Ryan Morrison represents around 90 professional Overwatch players, a group that he estimates comprises about 60% of competitors in Blizzard's Overwatch League, and around 70% of all Overwatch pros.
Four years ago, Overwatch hadn't even been announced, and Morrison was building a career not as 'esports talent agent' but as The Video Game Attorney.
"When I got out of law school, I saw a big group of people and indie game developers that weren't getting helped, and were kinda getting bullied into a bunch of different terrible legal pitfalls," Morrison explained to GamesIndustry.biz.
For example, he pointed to King, the mobile outfit behind Candy Crush Saga, (perhaps over-) aggressively protecting trademark claims over the words "Candy" and "Saga," threatening legal action against developers who might not have had the wherewithal to fight back. Spotting a good cause and an equally good marketing opportunity, Morrison began frequenting Reddit as the user "VideoGameAttorney," holding weekly Q&As with indies where he would help them out for free. At the same time, he was building the Video Game Attorney brand on Twitter, where he has amassed about 58,000 followers.
"Before you knew it, I had 200 esports players I was doing contracts for, 99% of which I was doing for free because they didn't have any money"
"Two years into it, esports players started reaching out saying, 'Hey I haven't been paid in three months. Can you help me?' And I did, and it kind of spread like wildfire among that community," Morrison said.
It didn't seem to matter to them that Morrison wasn't a talent agent. He was a lawyer who understood the games industry, and that was enough for them.
"Before you knew it, I had 200 esports players I was doing contracts for, 99% of which I was doing for free because they didn't have any money. But now another two years later, they're starting to make substantial money, and we opened a separate talent agency."
That outfit, Evolved Talent Agency, negotiates contracts, sponsorships leases, and whatever else for esports pros, taking 5% in exchange. (They also represent content creators on platforms like YouTube and Twitch.) When demand for their services increased beyond their ability to handle things in-house, they hired or bought out smaller agencies to grow apace.
Clearly, there was demand for esports talent representation, so why did existing talent agents leave all that business for a tangentially related lawyer to scoop up?
"The traditional sports agents, the real powerhouses out there, they didn't want anything to do with it because there just wasn't enough money," Morrison said. "People that were up-and-coming in the sports agent world tried to reach out, but they didn't understand the space. These players are super timid. They don't check their email, they don't answer their cell phone. You kind of have to know how to get to them. The thing that helped the most with the Video Game Attorney was I got 60,000 followers out of it, and a lot of those followers were the players. So I could DM them in a way other sports agents couldn't, and that kind of gave me a huge head start there."
"The biggest thing I had to do when I went to esports was take a breath, because there were no contracts. And the contracts [they did have] were so criminally written, it was terrible."
Morrison admits he wasn't prepared for what he found when he started representing esports players. Not because the work was beyond his abilities, but at how sketchy everything was.
"The biggest thing I had to do when I went to esports was take a breath, because there were no contracts," Morrison recalled. "And the contracts [they did have] were so criminally written, it was terrible. So we were able to do a lot of change very easily and very quickly in esports. Some of the huge problems players thought were never going to be fixed, we fixed with a phone call... To actually learn the law and make this the way it should be was a much longer and tough conversation, but the initial kind of fixer-upper here was very simple."
As one would expect with the influx of investment in esports from every corner of the gaming industry and beyond, things have become more professional (and more lucrative) in a hurry.
"We have players making more than their salary in sponsorships, and the salaries are shooting up," Morrison said. "A couple of years ago, an average salary was $50,000. Now an average salary is three times that, if not five times that, and we're seeing it keep going up and up. We have players making $1 million before their Twitch earnings, before their sponsors, before a lot of things, but we're also seeing your more average player making $150,000 to $200,000."
But of course, with a larger overall pie, there's going to be more friction between the league, the teams, and the players fighting over how it gets carved up, which is where people like Morrison come in.
"Salary is always going to be a player's main focus, but it's our job to make them care about all the other clauses in that 40-page agreement, too, everything from housing to how much they can get fined, to sponsorship money, etc."
"Years ago, it was more akin to a high school band getting a record deal," Morrison said of players' attitudes to teams and leagues, "like they were playing this game their whole life and now they'd finally made it and had an opportunity to go and try to be a star. On the flip side, now it's a lot more like a LeBron James leaving college and considering what offer he wants to take. There's no draft, either, so they have a lot more leverage to figure out where they want to go. And I think that's what we're going to see keep growing and growing."
As for what players mostly want Morrison to bring back for them in any negotiation, the answer is, unsurprisingly, money.
"Salary is always going to be a player's main focus," Morrison said, "but it's our job to make them care about all the other clauses in that 40-page agreement, too, everything from housing to how much they can get fined, to sponsorship money, etc. It all matters, but the thing they certainly live and die by is the salary number."
Interestingly, stability is less a concern, despite the short track record of many esports and relative uncertainty surrounding the business. Morrison said players are going for two-year contracts on the average, wanting to constantly test the market. Team owners, on the other hand, are all over the place, he says. Some prefer one-year deals with players, while others are looking to lock up talent for the next decade.
Of course, given the comments above about skyrocketing player salaries, that too makes sense from a certain perspective. Esports in general and the Overwatch League specifically are so new that there simply isn't a standard playbook of success for everyone to pull from. This is evident in the composition of the Overwatch League teams themselves. The Florida Mayhem has just six players on the roster. The London Spitfire and the Philadelphia Fusion have 12, and there are teams at every roster size in between. This is likely to be a temporary issue, not just because whatever works will be widely emulated as in any other sport, but because esports are inherently set up in a way that lends themselves to standardization.
"This isn't football where the football is the football," Morrison said. "This is football where someone owns the football. The teams and Overwatch League have to do what Blizzard says and Blizzard gets to make the rules. League of Legends does what Riot says, and Riot makes the rules. Blizzard and Riot make rules. The other two popular games are Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and DOTA, and they're owned by Valve. And Valve notoriously doesn't do anything. They're a completely run-it-yourself organization, and we see a lot less standards in those games as a result."
"We're going to see players unions sooner than later. We're going to see collective bargaining sooner than later, and I think a lot of those standards problems are going to fix themselves"
While the lack of standards could be a hindrance to esports' success in the short-term, Morrison sees them more as growing pains than anything that could seriously hamper the field's ultimate potential.
"It's a hurdle just like traditional sports saw," Morrison said. "We're going to see players unions sooner than later. We're going to see collective bargaining sooner than later, and I think a lot of those standards problems are going to fix themselves. There's just too much money and too many viewers here to not do this the right way. And I think the owners that were doing things the wrong way to make a quick buck are largely out of the league. And in a big way, we played a role in that. We helped get rid of the teams that were utter garbage or criminals, at least in North America. If you look at Asia or Europe, they're five years behind where America is in contracts, and I think a big part of that is because they don't have the right attorneys helping the teams there, and they don't have really any attorneys helping the players there."
The arrival of players' unions to esports is particularly interesting because it's not always the players pushing for their formation.
"In League of Legends, the players didn't care at all and still don't care at all," Morrison said. "Riot is actually making them form a union because they need a union so Riot can do a draft and a salary cap. In Overwatch, on the complete opposite, those players are starting a union themselves and they're passionate about it."
Each game is different and has its own distinct player culture, Morrison said, but none exist in a vacuum. League of Legends has been around for the better part of a decade now, long enough for a certain attitude and way of doing things to become entrenched in the game's culture.
"They've been around for a decade doing things a certain way, and all the veterans on the team get their contract, don't read it and sign it, so the younger guys feel bad asking to have things negotiated," Morrison said. "But there are horror stories all the time out of that community. So now you see Overwatch starting way later with a brand new group of guys who've heard all those horror stories. And there is no veteran in the room just signing it and doing things a stupid way."
Morrison estimates that 90% of Overwatch pro players have an agent, compared to just 30% of League of Legends pros. He'd like to see both those numbers increase.
"Every player should have a lawyer, an agent, and an accountant, and I think a lot of players don't know that yet," Morrison said.
He also wants to make sure players are seeking out properly licensed agents, something he believes is considerably easier with assistance from publishers and (eventually) unions. Riot and Blizzard have been on point with that effort, Morrison said, but he'd like to see Valve step up its game in that area.
Even though he represents a considerable chunk of the Overwatch pro player base as it stands, Morrison doesn't see himself representing them in the form of a player's union as it would be a conflict of interest. That said, he's been speaking with people who are interested in setting up those unions, and helping answer their questions.
"I'd love to see it," Morrison said of an Overwatch player's union. "It's absolutely something that's overdue at this point, and it would be great to see the players taking their careers seriously and unifying in that capacity. A player's union is always going to be worse for the top few names but great for everyone else, and I think the top few names in these games have seen a lot of benefits and they're going to be OK with it...
"I want what's best for these guys. That's been evident in everything we've done in our career, that we have the players' interest first. Hopefully we've proven that at this point, and hopefully we continue to show that with this union."