Another Esports Federation Forms, But What if the Industry is Ungovernable?

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Last December, the leading members of the Olympic movement pressed on with the growing topic of esports and video gaming. As part of its declaration, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) encouraged sports federations to “consider how to govern electronic and virtual forms of their sport,” and to “explore opportunities with game publishers.”

Ten days later, we saw the emergence of the self-described Global Esports Federation (GEF), an organization looking to become “the voice and authority for the worldwide esports movement.” 

From the outset the GEF is focused on regulation, hoping to introduce international standards commonplace in traditional sports. These would include an athlete/player commission, anti-doping and fair play practices, and individual national federations. 

But the GEF is not the first group pursuing the mantle of esports’ FIFA or World Athletics equivalent. Since 2000, a South-Korea based organization, the International eSports Federation (IeSF) has also quested for international standards in competitive video gaming. It currently has member federations from 56 countries, and hosts an annual “Esports World Championships,” featuring amateur competitors.

On the continental level, there’s the Asian Electronic Sports Federation (AESF), formed in 2017, and led by Kenneth Fok, a high ranking member of the Hong Kong Olympic Committee. The AESF regulated the esports demonstration event at the 2018 Asian Games, which featured pro players including South Korean League of Legends star Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. A European Esports Federation will also officially form later this month. 

While these groups remain largely unknown to the broader esports audience, they all boast leadership with considerable influence in sports politics. For example, GEF founding President Chris Chan is also secretary-general of Singapore’s National Olympic Council, and played a part in setting up his country’s own esports federation, which fielded esports players in the Southeast Asian games last year.

“We’re not competing with any other body,” he told The Esports Observer. “We know the IeSF and a few others, but you can see all the people on the [GEF] board, we’re all leaders in the Olympic movement or the sports industry.”

GEF’s vice-presidents include Wei Jizhong, former secretary-general of the Chinese Olympic Committee; Charmaine Crooks, a five-time Olympian and founder of NGU consultants; and Cheng Wu, vice-president of Tencent Holdings and CEO of Tencent Pictures.

Cheng Wu’s involvement is pivotal, as Tencent Esports is also a founding partner of the federation. The Chinese conglomerate owns a considerable portion of the esports space, including the entirety of League of Legends publisher Riot Games, 81.4% of Clash Royale creator Supercell, and 40% of Epic Games, the company behind Fortnite, along with smaller shares in other esports-relevant companies. Several of its mobile games have also become large esports in their own right, such as PUBG Mobile and Honor of Kings.

Pictured: Edward Cheng, vice president of Tencent Holdings, presents at the 2019 Tencent Global Esports Summit. Credit: Tencent Holdings

While the backing of an esports publisher is promising, it also poses a potential conflict of interest. The most pertinent question is whether GEF will allow non-Tencent games into its competitions, the first of which is supposed to take place at the end of 2020.

“Tencent has the largest gaming and technology company in the world, and will help with the growth, education, culture, and of course, technology of the sport,” said Chan. “Having said that, I have to say that not only the games that Tencent owns will be part of the world championship that we hope to run at the end of this year.” 

Nicolas Besombes is an associate professor for the sports faculty at the University of Paris, and was an advisor for the Olympic esports summit held in Lausanne in 2018. He told The Esports Observer that the addition of yet another federation might only create confusion.

“I think it is important for publishers to participate in consolidating the industry. But not alone,” he said. “By bringing together all the stakeholders (players, teams, league organizers, broadcasters, manufacturers, and publishers), the most convincing advances will come about.”

He added that the presence of personalities from the Olympic movement was beneficial, and should reassure potential investors and the public authorities (sporting or otherwise). “I have affection for Charmaine Crooks, for example, who I know is genuine and caring in her approach to esports.”

GEF has lined its board with other leaders and high-ranking members from the world, including top officials from Panam Sports, A.C. Milan, and World Taekwando. Chris Overholt, former CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee, is the head of GEF’s digital technology and innovation commission. 

In esports, Overholt runs the ownership group OverActive Media, which has teams competing in the Call of Duty League, Overwatch League, and League of Legends European Championship. He told The Esports Observer that a FIFA-style mandate was not part of the vision for GEF, and said its role would be one of more “servant leadership.”

“We will need to earn that right, the right to be the voice for the community,” he said. “Over time that comes with earning respect inside the community with its stakeholders. You have to work day-to-day, week-to-week with the community and its members. All the fans, the professional gamers, influencers, and those aspiring.”

Right now, esports lacks a central governing body. Moreso, it’s not even clear that one could exist as in stick and ball sports. Commercialization is at the root of video games, and while many esports began as community-created projects, the versions played today are the sole intellectual property of their publishers—a dynamic with no parallel in traditional sports. 

The IOC and various national sporting groups are willing to excuse commercial interests when it comes to sports simulation games, such as FIFA and NBA 2K, which mix licensed players and leagues with patented game mechanics.

But the difficulty in regulating esports may be less to do with gaming as digital entertainment, and more what sports has become in the 20th century. Esports remains largely decentralized, just like sports which grew in popularity over the last few decades, such as mixed martial arts (MMA) and skateboarding. Like esports, these are largely promoter-driven, with the most popular tournaments coming from commercial, not national, entities.

Esports itself is comprised of dozens of games, making it most analogous to motorsports; which has different federations depending on the technology in use. For example, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) governs most car-based auto events, including Formula One, with some exceptions—most notably NASCAR. 

If one organization were to mandate esports, there might be similar fragmentation. Riot Games has licensed the game for use in national sporting events (the 2018 Asian Games), but there’s no indication it would allow an external body to have any say on the game’s rulebook on the global or national level.  

Counter-Strike and Dota 2 publisher Valve is largely disinterested in governing its games. Competitions are mostly managed by third-party companies, with no central organization aligning business interests or even the yearly schedule for professional competition.

Despite these obstacles, Chan stated that the GEF’s ultimate goal was to be included in the sports program of the Olympic games. He drew a comparison to extreme sports, such as skateboarding, which he said were misunderstood when they first gained prominence. 

“People have their misgivings, they question the sport of esports, ask why there is so much violence? Is it a game of chance?” he said. “I think GEF intends to put in place certain answers to all these questions, all these doubts.”

The GEF’s public reveal didn’t draw much applause from the wider esports community. Players, commentators, and team owners on social media criticized the lack of known esports figures on the board. Confidence further faded over the federation’s launch video, which predominantly showcased stock footage of virtual reality games, and none of the titles that have propelled esports into the mainstream.

“Its reception among the historical esports stakeholders has been rather badly perceived, and rightly so,” said Besombes. “It is difficult to claim to represent ‘global esports’ by presenting images of Yoga in VR. It seems irrelevant and out of scope.”

Chan said he laughed off such criticisms, and that he was more concerned with the organization’s vision, and plans. “We just want to grow the sport, we want to make sure we set standards, guidelines, and regulations,” he said, assuring that simulation sports would not be the only games featured at GEF events. 

“Personally, I don’t encourage too many of the violent games; it sends the wrong signal to the young people. We will emphasize the correct games,” he stated. The IOC has repeatedly ruled out violent games from any future consideration, which presumably includes both militaristic shooting games and fantasy-based strategy titles. 

Pictured: GEF leadership and board members. Credit: GEF

The GEF board does contain members with esports backgrounds. These include Singapore Esports Association president Ng Chong Geng, British Esports Association CEO Chester King, and co-founder and chairman of the Singapore Cybersports and Online Gaming Association (SCOGA), Nicholas Aaron Khoo.

Khoo told The Esports Observer that, on the commission level, there are close to 50 people involved with the GEF, where a lot of the industry knowledge will be funneled. Having worked in both the esports and sports sectors in Singapore, he feels there’s a lot that can be learned from sports governance, without copying it lock-stock-and barrel. 

“Because you have publishers who can make the rules for their own IP, if they don’t want to be governed, unless a regulator comes in, like a market like China, it’s going to be difficult,” he said. “To me, GEF represents an opportunity for a different way to approach esports.” 

The GEF states its open to any and all members, but if the organization is serious about Olympic inclusion, that will carry caveats. Once governed by a national Olympic committee, a federation must be compliant in a number of areas. It’s worth bearing in mind that both the Commonwealth Federation and Pan-American games are also discussing the prospect of esports. 

“The politics of sports are real, and I think there are those well-positioned in the GEF that can be helpful to that conversation as it goes along,” said Overholt. “It’s not the mandate of the federation to play a role in developing esports as an Olympic sport, but I think we should expect as it takes momentum that the IOC will be a voice at that table.”

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