Recently, a man I have a lot of respect for in esports broadcasting announced he wasn’t going to be picked up by Riot Games for its League of Legends World Championship this year. For me, that’s extremely disappointing as he is one of the key people I enjoy watching, particularly on the expert panel. He has a tone, personality and delivery that not only helps me understand League of Legends better and appreciate some of the plays, but does so in an entertaining manner. Not being part of the broadcast crew this year lessens my personal enjoyment of the event and no doubt others feel the same way, too.
One of the few positives to come out of this, however, was that Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles chose to speak out about Riot’s treatment of broadcast talent, pointing out many issues with low payment of in-house talent and restrictions. He also talked openly about his own experiences as a freelancer.
A lot of what Chris spoke about not only alarmed me, but made me realize just how lucky some of us are in this industry that we perhaps from time to time take for granted.
When esports broadcasting first began, no one got paid. Eventually, however, as we proved our worth, sponsors wanted more coverage and streaming became essential for tournaments, casters, hosts and on-screen talent started getting paid. This happened even earlier in Korea, where TV was already established for esports, but it’s important to understand where we are right now rather than just prattle on about history.
Today, esports broadcasters can do well. They can earn good money, and many are comfortable, but I want people to understand there appears to be four levels of pay scale right now, which have almost nothing to do with how good you are or how much experience you have:
First, you have TV rates. TV rates are very rarely paid to esports broadcasters either historically or today save for perhaps ELEAGUE (run by Turner, who knows how to look after broadcasting talent) and DirecTV (through the ill-fated CGS in 2008). Few, if any, of the esports organizers can afford even low-end TV rates for broadcasters, so don’t be fooled into thinking today’s superstar commentators are paid the same as their TV counterparts. They are likely (at best) to be around one-third of the low-end TV rates currently.
Next up is what I’d loosely call the “Esports publishers,” where some (actually very few) pay much higher rates for direct tournaments they run where they will appear on TV channels and stations around the world (think Valve’s The International). These rates are around 40-60 percent higher than standard esports rates.
Then we have the standard esports rates. Although they’re much lower than TV rates, I’ve personally seen a 50 percent rise in these rates over the last four years, roughly in line with organizers like ESL or MLG pulling in more money from ticket sales, merchandising and sponsorship for their large scale events.
Finally, we have the low-end rates typically paid for online leagues, smaller organizers and small scale tournaments that are perhaps new.
If I asked you to place Riot games into one of the above scales, you’d probably imagine they would be in the second scale, behind TV rates, but absolutely in the high end esports scale for a top esports publisher with big scale TV shows and large stadium sellout events. According to MonteCristo, you’d be wrong.
But “Hold on,” I hear you say. “They get paid a salary!” And yes, this is true, and I’ve always said to talent, if you want security, take a salary. It will almost certainly net you much less than as a freelancer, especially if you have a big name or are fantastic as a caster, but it does give you security. You get paid every month. You can budget. You get to work for a big publisher or TV station. Likewise, if you want to freelance, you have the potential to earn much more money. Key word: Potential. You also have to worry about your own tax, health care, pensions, food, bills and all of this with the cloud over your head that you don’t always know where the next payment is coming from, or whether it will ever come at all. For some, the risk is too great and they’d much rather have the security, even though they understand it means less reward.
Monte also talks about the level of intensity of being a League of Legends talent. A lot of work with all of the splits, Mid-Season Invitational, worlds and on top of that IEM and other tournaments, leaving just a couple of weeks off for the entire year. And while I agree it’s a lot of work and a lot of prep, the salary covers this. You can’t argue it doesn’t; you can only argue that they aren’t paid enough. What is enough? My level of enough is different to someone else’s, so this is difficult to discuss in any detail, though I accept and agree with Monte that based on our knowledge of those salaries, they are hardly matching industry rates we see across other titles.
I know it might sound harsh, but when it comes to salary, you get what you are worth or you don’t. Pay differences are not something new. They’ve been around forever and are rarely fair. If talent at Riot have actively campaigned internally for higher wages or approached management for a raise and been denied, then that would be something else, especially if (as we suspect) they are paid so poorly already. As Monte says in his video, they can hardly come out and tell us any of this either for fear of reprisal or loss of job.
The talent at Riot also don’t get any extra money for doing Mid-Seasonal Invitation or worlds. In my opinion, though, they shouldn’t if they are salaried. Yes, the hours of prep and on-screen time is huge at these events, but they are paid staff and salaried.
One thing I absolutely agree with, however, is that any external event they do, they should be paid for. It’s shocking to me they don’t get paid anything extra for these.
Then there are the restrictions involved in working as talent at Riot — something any freelancer would find unbelievable if asked to follow the same regime. They aren’t allowed to do other games, can’t stream, can’t monetize YouTube or Twitch, can’t merchandise, can’t do other events other than those approved by Riot. They also have no claim on image rights, no protection from over use of voice, and while Riot has always provided excellent catering, hotels, flights, care and production on their events, the restrictions are very heavy compared to other esports.
But then, they should be, right? They are the publisher of the game. They provide a salary and benefits (presumably). Perhaps, but then we come back to the low pay. Some of the restrictions are understandable and not at all dissimilar to any TV station that hires talent on an exclusive basis. The difference is, when you are asked to be exclusive for a TV station, you are paid a huge salary in order to give up on the things you would ordinarily get.
Millions of dollars change hands when someone is asked to be exclusive in sports TV, whether that be a host of a football show or a commentator for golf. While we certainly aren’t at TV rates, it’s unquestionable that a team of people so dedicated to one game, hugely popular with fans and who deliver professional commentary and hosting are absolutely worth a lot more than the standard esports rate for being exclusive.
The problem, of course, is that unlike sports, we have an extra layer in esports where the publisher owns the IP and therefore if you want to work for the game, you work for the publisher and in that sense they have a sort of monopoly on talent and can by and large dictate terms. That’s how market forces work, sadly.
Monte also talks about the future and on that front, I am once again united with him. Some of the talent at Riot is some of the best in esports, but they are one-game specialists and the longer they remain so, it will be harder for them to transition to any other esport, should they want or indeed (as Monte also points out) need to do in the future. Again, if they were paid what Monte calls a “metric ass ton of money” to be exclusive then perhaps that would be ok. It would certainly be part of any discussion I personally have with anyone who wants me to limit myself to their product. It’s part of the decision to go with one instead of the many.
As for Monte, he’s likely to move on, do Overwatch or something else and while that’s great for Overwatch, it’s a huge loss to League of Legends. It’s comparable to losing Leigh “Deman” Smith and Joe Miller two years ago, irreplaceable commentators who were hugely popular. Sure, you can argue no one is bigger than the game, but sometimes the game is made all that much better by those who talk about it, especially when they are so obviously passionate about it until they are screwed.
Riot does a lot of things that are great, but for every one of them, they do something that is bloody awful. Not having Monte at worlds is a mistake, in my opinion, and losing another passionate advocate of the game can’t help either, short or long term. My only hope, like Monte’s, is that the talent employed by Riot are paid what they are worth and if not are allowed a little more freedom.
Photos courtesy of Riot Games