Opinion

Thorin's Take: Tournament organisers and their late payment patterns

by Duncan "Thorin" Shields
Starladder

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A recent thread of tweets from CS:GO host and interviewer James Banks sparked the ever relevant topic with broadcast talent of tournament organisers (TOs), the companies putting on the big offline events, not paying invoices submitted to them in a timely fashion.

Most talent, if not all, who have been anywhere close to the top two tiers of the broadcast side of the industry know it is practically a standard to receive payment after the time cited on the invoice and in numerous cases even after a period that EU regulations suggest should be charged a late fee. Yet this pattern continues, these talent, myself included, continue to work for these TOs and the carousel goes around and around.

A seemingly reasonable demand

A lot of what I am about to explain and discuss is known behind-the-scenes but not at all in terms of the general viewing public, beyond the occasional Reddit thread following a tweet storm from an angry commentator who can't make his rent or is sick of being fobbed off by unanswered emails or deflections. Firstly, most broadcast talent in esports do not sign contracts for the events they work. The agreements are verbal, or digital in the case of emails, and no strict agreement or set of standards is agreed upon beyond the invitation to work the event, the number of days they will work and the negotiated fee they will receive.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of invoices and certainly those from the big companies are paid and nobody is left hanging, though they may well be delayed by anywhere from a reasonable 30 days up to an outrageous six months or a year, depending on the TO, the talent in question and the time within the last three to four years we're talking about.

After an event is finished the talent invoices the TO's company for their fee and sometimes additional travel expenses, with most TOs doing the direct booking of most travel. On those invoices it is standard practice in the industry to cite 30 days from receiving the invoice as the due date for payment. Some companies and even then only at certain points in their company's history are able to pay within the 30 days or even much sooner. These are rarities, MLG being a good example before they exited CS:GO - a number of times I was literally paid by cheque or transfer the following day. It is the expected standard that most TOs, no matter their size or pedigree, will miss the initial 30 days time window.

ESL
ESL

Late again and it left me feeling blue

Most TOs are more within the range of paying in 60 days through to 90. Beyond 60 talent start to get, understandably, anxious about receiving their payment and paying their bills and living their life. After 90 they start to talk amongst themselves and often make public vague allusions to their frustrations at not being paid or the lack of professionalism in the industry. Many become jaded and disillusioned with what they, perhaps naively, imagined was a developed industry flowing with money.

I have heard horror stories from even top level talent a few years ago who were waiting sometimes up to a year for invoices to be paid from events they had worked and performed at a world class level at. These were not for outlier events only either, but literally some of the biggest events in the world, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money on offer to the players and potentially millions spent putting the entire event on in a stadium setting. Matters have largely improved, but still some of the game's biggest TOs, including those putting on majors, are late with payments and notoriously poor at communicating delays or replying to inquiries about payment.

So why don't talent simply name and shame said TOs publicly until they pay or deny their services until past invoices have been paid? To understand why would require a very nuanced and in-depth explanation of the politics of the broadcast side of the industry. Put simply, most talent are also not partnered in any kind of a long-term committed relationship with the TOs. Beyond ddk and James Bardoph, who have been FACEIT employees for years and are a guaranteed fixture at ECS, most broadcast talent and especially the biggest names are freelancers and in many cases don't know which events they will work even a month or two out from the start day.

Fancy coming on the desk in three weeks?

Some of the biggest names have at times been able to get the more professional organisations to agree to a package deal of events within the upcoming year's calendar, but even then the TO typically demands a reduced rate or discount for committing to a number of events. The reason why again might seem counter-intuitive. When speaking of events with a stadium component, millions poured into them, the biggest teams in the world invited to attract ticket sales and some of the fanfare of a sporting event, one might imagine TOs would want to know their talent team working the event many months out, perhaps even the previous year, to plan a content strategy. Instead, the reality of the current landscape and frankly throughout CS:GO's seven year history has been that TOs intentionally delay hiring talent for two key reasons.

Firstly, TOs are often sending the same crews of employees, not speaking of broadcast talent now, from event to event, sometimes continent to continent, and the pressure to execute a big stadium event can be enormous and the costs extreme, relative to the profits currently expected. As such, their focus is largely upon the upcoming event, with a little glance sometimes put towards the following one. Even then, planning on additional events often takes place only during down-time or if a slightly different crew of people work that event.

Adela Sznajder
Adela Sznajder

Check and call

Secondly, TOs are in a never-ending tug of war with talent over the day rate and overall cost of having the talent attend the event and offer their specialised services. Over the years, talent, thanks to the efforts of individuals like Anders and Semmler and MonteCristo, in LoL and OW in his case, understand more what they are worth in terms of market value and how to make their claim for an appropriate rate. The nasty secret of esports in general and CS:GO specifically, though, is that TOs typically lose money running these big events. This will often put a massive strain on the financial component of their business, especially if they are not known to white label developers' esports events and leagues, the easy money of the industry from our equivalent of poker whales.

The longer a TO delays inviting some of the talent the more concerned that talent will become that they will not be hired for the event or have work that week or month. This puts leverage upon the talent to agree to a lower rate or prove less combative in the negotiation process. Even some of the biggest commentators in the game's history are caught up in this game of financial chicken time and time again in their careers. All the same, said commentators earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and many of the TOs hiring them bleed money and rely on investment to stay afloat, with esports still considered an infant industry but with massive potential if monetisation options are secured.

While most of the biggest names in broadcasting get their top rate or close to it for the biggest and best events, as one might hope, the budget must be balanced both financially for the company in terms of their potential revenue and how much the total cost of the talent ends up being. As such, if the biggest names get their rate and then the event chooses to bring on a less well established set of commentators and analysts to round out their talent list then they can save money here to make up for the outgoing fees to the bigger names. Sh*t rolls downhill and the guy at the bottom is simply expected to be grateful for the opportunity to work the bigger events, which admittedly he should in some sense be since if they had been able to pay higher rates to him they would likely not have hired him and simply gone all tier one talent across the broad.

Naming names

When award-winning journalist Richard Lewis, a fellow contributor and colleague here at Dexerto, called out TOs for late payment on the 99th episode of our 'By the Numbers' (BtN) CS:GO talk show, he was amplifying and corroborating some of the stories spread privately and occasionally publicly about late payments. He narrowed in on CIS company Starladder, best known for their Kiev-based tournaments and recently hosting the Berlin major, the 15th World Championship in CS:GO's history. Lewis put a name to the rumour in a way practically no other talent ever has. It's worth pointing out that Banks clarified he did not necessarily mean to single out one culprit.

Participating in the show, I remained silent and let him say his piece. This has led to speculation or confusion as to what my own position is on Starladder's payments. I will explain the difficult position I occupy. I have personally rarely had any issues with Starladder. Like most TOs they do not pay within 30 days, often, but that is the realistic expectation in the CS:GO space, based on my own experience. I am quite sure, based on conversations with others, that Starladder pays me higher up in the queue than some of the other talent that attend the event. The reason why is a fairly obvious one, which I will get to in due time, but this means some talent end up at the back of the queue and assuming the view looks the same for everyone.

I have heard James Banks' stories, someone I have known for more than 10 years and worked alongside on numerous occasions, and I trust him to tell the truth of the matter, though I have not investigated his case at all. Perhaps he has it the worst of everyone, but I did not know the specifics of his case until his tweet thread and so I was in no position to really comment either way. If I simply state that I get paid at a reasonable time then it may seem as if I am undercutting the legitimacy of his comments or rebutting them, which is no intention of mine. As such, I allowed his voice to take centre stage and said nothing.

I would hope those who have followed my career know that my own personal standards of integrity remain my highest ideal and most precious possession. I have never traded my integrity for money or job security and I never will. I suspect that's actually a component to the magnetic power my position in esports has had and why I have been able to leverage certain aspects of the industry to great success many others have failed to achieve. Had I been paid outrageously late by Starladder I would have spoken out in that instance and joined Banks's voice.

Indeed, when Starladder did not initially hire me or other top tier talent, Anders and Moses for example, for the recent major, I voiced my disappointment emphatically on an episode of BtN. I even went as far as to suggest that if loyalty was a one-way street in Starladder's and my relationship then I would not work with them again in the future. I don't think it was merely a happy coincidence our relationship was repaired and I happily worked the event along with the aforementioned Anders and Moses, who commentated the final no less.

Adela Sznajder
Adela Sznajder

Question me not

I would say it is an infamous hallmark of my career that I am rarely concerned with "burning bridges", as the cliche goes and is so often inappropriately cited. I understand the value of negotiation, but there are also times a TO must meet me closer to my side before we can work together. I am speaking less financially here than in terms of conditions or their past pattern of hiring me. Despite what you may read speculated upon, I have almost no burned bridges left at this point in esports, since I would maintain that my positions are far more reasonable than my often aggressive on-camera persona may suggest.

Companies I do not any longer work with like ELEAGUE and DreamHack were turned down by me the last time they requested my services for an event. These are facts I can prove with documented evidence. I had an infamous cold war with ESL for the better part of two years after they fired me from an event in Katowice, Poland, but also made comments in their public statement which indirectly painted me as all of the usual stripes of horrendous bigot that seems to be the go-to insult for the current twitter generation.

I've told some of the behind-the-scenes elements of that story elsewhere, but suffice it to say they were disingenuous in their statement and I very much held a grudge against them for years. I never lied about anything they did or said, but I held back absolutely no punches and will entirely admit to relishing in roasting their failures and eviscerating their mistakes. Years later, a different group within ESL reached out to me politely and our relationship issues were resolved and since then I have worked a major and a handful of their most impressive and prestigious big stadium events. I would even say my best work was done at ESL events in the last three years, as I consider them the best TO in the space for big scale spectacles.

I also have recently seen resolution of more recent public beefs with TOs that may well yield interesting results in the coming year. FACEIT, who did not hire me for the FACEIT major, hosted in my country of birth, since invited me to work at their recent ECS S8 Finals, but scheduling did not align on this occasion. I'll say no more about the others for now.

My intention in outlining the above is to establish that I am far from an individual who will toe the company line or silence myself so as not to upset those who hire me or pay me. It's the other way around, within reason, that those entities within the space who hire me must go into the partnership understanding that I will not be silenced on important topics and can potentially influence the community with my perspective. It's been my hope that this helps encourage a standard of behaviour and transparency from these companies, just as my reputation for complaining about sub-standard conditions at events years ago helped motivate TOs to improve matters for all broadcast talents attending.

All around the world, go and spread the word

It is essential to understand that this issue is in no way limited to Starladder or even one I personally experience with them, as outlined previously. The vast majority of TOs pay late, have to be reminded and offer no compensation for the delay. I can reveal that when I worked for Turner as part of their ELEAGUE project I went without being paid for an entire season, lasting several months. I was shocked to discover the number one basic cable channel in the USA could be experiencing liquidity or accounting issues comparable to those within the esports space. The grass isn't always greener; sometimes it's just your perspective.

I will stress that ELEAGUE did provide me with paid accommodation during this time period, so it's not as if I went homeless due to not paying my rent, but they could not know what my circumstances back home were. Perhaps I had a sick relative who relied upon me to send money home. Maybe I had mortgage payments to make. A simple "sorry" doesn't cut it under such circumstances. Based on what I have heard from talent who have worked with ELEAGUE in the years since, that issue was far less extreme later on and perhaps even non-existent. If only I could say the same about every TO.

It's not as if there's no legal precedent set. Within the European Union there is a late payment directive which states that small and medium-sized enterprizes (being companies with numbers of personnel below certain limits) that are not paid within 60 days are entitled to charge interest additionally, with a minimum compensation of 40 Euros. I know of very few broadcast talent who charge these late fees, I don't charge them myself, and many of them are not necessarily working the biggest events. The reason why leads us to the daring and dangers of speaking out.

Eleague
Eleague

Squeaky wheel gets the grease

One reason I suspect in some cases and know in others that I have less issues being paid within a reasonable time-frame than others is that my reputation as someone who does not lie and who does not hold back means companies working with me know that if they behave unprofessionally with me I may well call them out directly and publicly. As such, when they are getting the first monies to pay talent I suspect I am near the top of the list and consideration is made to ensuring I am not left wondering where my money is or if I'll receive it within a few months. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease" is as apt an idiom as one can conjure up.

It's key to point out the caveat that I am also in a fairly unique position as far as leverage goes. Working as talent at events is not my primary or sole source of income, never actually accounting for more than half of my yearly take-home. I also earn a living from my YouTube channel, including sponsors; my written content - such as this piece here; more than one Patreon community; and some consulting work on the side on occasion. I am also not limited solely to Counter-Strike, plying my trade in League of Legends also and even veering into games such as Overwatch, Quake and StarCraft at times. Attending events is a luxury and a privilege for me, in many cases, and I do not have to fear starving or facing depressing financial realities if TOs decide not to work with me, forever or for a finite period.

I also work far fewer events than the big name talent in CS:GO, obviously, and thus perhaps paying me sooner makes even more sense. A big name commentator who is considered the best at his job may in fact end up being paid later on occasion if he is attending every event for the TO and still being paid his previous invoices. Logically, they have more money to pay him overall and may imagine they have more leeway on the matter, since he is owed so much and attending yet more of their events. The fear of him walking is far less, at least on the TO's side.

Most other talent rely upon their day-rate from events as their primary and, in some cases, sole income as a professional in the esports industry. Losing a gig over negotiating hard, complaining publicly or being too demanding when it comes to following up on payments can thus jeopardise their chances of being employed. At least that is the prevailing sentiment among talent. Thus, they complain vaguely, largely as a weaker version of my direct call outs - to send a message to the TO that they are upset enough to start broaching the topic and thus they must be paid sooner to calm them down. A decent enough strategy, though not quite packing the same punch as the one I am afforded, either due to my unique circumstances or unrelenting personality.

Where's my money?

This topic is one close to my heart since it has been a theme present in my career since over a decade ago. I have previously worked with a company, at the time a large one, in the esports space which was notorious, internally and externally - though the latter was often misinterpreted by vengeful ex-employees as refusal of payment entirely, as one that paid salary late. I was a prominent public figure in the company, but this was before I held sway over a social media and content empire and so my status within the company came nowhere near the top spot.

Investigation into the matter revealed that the financial realities of the industry meant the sponsors who paid the money the company relied upon, still a major source of esports revenue to this day, would sometimes themselves pay late. When they paid late the company did not have enough money to pay everyone and so had to make the tough choice of deciding who to pay. I can understand entirely why they picked executives and big name players over an esports journalist at the time, though my bank account and quality of life certainly were less kind.

Moving into the present day, many of these huge TOs are losing large sums of money putting on their fantastic live events. Couple that with a few late payments from the right sponsors and you end up with a backlog of unpaid invoices and the tricky task of navigating which little piggy will squeal first. So many discussions that veer into the realm of economics betray the lack of even a foundational understanding of some very basic concepts among the fanbase. Chief among those seems to be treating a company as if it would go instantly out of business without making a profit, as if credit or investment were not a factor and often a primary one.

ESL
ESL

As such, when fans see huge stadium events and hear teams are paying players large salaries their assumption is that like a huge transnational company these TOs and team organisations are making much more profit from their employees and freelancers than they pay and thus "exploiting" them in the sense that tends to dominate political discussions surrounding how we live and organise society. Instead, it must be understood that companies will often live off credit and investment even far beyond the revenue they are bringing in. A ticking time-bomb to be sure, but one which may be defused or delayed with a few key successes or business decisions along the way.

As Noam Chomsky's much lauded documentary "The Corporation" pointed out, many companies in the modern day are treated as if they were people and granted similar rights. Hence why said company can accrue the debt and not those involved directly in the decision-making, who still take home their large salaries and fat bonuses that in some cases they deserve, in the context of their market value in the industry and their specialised skill-sets - huh, that sounds familar, doesn't it?

In esports I see numerous allusions made to companies which go bankrupt and have their brands bought by different entities entirely as "owing people still". My understanding of the legal circumstances are that actually these entities do not inherit the company's previous debt, most especially in cases where the company went bankrupt. Just as Joe Smith who went bankrupt 20 years ago as an individual would not be expected to pay back what he previously owed, prior to bankruptcy, if he later wins millions from a lottery.

I don't know how many freelancers and broadcast talent can appreciate that the money is not always sitting in an account accruing interest for the TO, also known as allegedly being early TO titan The CPL's primary business strategy, but may not even have been received by the TO in question. Similarly, if talent hear that someone else who worked the event has been paid then they may feel outraged at the unfair nature of being deprioritised by the TO. Get what is yours but spare a thought that there is a hierarchy of value within even broadcast talent groups and not everyone can be pleased all of the time. As I say, get the bag you're owed but recognise this is rarely a black and white situation or evil intent or sheer incompetence on the part of the TOs.

Join my gang

The most flippant and cliched response from uninformed commenters on this matter is to suggest that talent "just make a talent union" or "block negotiate". Firstly, unions require legal understanding and are not as simple to setup as one may imagine, as the many predecessor concepts to the CSPPA can attest. What is colloquially referred to as "the CS players' union" is in fact directly labelled as an "association". Even getting enough of the top players together took years and a number of key incidents within the industry, often surrounding tournament exclusivity ultimatums, before it got off the ground.

There have been a few similar attempts at talent groups in CS:GO, but the one with the best chance of success fizzled out to nothing over petty disputes and sibling rivalries. It is worth remembering these are people not only directly competing against each other in their roles, but also for the coveted spots at big events. Now that the negotiation wars have brought more tier three and two talents to the forefront said top names battle each other even more directly, knowing not everyone will be hired and thus they must get the first spots or see lesser talents replace them for discounted rates in rounding out the event.

For now, a talent association is a naive dream with no obvious leadership figure and a group of potential participants who may talk a good game about helping each other but will only lend a hand to certain friends and rarely those they dislike. Without most of the talent aligned, there can be no block negotiation or association demanding standards that must be met by TOs.

The impasse

This article was not written in the hopes of solving this seemingly impossible situation and may do little to salve the open wounds of disrespect talent feel, though I would hope they might consider the difficult circumstances other entities in the space experience. I can only recommend talent increase their own level of financial responsibility, having enough living expenses and rent stored up to survive many barren winters of not being paid, and continue on the tightrope towards success, but hovering over failure, that so many of us in esports delicately or indelicately navigate as well, TOs included.

I suspect talent who do not impose the EU late fee do so primarily out of an aforementioned fear of not being hired or considered difficult. Nonetheless, I would suggest it also may not be viable for some of these companies to pay such fees, especially if they are experiencing liquidity issues entirely. Blithe and supercilious remarks like "well then those companies shouldn't put on tournaments" or "the TO should wait until he has the money before hiring anyone" simply ignore the basic realities of the industry and its cash-flow and as such accomplish little but frustrating those more informed in the space.

Should this be the way the industry operates? I couldn't tell you. I wouldn't even know what "should" means in that regard. I'm quite sure the world and human history could survive without a professional video game circuit to entertain millions of fans around the world for free. That so many of us can earn a living from it often seems a miracle, though the price of participating can certainly be repeated disappointments and anxiety over meeting one's financial responsibilities. At the end of the day the bills need to be paid.

ESL
ESL