On April 28, Riot Games announced its plans for the 2023 Valorant Champions Tour, which is taking steps towards a closed league system for top teams.
The announcement was not all too surprising by itself. Riot has had franchise leagues in its other major esport, League of Legends, and many anticipated a similar system for Valorant to come.
While the reaction to the announcement was positive, veterans of the esports industry and player advocates see an opening for organizations and Riot itself to take advantage of Valorant players.
“There should be a big account, now that we’ve had years of franchising, for the fact that when you consolidate power and reduce competition in a space that one of the outcomes of that is that those groups have a lot of capacity to dictate terms if they so choose,” Philip Aram, Executive Director of the North American League Championship Series Players Association, said in an interview with Dexerto.
The first headline inside this announcement is "Players and Fans First," but the only mention of how players will benefit in this new "long term partner" model is increased salaries and support systems.
This is painfully ignorant of the power disparity they are creating again.🧵 https://t.co/A9anQV5qsn
— Phillip Aram (@Phillip_Aram) April 28, 2022
In League of Legends leagues across the world, the teams that have bought into those franchises have immense power to set terms for player contracts and rights because of the monopolistic system set in place by Riot. Players lose much of their individual bargaining power once franchise teams become the only game in town.
Aram himself has seen how a system like this can impact players, especially when players don’t start organizing for their rights from the start.
“Too many players in too many esports have sat quietly by for the first three or four things that kind of got chosen and decided over their head and then by the time they felt like it was enough, they had already conceded so much ground by just being silent that there was not much left to fight for,” Aram said.
Valorant itself is still a young esport, with only over one year of full-fledged developer support behind it. So there is time for players to give themselves a voice before a standard contract or terms are set at the highest level.
The esport can also take notes from what has come before it. Players coming over from Counter-Strike have had time to look at the Counter-Strike Players Association, and the NALCSPA has been at the forefront of the rights for its players in North America.
There have also been recent scandals in the League of Legends franchise ecosystem that players can look at, to see what life could be like in a franchise under Riot and whatever organizations it partners with in Valorant.
How the league impacts player contracts
How Riot will look to work with current player contracts is unclear. Most contracts have clauses about renegotiation in scenarios around tournament format changing, or developer franchising, that could come into play if a player’s team is a partnered organization in 2023 according to esports agents Dexerto spoke to.
Riot can also have each team void current contracts and negotiate new ones.
According to Riot, the new 2023 VCT leagues will bring about the same perks that League of Legends players have like “larger salaries and more robust support systems,” according to its press release.
But beyond that, the announcement doesn’t explain much about whether they are creating a similar system to the NALCSPA like when they announced franchising in North America in 2017.
The announcement also does not specify whether players will have a voice in setting terms with Riot and the orgs on what is standard in their contracts or what rights they should have.
“They should be asking for a seat at the table.” Aram said. “Riot and team owners, who are going to be applying for this partner program and getting preferential status if they’re accepted, they’re going to be in rooms talking about what this program looks like and getting pitched on the terms of it.
“Players should be organized in the same way, telling Riot and telling teams, ‘hey, we’re working as a collective. We want to have a representative at the table to see this, to review it and to give feedback on it,’ because that’s what wasn’t there before.”
That is not to say that Valorant contracts today are not one-sided or don’t have clauses that agents and players are uncomfortable with.
Many current contracts have standards for merchandise sale percentage, pay, severance, streaming hours, Non-Disclosure Agreements, prize-winning splits and so on.
According to Jérôme Coupez, an agent and CEO of Prodigy Agency, just because Valorant is going the way of pseudo-franchising doesn’t mean that orgs will push for more team-sided or unfair contracts, at least more than they already do.
But that doesn’t mean players and agents should not be pushing for specific things once 2023 draws closer and contracts potentially need to be renegotiated.
“With a more structured environment and some minimum regulations from Riot, I think all players and agents should be pushing back on important and one-sided clauses like Termination Without Cause, Right of First Refusal, Right to Trade without the consent of the player etc,” Coupez said in an email.
What teams could push for
What could be grandfathered in, in terms of contract terms or specific clauses, in Valorant is largely unclear at the moment as Riot is just now approaching teams to partner in their new leagues.
What is standard for some contracts at the moment, that could continue into 2023, are items like good behavior bonuses. According to two agents Dexerto spoke to, these are clauses that give players a monetary bonus to their monthly salary if they have been on, what the org deems to be, good behavior.
These bonuses are not ubiquitous across the esport, and it is not a bonus in the traditional sense as this is a requirement to get their full salary and not extra pay.
“I get the principle behind why they’re doing it but it’s a little fake if that makes sense,” Gavin Stiles, Director of Talent operations and an agent for Carter Pulse said.
“It needs to be more well put in there. I don’t even know if it really needs to be in there in general. If you don’t like the way a player is communicating or whatever, just bring it up and communicate that with them.”
There are other negotiating points that orgs have tried to push for as well like what Coupez said agents should push back on, along with length on Non-Disclosure Agreements, severance pay and streaming hours.
One organization even tried to have players sign a contract that said if management or staff from the team found that players were drinking or smoking, they would be fined, according to Stiles.
“It’s pretty hilarious,” Stiles said. “Obviously, that was removed instantly and really silly.”
Teams also have tried to take advantage of surprise Riot announcements that orgs and players are not privy to like the 2021 Valorant Champions skin bundle which saw half of its in-game sales go to teams that made the year-end Valorant championship.
Without prior notice of this new prize pool, no contracts had clauses specifically mentioning this so many had to negotiate how it would be split post-announcement which was less than a month before the tournament began.
No time to organize like the present
While esports is a relatively new area in terms of labor precedent and age, even if you account for competitive gaming going back to the late 1990s, there are contemporary sports leagues that players have to look to for inspiration around organizing.
America has a history of fighting unions and labor organizers as far back as the 1800s and as recent as today. For modern examples, players can look to the National Hockey League and the formation of the NHL Players Association.
“So usually, players unions are organized when they feel like, collectively, their rights are not being protected,” Ryan Fairchild, an advisor at Odin Law ad Media and board member of NALCSPA. “And so players could do that now if they feel like that’s already the case and it could be a preemptive thing.”
But according to Fairchild, players don’t need to wait for franchising or other developer systems to come around to organize in some way. If they believe that they are competing in a top-tier esport, then they should start to protect their rights now.
Coupez equates Valorant contracts right now to Counter-Strike contracts in terms of taking advantage of players, which makes preemptive moves look like a good option.
“There are a lot of very (very) one-sided contracts right now, and I hope Riot will regulate it to avoid it in 2023.” he said.
Ultimately, according to Fairchild, teams and players should be working together to increase the trickle-down of revenue from the developer to the league. While teams and players negotiate salary, prize pool and in-game skin sale splits, Riot is the one that is telling them how much they are going to be fighting over.
“Let me be clear, players are trying to capture value and teams are trying to capture value. The issue is [players and teams] trying to capture value from a small slice of the pie. Which is cut by the publishers,” Fairchild said.