By Natasha Hashim

[First published on ign southeast asia website here]

While it sounds awesome for talents in the Southeast Asian gaming industry to be involved in video games for a living – whether behind the scenes or in front of the camera – it isn’t as rosy as it’s made out to be. Underneath all that glamor, these individuals face constant challenges when it comes to equal and equitable treatment.

Talent in the video game and esports industry often refer to content creators, hosts, casters, emcees, streamers and commentators, among others.

As a talent myself, I’ve had my fair share of bad experiences but this isn’t my story to share – I’m here to share about the alleged treatment of other talents in the industry I am in. I feel like it is high time that we talk about it – the bad in particular, because the good is often highlighted in the media.

I managed to interview four talents in the Southeast Asian esports and gaming industry, all of whom hail from various backgrounds. For obvious reasons, some of their names have been omitted for their privacy and all of them agree that there is a lot of work to be done when it comes to how talents are treated.

After speaking to them, I noticed a prevalent pattern – talents are allegedly paid too little for the amount of work they do. The lack of clear policies and the absence of unions, for example, allow bad actors to take advantage of talents, especially those who are deemed to be less influential. Danial (not his real name), claimed that “every organizer wants a good show but not all of them are willing to pay adequately for our services nor provide us with the equipment to optimize our delivery”.

SEA Video Game, Esports Talents Cry Foul Over Alleged Mistreatment and Low Pay - Richard Wee Chambers
Photo by Stem List on Unsplash

In the age of Covid-19, where a lot of tournaments have started to take place online, some organizers are not only offering lower pay (citing limited budgets due to the pandemic), but they also expect these talents to use their own equipment. On top of that, the talents are expected to prepare their own wardrobe and handle their own makeup. To be frank, the latter has always been the norm at most offline tournaments as well.

Alicia (not her real name), agreed with Danial’s sentiment: “I’ve been to far too many events where multiple talents are severely underpaid for the amount of work that they do. To top it off, many talents receive their payment months later, which is completely unacceptable.”

According to the talents, late payment is nothing unusual in the esports scene in Southeast Asia, claiming they get paid at least three months after an event has ended. In other cases, the delay could be up to a year and in the worst-case scenario, organizers pay up only after talents threaten to go public.

Talents who are bold enough to ask for a deposit to secure their spot at events are often told that “our organization does not do that” Those who are bold enough to speak up are often labeled as difficult to work with, which forces many talents to keep silent about their woes.

“The worst event I was involved in was undoubtedly the one that was organized in Malaysia several years ago. Inadequate setup, payment that never came in, terrible planning and horrible management from the organizers,” Danial lamented.

SEA Video Game, Esports Talents Cry Foul Over Alleged Mistreatment and Low Pay - Richard Wee Chambers
The infamous AGES2016 tournament - Photo taken from AGES2016 Facebook page

Back in 2016, an esports event called AGES 2016 took place in Malaysia with a RM1 million prize pool (which was one of the biggest prize pools in the region at the time). However, the winners, as well as the talents who worked at the event, never saw their paychecks and the company that organized the event went under liquidation and disappeared – never to be heard from again.

Going back to the issue of low pay, Alicia said the industry needs to set a standard to ensure equal pay for equal work.

“People deserve to be paid fairly for the amount of work that they do. There should be none of this ‘e don’t have budget bullsh*t’. Set a better budget!”

Danial held a similar view, saying, “I think one of the ways to combat the injustice would be for all talents to rally. Turn down bad deals that underpaid us, demand for punctual pay, make organizers take accountability for their actions (late payment, lowballing etcetera).

“On the talent side, we should also know our value and not sell ourselves short so we won’t be taken advantage of. We should also constantly demonstrate professionalism as well as making sure that when we go on set we put in a good show. It’s a two-way effort. If we can continue to deliver a good performance, organizers will see our value; if organizers continue to be credible and responsible, we will be happy to work with them.”

While that does sound easy, rallying together is not the easiest thing to do. Some talents are eager to work despite the low wages for the sake of exposure.

“For this, I think that we have to educate or at least let talents know their value and not let organizers take advantage of us. Learn to say no to low pay. I know it’s hard because there are a lot of factors like organizers’ budget, and you might be desperately in need of cash. But what can be done is to make low pay less of a norm. Let organizers know that it’s not okay to pay little. They also need to know that when we accept a job, we put on the best show. Organizers want a good show, and we want good pay. It goes hand in hand,” Danial said.

Ferria

Meanwhile, Ferria, a game reviewer, event organizer and producer, has had her fair share of bad experiences in the video games industry. Some game publishers, she said, offered her a mere US$20 to write a game review.

As the market gets more and more saturated with talents, she said many of them “succumb to desperate measures”. She adds, “(They) undersell themselves or accept any gigs, sometimes for free, to stay relevant and to keep their socials active with content and collaborations.”

She urged talents to choose carefully who they collaborate with, as the right partners “might be your savior and potentially open doors to bigger projects”.

With the sheer number of talent on social media, it is not surprising if clients preferred to hire those with a higher follower count on social media. Ferria said that this is one of the most frustrating issues as ‘smaller’ talents who are similarly skilled are sidelined in favour of more famous influencers who do not necessarily play video games.

“Start thinking about the value of a talent – find what their strengths are and approach them from that angle. You don’t go to a person who streams MLBB on mobile with one million followers and expect them to give you the exact same result by asking them to play an FPS game on PC. Clients often look for those with high numbers then complain about seeing the ‘same’ faces or not receiving the expected numbers,” she shared.

Ferria said clients would be surprised to find that while smaller video game content creators had a lower number of followers, these talents had the right fan demographics to help brands reach out to their target audience more effectively.

“There are many creative, highly potential and extremely talented gamers and influencers out there undiscovered or tossed under the rug due to not meeting the follower count. Someone with over 100,000 followers is offered a job and paid more versus someone with 1,000 followers who can produce much more engaging content. Which is more beneficial?”

We are seeing more and more government bodies as well as NGOs popping up in the esports scene, yet some talents feel these organizations have yet to create a more conducive environment for them.

SEA Video Game, Esports Talents Cry Foul Over Alleged Mistreatment and Low Pay - Richard Wee Chambers
One of the webinars held on Ric Wee's Twitch channel

On the other hand, there are notable figures who are eager to advocate for justice in the esports and gaming scene, such as Malaysian lawyer Ric Wee, who holds frequent streams on Twitch to raise awareness on players’ and talents’ rights and welfare.

So, what do you think can be done better by organizations to treat our talents better?

 

Published on 12 April 2021

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