The Ethics of eSports Internships

Written by PhilPhoenix
Mar 18 2012, 10:57 AM EDT

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The esports community (and StarCraft II’s community in particular) is strongly united under the banner of growth. Everyone can do their part to help propel our fledgling phenomenon into the spotlight as one of the premiere sources of entertainment in the digital age. Esports fans are among the most talented and resourceful people in the larger gaming community, and our success in the past few years is directly related to our combined motivation to share our passion with as wide an audience as possible.

It’s true – a lot of the work done in the community is volunteer-based. Plenty of small-scale teams and events are fueled only by the vim and verve of their members and organizers, and that’s not inherently a bad thing. Not everything is built to be monetized; some teams are just friends who love to play the game and some tournaments are created by people who just want to spice up their hometown with a little bit of esports goodness. You don’t have to have dreams of conquering the esports world in order to have fun and make an impact. Those small events across the world will create fans and participants that will add up to the groundswell of support that our subculture needs to keep expanding. Leave the monetization to the big players and just have a great time!

Now if you just so happen to be a “big player,” things are a little different. You are monetizing. You have sponsors. You’re trying to create something that is financially sustainable, i.e., a team or an event that isn’t hanging by a thread and propped up by community good will. You’re creating a business, and that’s a great thing. We need that to create that potent mainstream appeal capable of penetrating bigger barriers than the fans can by themselves, often via sponsorships and cross-promotion, something that most grassroots teams or tournaments couldn’t manage.

But if you want to be a business, you have to act like one. Trying to be both a business and a faux-grassroots “we’re in it for esports” group isn’t going to cut it. You can be passionate, but you can’t act like your decisions aren’t primarily financially motivated when discussing the big picture. There’s nothing wrong with having to consider a bottom line; that’s how you run a successful business, and we need successful businesses to create a sustainable source of esports entertainment for the masses. Being financially driven doesn’t mean you can’t be passionate, but it does mean you can’t crowdsource in the same way that grassroots groups can.

When it comes to the idea of offering an internship, we’re not talking about fans anymore. I’m not going to get bogged down in the legalese of employment laws and what constitutes an internship -- suffice it to say that unpaid internships make no sense. By not offering compensation, you’re drastically reducing the potential pool of applicants, especially if the hours required approach an actual part-time or full-time job. Moreover, by not offering compensation, you’re disrespecting the efforts of those who are chosen to provide services to the organization that hired them. Volunteer work can be incredibly fulfilling, but not when it’s for an organization that is using your work to generate revenue.

The idea I’m driving at is not based in any sort of legal right, it’s purely based on respect between employer and employee. I’m pretty damn convinced that there needs to be a certain amount of respect afforded to employees to generate a positive and productive relationship. By not offering compensation of any form, you’re essentially saying that the work provided is without value. Now you might shower this employee with praise, but in the universal language of the world (i.e., money), you’re not saying shit to them.

When I say compensation, I don’t mean six-figures, a full salary, or anything like that. It’s generally understood that internships don’t pay as well as real jobs (depending on the field), but that compensation is an important action on the part of the employer to indicate a base level of respect and value for the work being offered. Again, I’m not going to try to decide what the appropriate amount of compensation is. That depends on very situation-specific factors. Plenty of big companies can get away with unpaid internships – and some will even have you pay THEM for the chance to be an intern – but in a close-knit community like the esports world there’s no reason to try and pull something like that.

As I said, there’s a big difference between volunteering your time for a personal cause and creating an organization designed to be financially self-sustainable. If an organization wants to be treated as this sort of professional entity, they need to act like it all the way through. Being professional doesn’t just mean having slick graphics and lots of sponsors, it also means treating those who work to further your cause as valuable team members and compensating them accordingly. Volunteer work from the community can be a fun way to fuel a contest or one-off idea, but when something is designated an internship, it takes on more professional weight, and an organization creating that opportunity needs to follow through on that to the best of their ability. If there’s no money to pay an intern, then there needs to be some reevaluation done higher up the chain.

This isn’t a widespread issue, but it could crop up more frequently one as our scene continues to expand. It’s important to understand our feelings on the matter and make them heard whenever possible. We all love esports. We all want to see it become incredibly popular. Wanting to be compensated for our time and talents doesn’t mean we want to hurt esports, it means we want to be taken seriously as contributing factor in the movement, and if we have something to offer professionally, that’s what we deserve.

Do you want to have your voice heard in the esports community? WellPlayed is looking for skilled and motivated SC2 and LoL aficionados to join its staff of volunteer writers! If interested, please send a personal statement (including ideas for content) and a writing sample to [email protected].