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Sports Q&A - How are esports regulated?

28 January 2021

It’s impossible to answer this question without taking a closer look at the esports ecosystem. Although there are certain parallels to draw with traditional sports (with professional players, teams, leagues and championships) there are also significant differences. In particular, the international and national federation structure as seen in traditional sports is generally absent in esports.

It's also important to appreciate that each video game title which is played as a professional esport is the digital equivalent to a standalone sport - and different esports titles are just as diverse as traditional sports are. For example, there is about the same amount of similarity between League of Legends and Counterstrike as there is between motocross and swimming … in other words, regulation of esports must be considered at a game-by-game level.

The rules of the games – the Publishers’ domain

In general, it is the video game publishers that decide the rules of the each esports title. Some major publishers are also the league/championship organisers and it is the publisher (or their licensees authorised to run the competitions) who provide league rules and govern the esports tournaments. It’s worth noting that game rules for professional esports tournaments can sometimes differ to the usual rules applicable to the game when played by every-day gamers. For example, certain game features may be different or disabled when played at the highest competitive level.  
Although it is becoming more common for traditional sports clubs to have multiple teams competing across different sports (take FC Barcelona’s basketball, handball and ice hockey teams as an example), esports organisations regularly have multiple teams competing across several different video game titles. Professional esports players within a team are generally specialists in just one specific title however.

Tackling Integrity

Like in traditional sports, there are some bodies which seek to regulate esports at a macro/cross-game/publisher level. For example, the Esports Integrity Coalition (ESIC) has as its mission “to be the recognised guardian of the integrity of esports and to take responsibility for disruption, prevention, investigation and prosecution of all forms of cheating, including, but not limited to, match manipulation and doping.” ESIC has an expanding membership, including many of the biggest tournament organisers and supporting governmental entities such as the UK Gambling Commission.
Likewise, the World Esports Association (WESA) mission includes “Developing and implementing elements of regulation, player representation and fairness… [to] enable esports Teams and Players to operate under a transparent umbrella that provides its holders with stability, legal advice and protection from economic uncertainties.” Despite its name, WESA’s focus is currently on CS:GO leagues with its members being eleven of the leading teams and esports company and league/tournament operator ESL.
There are also grass roots organisations, such as the British Esports Association, which promotes esports and seeks to improve standards in GB. It seeks to “educate parents, teachers, media, policy makers and government around what esports is and what its benefits are”.

Player Bodies

Unlike traditional sports, player and team focused bodies, such as player unions, are still uncommon within the world of esports. With few players being represented by sophisticated agencies at the moment, there is certainly scope for improving the support for esports players and this is an area of esports regulation that we expect to develop quickly. 

Cross over with traditional sports

There is some direct cross over between esports and traditional sports, with federations in the likes of motorsport, cycling and rowing introducing virtual “e” versions of their sports. Whether these are rightly classified as esports is a question many will ask, but they face many of the same issues as esports (particularly on integrity) and are therefore having to adapt their rulebooks accordingly. (See for example the UCI’s esports regulations).  Of course these “e” versions of traditional sports must be distinguished from licensed games of traditional sports, like EA's FIFA or 2KSports’ NBA2K series, which seek to replicate the 'real world' sport on screen without any physical involvement of the player.
If you want to know more about esports and you missed it in the Autumn, you can still download our webinar “Esports: Beyond the game - Opportunities and challenges for brands”. The webinar explains some of the above in more detail, looks at the role of media platforms, such as Twitch, considers the difference between professional players and influencers, explains how esports are commercialised, and highlights key issues for brands to watch out for.


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