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The starting assumption of this column is that esports is better understood as an extension of the world at large than a world unto its own. From gun violence to judicial debates, esports are merely one context in which the rest of the social, economic, and political world plays itself out. And one of the most significant shifts in the last 50 years has been in how, where, and when we work. Digital technologies, globalization, and changing ideas about the meaning of labor have profoundly changed workplaces across the earth, and rarely for the better. Productivity and profits are up, but wages have been stagnant since the 1970s. Inequality has reached levels not seen since the so-called “Gilded Age.”
While esports might not seem all that connected to these broad historical strokes, professional gaming, as it turns out, is a useful vantage point for understanding how work has changed, why, and to whose benefit.On Monday, well-known “Dota 2” analyst and coach Anthony “Scantzor” Hodgson published “Mistreated, Unpaid, and Dismissed Out of Hand,” a lengthy account of his experiences working in the Southeast Asian “Dota 2” scene, one of the largest in the world. Across three companies over two years, Hodgson wrote that he was thoroughly screwed over by ostensibly professional esports organizations that ranged from incompetent to straight-up malicious. Hodgson’s story is, at times, difficult to read. In early 2017, his then-employer, Mineski – arguably the most established esports organization in the Philippines – moved him into in a roach- and mosquito-infested house that doubled as an accounting office, he wrote. When Hodgson complained, he was told he was being a “demanding foreigner.”It would be comforting to imagine that Hodgson’s story is an aberration, that this is not how “Dota 2” is supposed to work. But, as always, it’s a matter of perspective. Much of esports has grown up in recent years as more established and better-funded companies have assumed stewardship of many games. But “Dota 2” remains remarkably wild (as one analysis by statsperson Ben “Noxville” Steenhuisen showed, “Dota 2” likely has the highest income inequality of any professional scene; Counter-Strike is a close second). Valve’s laissez-faire approach to managing its games’ professional scenes means externalizing the responsibility – and risk – of running competitive “Dota 2” to third parties. Their logic is that, in time, the “Dota 2” market will work itself out, even if (or exactly because) many of the companies that make “Dota 2” professional, possible will fail in the process. As I’ve argued before, Valve isn’t really in the business of making games anymore. It makes markets, then sits back and skims value off the top.

Valve’s hands-off strategy for “Dota 2” is, of course, the structural backdrop to the story Hodgson describes. With little to no accountability for players, teams, and tournaments alike, outright fraud continues to flourish in “Dota 2”, long after it has (mostly) been eliminated from other premiere titles. Yet for Valve, the fact that “Dota 2” routinely screws over the very people that make it possible isn’t a bug; if anything, it’s better seen a feature. Organizations, whether hapless or malicious, that run for months without paying employees are still doing the work of promoting “Dota 2”. Organizations that dodge work permits and deliberately misclassify their employees’ visas in a country unlikely to investigate such violations are still supporting “Dota 2”. Organizations that force their talent to live in squalor to minimize expenses are still part of the infrastructure of competitive “Dota 2”. If you’re Valve, and your sole lodestar is your own profit, this system isn’t broken. It’s working exactly as intended.

Stare into “Dota 2”, in other words, and it’s capitalism that stares back. Contemporary capitalism scours the globe for any every tiny cranny where it can eke out a profit, either by cutting costs or building new markets. It is a breathtakingly flexible system, capable of adapting to just about any context it comes across. This is even more true with the advent of digital platforms, which make it possible to organize and regulate the labor of millions of people by delegating managerial responsibilities to software. In this respect, “Dota 2” is aided, abetted, and undergirded by Steam. When we think about the program that has made Valve one of the most profitable companies in the world, we would be better off not thinking about it as a retailer, like Gamestop, but as a tool to crowdsource labor, like Uber. Yet instead of managing rides in a given city, Steam aligns with Valve’s hands-off ethos to provide the infrastructure and labor pool for “Dota 2” on a global scale at minimal cost to Valve. And, like Uber, Steam (and “Dota 2”) casts all those who depend upon it for their well-being into competition with each other, driving wages down to, in many cases, nothing.

But it’s not just about money. It’s telling that many of the frustrations Hodgson describes are as much cultural challenges as they are economic ones – or, more accurately, challenges in which culture and economy are inseparable. At one point, Hodgson demands that his players’ monthly salaries be doubled from 800 php (about $150) to 1600 php, still less than half below the median monthly wage in the Philippines. In response, Hodgson is told that he, a South African, can’t understand the “Filipino mentality,” and that paying players anything more would simply demotivate them. Here, Hodgson’s bosses invoke culture, whether genuine or not,  to justify keeping wages down. Ultimately, this “value add” – i.e. cut cost – will wind its way back to Valve.

If there’s any consolation to be found in Hodgson’s story, it might be in its reception. Accounts of fraud and player exploitation emerge with seasonal regularity in “Dota 2”, but have, in the past, largely been brushed off as growing pains or players merely “paying their dues”. But to read the Reddit thread in response to Hodgson’s post is to see a great many “Dota 2” fans who are genuinely horrified and demanding something better, whether it’s player unions or more responsibility and transparency from Valve. What ought to be done is another question entirely. For now, is it enough to note that, as more of these stories becomes visible – Hodgson’s will not be the last – it becomes more and more difficult for “Dota 2” fans to innocently enjoy the game they love?

Esports &” is a monthly column about esports, politics, and society by Will Partin, a doctoral student in Communication at the University of North Carolina.