It’s time to close the loopholes on multiple-team ownership

Multiple-team ownership is the latest hot-button issue to emerge in esports, but what does it mean, and why is it bad for esports legitimacy?

Multiple-team ownership is the latest hot-button issue to emerge in esports, with several recent rulings putting it on a pedestal as we approach a summer full of events. Multiple-team ownership, in the simplest terms, is when an organisation fields several different teams in the same game. Most recently it’s come to indicate when a team and it’s ‘academy’ counterpart are competing in the same league, or in any other situation where a core team and academy could clash.

It’s easy to forget, with esports set to generate over $1b in revenue in 2017, that it’s still a nascent medium, and several of the issues that have long been worked out in traditional sports are still being debated here.

Multi-team ownership is a contentious issue and this week saw PGL, the organisers of popular CS:GO event the Krakow Major, declare that multiple-team ownership was allowed, as long as teams have a “distinct branding”. This means that CS:GO squad Team Spirit, and it’s academy team will now both be competing at Krakow’s CIS Minor. Last month, the Esports Championship Series director said that multi-team ownership was fine, as long as the league was consulted.

On the flipside, ESL, organisers of the IEM and ESL One events, stated on April 22 that organizations would have to sell academy division teams if they were about to clash against the main roster. The World Esports Association said in March: “Under the Multi-Team Ownership Prohibition, no team is permitted to be completely or partially owned or controlled by a person or entity that owns or controls another esports team or organisation participating at WESA sanctioned events.”

Similarly, Riot Games has rules in place to stop teams from the same organisation competing against each other, leading to Fnatic and Misfits having to sell their academy sides when they both qualified for the LCS this season. Sales of the two slots, Fnatic’s reportedly to Ninjas in Pyjamas according to LoL’s player database and Misfits to Mysterious Monkeys, are expected to have netted the teams around $1m apiece. This has become a profitable side business for successful teams, exploiting the rules around team ownership to make serious cash by creating a top-tier team and supporting it all the way to the LCS before selling it off.

While there are two sides to the issue, it’s worth noting that this is a problem that was solved a long time ago in traditional sports, with many top-flight football teams having an academy team, and an under-18 team on the books. These exist parallel to the main team, similar to esports academy teams, but they compete only against other under-18 teams or other academy teams. Players can be rotated through the teams, which is a substantial change, as esports teams often have a roster lock for the length of tournaments or competitive seasons, but the core principle is the same: teams shouldn’t compete against themselves.

The reasoning is simple: one team and their academy could clash against each other and, if that’s the case, it will be hard for both teams to claim that no impropriety has occurred, even if the match was squeaky clean.

For League of Legends coach Alexandre Weber, without explicit rules on multiple-team ownership, “you are trusting organisations to make the right ethical decisions when they’re sending players out to play for a good chunk of money.” That can make the system vulnerable to match making, in situations where a main team and second team could clash.

“I support organisations having two teams and participating on multiple tournaments at the same time,” said Weber. “But the system is set to fail by letting an organisation play with multiple teams in the same season, tournament or qualifying event.”

He’s clear to point out there’s no reason to distrust any of the players or teams currently competing, merely “if you open up the rule book and there is an exploitable breach, it only needs one person with bad intentions to exploit it and this would hurt the scene and all the hardworking organisations trying to make esports a better place”.

Nicholas Primas-Hailey is the North American general manager for FlashpointGG, and says that even if it doesn’t create problems competition wise, multi-ownership should still be limited:

“Academy or not, it happens.” says Primas-Hailey. “For example Counter Logic Gamings dual Counter-Strike team identifying the male team as ‘CLG’ and the female team as ‘CLG Red’ both competing at a similar tier and in leagues. Why I feel it should be limited is because, like in traditional sports, not just the players win, but also the sponsoring organizations do too, which is unfair obviously to other teams and sponsors. I like the idea of an academy or dual roster, but again it must be limited to an extent, before some conglomerate finds a loophole and banks off of it.”

Many of the people I spoke to viewed multi-team ownership as a negative, and it’s clear that it’s something that needs to be clarified by all organisers, with a unified message; one rule for all, as it were.

While my personal views are that having core teams and any secondary teams in the organisation competing against each other opens the door for potential corruption, and accusations of wrongdoing regardless of how honest everyone involved in, it’s something esports organisations will have to work out for themselves.

However, as esports starts to become increasingly colonised by the more traditional sports, these sorts of loopholes all need to be sewn up, one way or another.