Image by Valve on Flickr
What happens when you’re no longer allowed at the lunch table? Reigning TI champions from wings.gaming are currently facing a ban, whether official or unofficial, on ACE tournaments, which is to say, all Chinese-run tournaments. The players—formerly of Team Random—are mired in a familiar, money-fueled Dota controversy that jeopardizes the future careers of its players, and the spotlight this case has taken has potential to set precedents for the future of Chinese Dota.
What Is ACE?
The Association of Chinese Esports is the governing organization for Dota in China. To sponsor a team in Dota, you must be a part of ACE. To play on a team in Dota, you must also be a part of ACE. And to hold a tournament in Dota—yes, you have to pay a fee to ACE. The organization is essentially part players union, part owners association, and part business—they’re tasked with the growth and marketing of the Esports. They’re the NBA and NBPA in one. Or FIFA.
That’s when conflicts of interest arise, such as in the case of the wings.gaming debacle, which involves three parties: ACE, the wings.gaming organization, and its five former players (shadow, bLink, faith_bian, y, and iceice). ACE purports to mediate disputes, but it’s difficult to be impartial when the organization’s leadership is helmed by team owners.
What’s The Problem?
The details are still murky about what fractured the relationship between wings.gaming and its players (money, money, and money), but the result is that the players left and started their own independent venture, Team Random. During this time, ACE and its committee of team managers convened to place an indefinite boycott (no scrimming, no tournaments) against the players, while they were settling their dispute with wings.gaming.
Though the players have said the dispute has been settled, the boycott still stands. The players are essentially on a blacklist, untouchable by other teams under ACE. EHOME recruited Y and Faith_bian and reportedly left ACE as opposed to being banned from it, though the question remains whether they could’ve stayed within ACE’s grasp with these two players. As a result of EHOME’s exit, EHOME.K was promptly banned from playing NESO.
Some members of the community have voiced that it’s a vindictive move by ACE, because the existence of an independent, Chinese team with potential to succeed is a threat to their business. They do have a right to act in their own best interest when one party, as commonly cited in American sports, participates in “conduct detrimental to the league or team”. But a ban is one of the most severe punishments a sports organization can deliver. Last year, NFL player Josh Brown was suspended for one game. It was for domestic abuse.
The ex-players from wings.gaming are banned indefinitely, a situation that essentially suspends their pay and affects their ability to make a living playing Dota. Team Random no longer exists. Its players have drifted from each other, and all of them are floating in limbo, like players leftover after a roster lockout date.
One recourse left for these exiled Chinese players is to relocate to greener pastures. Teams today no longer resemble the region they represent. The rosters of EG and Team Secret are filled with players from around the world. Veteran Dota player Black has played for four different regions.
Will Valve Step In?
Valve has had a history of enacting policies that favor players over organizations. They stepped in to protect Era, who was being edged out of Team Fnatic before TI. And the proceeding lockout rules, and its amendments, aim to establish stability in the scene, such that rosters can’t shuffle players on a whim before a major tournament.
Valve does have its own set of rules, though sometimes vague, for participating in their tournaments. They determine who gets invites, who gets invited to qualifiers, and the tournament format it all happens in. Considering the payouts for TI ($20.8 million in 2016) dwarf every other tournament, they can have everyone else accede to their rules.
But ACE tournaments aren’t Valve tournaments. The question is also what control Valve has over the way other regions grow and organize their tournament scenes. It just happens that ACE has a monopolistic hold on the Chinese industry. In this situation, it’s less about which party is right and which is wrong, but rather that one party, the players, is disproportionately misrepresented. Both players and organizations will need to realize they’re mutually dependent on each other—a fact that’s being forgotten as more money pours into the scene.