Valuing freelancers and their work in esports
What do personal experience, the eizouken, and a global pandemic have to say about the esports gig economy?
Full disclosure here: A lot of this is going to sound anecdotal and based on personal opinion rather than factual or presented with outside evidence, but I’m okay with that for a few reasons. One, it’s my own writing, and I’m operating as my own editor, so I can take those creative liberties- within reason, at least. Two, I know for myself that my experiences are fact, and I can provide my portfolio and correspondence as evidence. Three, I’m going to be using an anime about making anime as part of my argument, so I’ve sort of already conceded some credibility, but if you haven’t watched Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! yet, then you really should.
On March 5th, CS:GO journalist and video content creator Dekay made a tweet that sparked a ton of discourse within esports industry social media. Dekay doubled down on his stance in followup tweets and content, and shared on his page perspectives from others that mainly agreed with him- including fellow CS:GO personality Thorin. I’m not going to provide links directly to their content because I personally find it unethical to platform anybody who’s been repeatedly banned from organizations or come under fire for racial and homophobic remarks, nor do I want to support anyone who endorses someone who did such things. That being said, Dekay and Thorin both have an overwhelmingly larger platform than mine anyway, and I will provide their tweets if only to give my readers context.
Of course, Dekay buffered his sentiment by prefacing it with his awareness that his opinion and perspective may seem unpopular. A lot of folks in his replies argued that the mindset of working for the love of the craft rather than for money often leads to newcomers being taken advantage of by organizations who want top-tier content for little pay. Others pointed out that not everyone can afford to work on their content for an organization or on their own for free while also working a day job. While esports is a small industry, the opportunities are more abundant now than they were only a few years ago- it’s not as though people should be struggling to get their foot in the door.
Dekay’s perspective frustrated me personally because of my own history with the esports industry, and my profession as a freelance journalist. In fact, I was particularly shocked that someone billing himself as a journalist was so adamant about how people who wanted to work for money needed to “check [their] entitlement at the door.”
To remind my readers of my perspective: depending on how nitpicky you want to be, I’ve been writing professionally for anywhere from five to seven years. I wrote for free all throughout college- when I appeared in The Ear, I was compensated with free copies of the issue I appeared in; I once again was featured in New Forum without being paid for my work. Both of these times, I was okay with that and I rationalized it with the knowledge that these were mainly student-run publications- The Ear’s prestige mainly lent it more eyes and the ability to properly print their journal, but otherwise neither of them had the budget to actually pay the writers who appeared in them.
My frustration began to build when I started writing for UCI Esports. I wrote for them for about six months on a regular basis, publishing articles weekly. I would look over my own work and I would also edit pieces that my peers would put together. I conducted interviews, wrote transcripts, and taught my fellow volunteers how to do the same. I was doing full-time work for the organization, going to events like NASEF or CSL on my own time. The only compensation I got was hours on a time card that I could use to play on the UCI Esports Arena’s PCs, which I never used or even knew how to access. When I joined, I was promised networking opportunities with industry professionals, but the one and only networking event that UCI Esports hosted involved four former UCI Esports employees who had gotten hired at their current placements via connections with Mark Deppe. Of the four of them, none had any experience or knowledge regarding esports journalism. Even our players barely knew that we had a journalism team. Meanwhile, the successor hired to replace me after graduation is a paid intern who currently seems to only be producing articles once a month or so, and was not previously a member of the journalism team that UCI Esports already had in place and then dissolved.
I didn’t begin looking for work until after I had finally moved back home- around August of 2019. I applied to both ‘day jobs-‘ the jobs that Dekay would tell me to work at while also volunteering my time for esports content- and actual games industry positions. The idea of working retail or food service or something seemed inevitable to me, given that I had trained for a field that I knew would be difficult to break into right away. But what really shocked me was organizations in esports that would set up interviews and then ghost me- one company even had me do work for them as a sample and then I never heard from them again after. I was also deeply upset after publications offered me rates that professional journalist organizations would never pay even entry-level writers. I began seriously questioning my own self-worth, as well as the value of my work. Was I really only worth less than a penny per word?
While I was trying to figure out what I would do about work, Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! premiered on January 5th, 2020. Eizouken is a twelve-episode anime adaptation of the manga of the same name, and revolves around a group of high school girls trying to get their own anime production off the ground. The main character, Midori Asakusa, is a kappa-looking girl who derives inspiration for her Ghibli-esque anime from the weirdly fantastical Shibahama High School campus. Asakusa enlists the help of fellow student Tsubame Mizusaki, a young fashion model with secret dreams of being an animator. When they decide to form a film club (“eizouken”) to get around the school prohibiting any sort of anime organization, Asakusa’s friend Sayaka Kanamori takes it upon herself to become their manager.
Eizouken may be an anime about making anime, but as a writer I was able to relate to the process of making sure one’s creative work is successful. I was also impressed by how realistically the process of creation was depicted, often through the lens of Kanamori’s management. Kanamori tempers Asakusa’s directorial energy and Mizusaki’s work ethic by grounding them with realistic expectations and deadlines. She also works with other groups on campus and argues that the film club should be allowed to function and be paid reasonably for their time, effort, and cost of production. Kanamori’s words resonated with me and helped me realize that no matter how much someone values working for their art, they still need to get paid in order to invest in their art and continue to survive. No one truly goes into creating something expecting only to get paid- if they seem ‘entitled’ to a career or money, it’s because without such tangible rewards, they will no longer be able to create.
At the moment, I write for free for several reasons. Being someone producing content for a niche community where the individuals in it can’t afford to break paywalls, I would prefer my work be freely accessible. I am also writing content for my Medium page on a strict schedule so that prospective employers can see that I’m always writing new work rather than relying on an outdated portfolio from UCI Esports. Furthermore, being my own editor means I’m forced to hold myself to a high standard- I have to prove to myself and others that my work is good in every aspect. However, just because I’m currently working for free doesn’t mean I can afford to. At the time of writing, I have no health insurance, no car insurance, and I can’t travel much further than LA County on my current budget. If I was working a paid staff job, or if I was being paid fairly for freelance work, I could at least afford travel and make more connections in the industry, while also writing about events outside of my current area. Beyond that, I live at home with family, but my grandparents are in their 90s and my mother is disabled. Earning a reasonable income would allow me to provide for my family, especially for inevitable situations such as medical bills. Simply put, I need to be paid in order to create better work more frequently, and in order to look after me and mine.
In general, no one else in my field or position should be expected to work for free until their fruits finally pay off. The companies and organizations that run the esports industry can afford to inject more money into it — if you genuinely believe that multibillion dollar corporations like Amazon, Activision-Blizzard, Coca-Cola, and Samsung can’t sponsor teams or fund publications and write off any losses, you should seriously reconsider your stance on worker’s rights. I’ve already worked for an organization for free and I refuse to do so again. If you are an employer or managing an org and you expect your content creators to work for free or lowball wages, you can expect said content to be of a quality equivalent to the rate you’re paying them.
My stance was further tempered as I watched the recent COVID-19 outbreak wreak havoc on the fighting game community. Unlike esports events run directly by corporate sponsors or developers, the FGC runs their events largely on a grassroots basis. This means that events like Michigan Masters, CEO, Final Round, Combo Breaker, and even Evo are run with money coming directly out of the pockets of the event organizers. This money pays for hotel deals, venue and stadium fees, security, travel to and from the event, event staff, Internet for streaming, and everyone involved in production from stream teams to commentary. Most of the people involved in these events- namely the event staff running brackets, the production, and the event organizers themselves- are all freelancers. These freelancers have no job security, no guarantee they’ll be able to work an event. If an event like Michigan Masters or Final Round is cancelled, all of these people are out of work. Furthermore, when these events are cancelled and the registration fees are all refunded, the event organizers are unable to use those fees to pay for things like the hotels and venues that have already been booked. The Michigan Masters event organizers have already gone public with the fact that the series will not return next year as a result of COVID-19 related cancellations and refunds. Jebailey of CEO has also been transparent and said that if he cancelled this past weekend’s CEO Dreamland, he would have to immediately declare bankruptcy.
Things like this shouldn’t happen. During the Dekay tweet discourse, there were a lot of folks saying things along the lines of “anybody who doesn’t want to work hard for little-to-no reward until they finally succeed is entitled and doesn’t understand how the world works.” If that’s really how you think the world works and you don’t want to change it, you need to reconsider how much you value the ability of other people to pursue what they love without becoming destitute. Ignoring those who failed catastrophically, and championing the success stories of people who worked multiple jobs while pursuing their craft for free until they finally succeeded as the standard that everyone should aspire to, is a privilege and reeks of survivorship bias. Even disregarding the fact that everyone has the basic right to a good quality of life, anybody who works in a field should be able to do so without stressing about earning enough to scrape by, or without fear that they may lose their primary source of paying the rent due to a global pandemic.
At the lowest level, fans of content creators can support them directly through various means, such as donation services, or Patreon or Twitch subscriptions. Freelancers support each other in this way as well, but they may often require more help than what they earn from their self-published content. Esports organizations and even larger companies outside of the industry can afford to provide better care for their freelance creators. Better wages and rates that value the time and effort of their freelancers and staff is a good start- no one in any field should be working directly for an org for free. And no one should certainly feel as though they have no other choice but to work for free until they finally “make it big,” either. None of us feel like we’re ‘entitled’ to being paid for our work- we simply hold our work to a set of standards, and we also want to be able to pursue our careers without collapsing completely. If someone could already afford to work in esports for free with no consequences due to their day job, then they don’t need their job in esports.
I highly implore any and all of my readers to stop by their favorite Twitch streamer, Medium writer, Patreon content creator, YouTuber, Pixiv artist, or anybody else whom they regularly consume content from, to donate and subscribe to them during the current pandemic crisis. With many of us forced to self-isolate and work from home, digital content creation has become our primary source of income. I personally subscribe to Pattheflip and Irene Koh on Twitch, and I myself have a Twitch and a Patreon that you can follow and subscribe to respectively. Please support your freelancers and content creators any way you can- direct subscription, or even just sharing and promoting them on your feed.