Who benefits? Ember and public player salaries

This is going to be the start of a new series called “Who Benefits.” At its core, the series looks at marketing and PR decisions in eSports in a critical way in order to attempt to decipher choices and why they’re made.

The origin of the name comes from a panel in DC Comics’ Identity Crisis #4, published in 2004. Faced with a murder mystery of the wife of a fellow hero’s wife, Batman is tasked with determining a motive and possible culprits. He muses:

It’s the first rule of solving a crime. If you want to know who did it, you need to find out who benefits.

The stuff I’m going to be writing about are not crimes, nor the people who make them criminals. I’ve found, though, that “who benefits?” is a great question to put yourself in a mindset to look at choices made by companies that might have more motivations than what’s on the surface.

Whether these motivations are good or bad are up to interpretation.


Today’s post is going to be about Ember Gaming, who took some initiative and did something that eSports teams rarely do: they talked about money.

Obviously in the West there’s a bit of a stigma when it comes to talking about salaries. In most workplaces, talking about what you make is discouraged, mostly because it presents an uncomfortable situation for the company where employees may be surprised to know that their current salary is lower than their perceived worth. An employee who knows that someone else who does “less” work is paid more may resent that, especially if they cannot negotiate a higher salary.

In eSports, salaries and revenue are usually a pretty big mystery. Twitch, Google Adsense, YouTube and other platforms have clauses in their TOS that keep the amounts private; someone using those platforms who disclose the exact money that they’re making stands to lose their account (and often their earnings with it.)

However, Ember decided to make their players’ salaries public in a Medium post by their owner, Jonathan Pan.

Bonuses include sign-on and performance.

  • Gleeb — $57,500 base, $15,000 in bonuses, total comp $72,500
  • Contractz — $60,000 base, $10,000 in bonuses, total comp $70,000
  • Goldenglue — $65,000 base, $27,000 in bonuses, total comp $92,000
  • Solo — $65,000 base, $21,000 in bonuses, total comp $86,000
  • Benjamin— $60,000 base, $15,000 in bonuses, total comp $75,000

For context, Ember are not a LCS team, but will compete in the North American Challenger Series during Spring 2016. They do not have any sponsors, nor are they backed by any headline-friendly source of money, like the Sacremento Kings’ owner forming NRG.

As far as I can tell, they are hoping that they will be able to build up an organic brand with money from investors, perhaps including members of Bitkraft, an eSports investment group that Pan is a part of. Bitkraft was founded by Jens Hilgers — founder, former CEO, former chair, current member of the Supervisory Board of ESL. [Edit: Pan (or someone from Ember) has informed me that Bitkraft are not investors, nor will they be in the future.]

Brands with large, loyal followings are more likely to sell for more money later on down the road, or at least remain healthier for longer periods of time.

As many former Challenger players can attest, Challenger players do not regularly make this level of money; many community members have also noted that the perceived values of the players included (many of whom have not competed at a top level) may not warrant that salary level.

Those things don’t really matter in the context of this blog; again, the main thing to ask ourselves is “Who benefits from publishing this?”

Keep in mind, these points below are subjective, and merely my opinion.

Benefactor: Ember

One of Ember’s main motivations in publishing this piece is marketing and introducing themselves to a League of Legends audience who usually gives bigger teams a bigger portion of mindshare.

Had they not involved themselves in this debate, there’s a good chance their players and team would not be as prominent, as they’ve now established themselves as “the team who cares.” Much like Renegades before them, Ember are attempting to break the hegemony of the TSM/Cloud9/CLG trifecta in North America by establishing their identity as player-focused, independent, and different.

The messages that they’re sending imply a focus on being genuine, and hoping that resonates with an audience, and that audience will take their actions at face value. According to them, Ember are plucky. They’re willing to do what other teams do “for the good of the players.” They are willing to take risks. They are willing to invest in their players to become better people.

Selected quotes from the piece:

We believe in family, friends, lovers, and community.

That is why we decided against purchasing a LCS slot directly. We would rather invest in the challenger scene and work with regional players who want the opportunity to compete at the highest level of esports.

Companies have more leverage when there is information asymmetry. And that’s wrong. Last night, we shared our players’ salaries with each other. Today, we are going to share this information with the rest of the esports world so that players in CS and LCS are armed with some facts before their next negotiation.

Ember are hoping that by getting involved in a player welfare debate they will be regarded as being on the correct side of it. Due to taking definitive action in starting the debate, they ensure that they will always be mentioned when it is; if TSM or any other team comment on this issue, Ember will be linked to it.

That means a bigger audience for their team, which means a bigger potential for return on investment.

This is crucial for a team like Ember, as eSports teams are finding that their potential audience is shrinking with every new announcement. As Ember do not have the hook of a novelty behind their formation (like say, Mark Cuban buying a team), they need to find a way to stick out from the deluge of other news.

So why not establish themselves as one of the good guys? Why not set themselves up as an underdog that fans will believe are making a morally right decision? Why not have that kind of positivity and goodwill attached to your brand?

If this becomes the dominant narrative, Ember gain a number of side benefits, as well:

  • Positive mainstream coverage when/if that reaches publications. “Breaking the mold” stories are always good for business.
  • Mediocre play becomes forgivable, to a point. Organizations who treat their players well usually have a lot more leeway.
  • They become seen as a more modern brand for eSports moving forward. A lot of the language in the post is consistent with the Venture Capitalist/entrepreneurship crowd, enabling their owners to take thought leadership roles.
  • Said thought leadership roles become valuable when bigger money becomes involved in eSports. As larger teams become “claimed” by larger sponsors, latecomers will look for more stable opportunities.

In short, Ember want to avoid getting lost in the shuffle and put the best foot forward when it comes to launching their team. By doing something that allows them to set a narrative about their organization, their values and their impact on eSports, they ensure that people will likely remember them enough to come check out their games despite their lack of star power.

They also hope that by presenting a genuine image, they will build loyal, enthusiastic fans who want to believe they are helping to change eSports for the better, even if fans see no benefit themselves.

I’d say this strategy has paid off for them, as the response on Reddit and across forums seems positive among the rank-and-file, non-professional observer. Ember are seen as doing something positive and different, and are shaking up a faceless industry which is easy to push blame onto.

While others may bring up issues with the model, the average viewer may not think critically enough to care, or may have moved on to the next shiny thing by now. The vagueness of the immediate impact works in Ember’s favor, here: we may not know if it even matters in the long term, but in the short, they definitely “win” as much as they could have.


Matt Demers writes about eSports while living in Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter, Twitch and sign up for his newsletter about eSports and culture.