In esports, you’re gonna talk about social following. The opportunities for social media branding are tremendous.

Twitter followers, Instagram subscribers, and you can even take that a step further to Twitch of Azubu, streaming services like that. That gives you the leverage of that individual brand. The teams can also piggy back off that.

You also have to look at the appeal of the player. There’s always different ways players can leverage their own abilities and what they bring to the table. Despite the fact that salaries aren’t public, you can even bring that into the conversation.

They’re all points that can be brought to the table. At the end of the day, it’s about hashing them out and seeing what may be most beneficial.

VN: Why aren’t there more agents in esports?

RQ: First, the players themselves are largely resistant to it. They’ve gravitated toward attorneys, there aren’t a lot of them and pretty much any attorney working in this space is performing the job of an agent. As far as the term agent is concerned, there’s also a connotation with what we’ve seen already in esports is there’s a heavy emphasis on marketing.

The marketing guys were first to get into this scene, and for good reason. But (there are) marketing agents who are calling themselves player agents but don’t necessarily possess the knowledge to act as a real player agent.

Second, pro sports agents take generally 3–5 percent of (a player’s salary). That works when a player is making millions of dollars guaranteed. It doesn’t work when a majority of your player’s earnings are linked to tournament and prize winnings. The money aspect plays a big role as to why we haven’t seen the professionals try to engage in the industry.

Right now, the professionals that are getting involved are doing it for the love of it. The players, by and large, at least on the broad scale, are not making a ton of money. (Attorneys/agents) are doing it on the notion that these (players) are very vulnerable individuals, important to the (industry), who don’t have the right protection.

(For that to change), you would need a much more stable financial structure. Taking it away from something that’s more tournament-based to much more salaried; taking it away from income being based on winning tournaments. There’s a much more substantial risk for the agent when their earnings are tied to the result of a tournament. But it’s certainly doable. If the numbers get big enough, you’ll certainly start to see more profession.

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