June 20, 2024

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Who decides when volunteering in esports is or isn’t okay?

Volunteering in esports is a topic that keeps coming back around again, and the debate around ‘working for free’ can get very heated on social media. Will the cycle stop? Should it? ENUK editor Dom Sacco offers his take.

A few weeks ago, the Insomnia Gaming Festival Twitter account published a post that drew the ire of some in the UK esports and gaming community.

The post asked people to apply to volunteer at the festival. Here we go again, I thought to myself, as the replies rolled in.

‘Volunteer social media? This is a job role and you should be paying people for it.’

‘Exposure and experience don’t put food on the table.’

‘Applied!’

I had been here before.

Some eight years ago, before I set up Esports News UK, I had the same question on my lips: Is it right for Insomnia to use unpaid volunteers at its events?

I was told the volunteers get looked after and that other events do the same, implying it must be right.

I wasn’t convinced at the time, though my opinion has changed over the years, and I’ll come onto that in a bit.

dom sacco volunteering quer

A year later, I asked the question again, and it drew many more responses this time.

Still, the comments and responses to me were a little divisive, and led me to do more research.

Outside of volunteering in esports, it’s true that several music festivals and other industries rely on many volunteers to make the shows happen, and they are often compensated with travel, accommodation and food. Does that make it right?

Insomnia says on its volunteering page: “Wanna know a secret? Volunteers are the most important part of Insomnia Gaming Festival. We have been inviting people to volunteer at our events for over 20 years and it’s a fantastic way to get behind the scenes, work with hundreds of like-minded individuals with a passion for play and help us make sure Insomnia is the greatest gaming event in the UK.

“Whether you steward, help with stage content or work on the festival’s infrastructure, everyone that steps into Insomnia as a volunteer is making a massive difference.”

On the recent criticism, Insomnia organisers told NME: “We’re always very clear with the opportunities we offer and we receive applications from people of all ages, situations and backgrounds who view it as a way to be a part of something that they enjoy.

“Volunteer roles obviously aren’t for everyone and we leave it up to the individual to make a choice whether to apply or not.”

All PR-tastic words and quotes above, though I know some people who have been volunteering in esports for quite a few Insomnia events but haven’t managed to get further up the ladder. Some have, I’m sure.

Over the years I accepted all of this as the norm, and I eased up on Insomnia over the topic of volunteering in esports and events.

I thought back to the work experience I had carried out before full-time employment, and the volunteering roles that the British Esports Federation were looking for when I worked there full-time in their early days in 2016 and 2017.

I always wanted to get into games journalism, and it was drilled into me to do work experience. So I did.

I first reached out to Nintendo Official Magazine at about 13 years old, and they gave me and my dad a tour of the office, then invited me back to do work experience when I was older.

“I completed placements at three different local newspapers, a radio station and several magazines, including Nintendo Official Magazine and GamesTM (RIP). No one paid my travel, food or accommodation expenses for these. I’m not saying whether this is right or not – just sharing my story. I’ll come onto ethics in a bit.”

I did these placements while living at my parents’ house back home in good old Billericay, or while studying for university in sunny Bournemouth.

I remember spending my money from a paper round to get into London and back each day from Essex, on a train and bus, to work at Nintendo Official Magazine. To be given mundane tasks like fix their cable clutter, write a competition page, sort through reader letters, make tea and other bullshit I can’t remember.

I didn’t care, I was enamoured of the magazine and the people that worked there. I had read hundreds of issues of games magazines growing up, and the journalists that put them together were like rock stars to me. And now I got to play Goldeneye with them at lunch time.

dom sacco nintendo official magazine
Me, centre, aged about 13 with the editors of Nintendo Official Magazine circa 1998 (Yes, there once was a time when I had hair)

If the magazine had offered me a job there and then, I probably would have taken it and not even asked what the pay was. But I was 16 years old, and incredibly naive.

Social media didn’t exist, for better or worse. Google did, but it was new and the internet back then was largely full of rubbish. I had my friends and family and teachers to ask about this kind of stuff, and books if I wanted to learn more. Back then I probably wouldn’t have bothered.

Anyway, a few years later, while studying at university, I did work experience at GamesTM alongside a young staff writer Keza MacDonald and an office full of other talented games journos on a host of magazines. I made connections and that’s when I started to learn how shockingly poor games magazine journalist wages were. I was told some were actually less than minimum wage.

Keza went on to become video games editor at The Guardian and deservedly escaped the specialist magazine life, but I was left a little distraught about the pay. I’m from a working class background and I didn’t really want to be resigned to that all my life – I had managed to go to university and was working hard. Shouldn’t I be rewarded for that?

At the same time, after a successful work experience stint at GamesTM, I received a text message from the editor a few weeks later on my old Nokia brick of a mobile phone.

“Hey dude, got an opportunity for you,” it read.

I was excited to receive this. An editor was actually getting in touch with little old me, after work experience?

“Happy for you to come back to the office whenever you like, and write some articles, in your own time – no pressure,” it read.

There was no mention of pay, and while the thought had crossed my mind, I did like the idea of building up my portfolio. So I did.

“Sure, thanks a lot!” is probably what young eager Dom would’ve responded.

Call me stupid, but I still don’t regret it to this day. I went into the GamesTM office probably once every month or two, and wrote little things here and there: previews, small bits of news, editing the reader letters, that kind of low level stuff. I didn’t think of it as volunteering in esports or games or whatever, but as a convenience while I was at university. It was someting to do, and I enjoyed playing new games in the office where I got the chance.

I think, if you are a graduate and looking for full-time work, volunteering isn’t something I’d recommend as much, because by that point you’re trained and ready to go into full-time work (dependent on the profession of course).

So by the end of university, I had many tens of pages of printed, published work from all the different companies and the student newspaper I had written for. My contacts book was pretty good. I was happy, I relied on my student loan to get me through the unpaid work, and as the office was in the area, I could walk there and didn’t have to pay for travel.

I remember working beside the GamesTM team one Friday afternoon, as a second-year journalism student, when a bunch of third-years and one of my lecturers were being given a tour of the office. I can still see my lecturer’s bemused face as she spotted me sitting behind a desk working.

“Dom? What are you doing here?”

“Oh, they asked me back after work experience to do some extra work.”

“[Turning to the third-years] Hear that? You can learn from this second-year student!”

I felt embarrassed, and maybe a little smug.

“My willingness to work for free back in the noughties was encouraged and praised. This reinforced my belief that what I was doing was the right thing. I didn’t question it. Perhaps I should have.”

I just hoped I could work my way up on a magazine and earn enough to have my own place and do the things I wanted to do in life (reality check to teenage Dom, really listen to your lecturers when they said ‘don’t go into journalism if you want to earn well’).

Long story short, I put in a ton of hard – unpaid – work to get to where I am today. Again, I’m not saying this is right, but it’s a reason why I have a different viewpoint.

The irony was, when I graduated in 2007, no bloody games magazines were even hiring, so after all that I somehow got a job on the Auto Trader editorial team. Turns out this paid a lot more for a junior role than a games magazine would. Then when I hopped into games journalism proper two years later, they matched my wage – so I got a bit lucky.

Anyway… this article was not intended to be my life story. Back to the topic at hand – what does this have to do with volunteering in esports?

I wanted to provide some context and to show you where I’m coming from.

Fast forward 15 or 20 years to today.

Why is esports different to other industries when it comes to volunteering?

I didn’t really comment publicly on the Insomnia volunteering drama from early March 2023. I had done it already, years prior.

Through the criticism that Insomnia was receiving around volunteering in esports, one comment stood out to me. It was a tweet from Resolve COO Jeff Simpkins.

He said: “I’m going to disagree with a lot here and ask why should every role in esports be paid? I worked hundreds of hours voluntarily for the Police to gain experience before eventually joining the job.

“The [Insomnia] role requires zero experience and is giving people an opportunity to get that. It’s only one weekend too not weeks/months of unpaid work.

“I know so many other people that did [what I did] for their chosen career path. Why is esports different?”

Bingo.

I have to say I’m with Jeff on this one. Perhaps it’s a generational thing – while Jeff isn’t quite as old as I am (UK esports boomer alert!), we’re of the same generation and have both volunteered to get to where we are today.

But Jeff touched on something I’ve noticed in the years covering esports.

Esports is elitist.

There, I said it.

Some (not all) in esports seem to have this weird elitist attitude, like they’re owed a lot for little in return, with huge and sometimes unrealistic expectations. Including those with little experience.

Yes, I’m generalising, and I was probably the same when I was graduating from uni.

Some volunteering in esports have gone from voluntary or small freelance roles to the big stage, and have remained hard-working and humble.

Jon Winkle of Epic.LAN once told me for an old article I wrote: “There are a lot of people who got experience at Epic and then went on to much bigger work, for example Pansy and Machine used to cast at Epic to get their experience, even Deman has done Epic.LAN casting in the past.

medic excoundrel love 1
Excoundrel and Medic have gone on to have solid careers in esports after helping out at Epic.LAN, with Excoundrel moving into marketing and Medic a regular in the LEC

“We are very much about giving people an experience and we don’t just throw them in,” Jon added. “We try to guide them, help them and mentor them a bit as well. We will happily help people with their CV afterwards to get more permanent roles as well. Anyone can apply to Epic.LAN whether that’s first time casters coming to get their first LAN experience, admins, even just people to help at the meet and greet.”

UKCSGO also has a great team of volunteers who have produced some quality coverage, as do other orgs and companies that aren’t giant corporations.

Epic.LAN doesn’t get the criticism Insomnia does. And there’s a reason for that, which I’ll go into more detail in later.

Back to the elitism I mentioned earlier. It’s like the whole topic around pay for esports players at a lower tier level. Players expect to get paid for small teams, whether it’s prize money and all expenses paid, and not many small grassroots teams have the budget for such a thing.

I compare it to those who play Sunday league football or for a small local team. They may have to pay per game or per season, or a mix of both. If you wanted to play for a minor Sunday league team and asked them to pay you, you’d probably get laughed at.

I know working in and volunteering in esports is different to football, but it’s an observation nonetheless.

As Jeff asks, why is esports different? Does it deserve or can it afford to be?

But there has been a shift, as Siege caster Dezachu points out below.

This is what got me thinking further.

Given my background, I was taken aback when I was working for British Esports years ago and was asked to publish a call for volunteers. Not for the task I was asked to do, but the response I received by some.

I was met with a very angry response by one person in particular, saying British Esports must pay every volunteer it uses.

For context, the people we were looking for to do some volunteering in esports at the time were admins for the school and college tournaments, following a successful after-school esports club pilot we held for children in a library.

I think I have a different perspective now that I’ve been working for almost half my life, and in recent years more management positions. I’ve interviewed and hired journalists on the magazines I’ve edited, I’ve learnt about the pains of running your own business and the challenges of balancing the books.

Docda and Dom Sacco volunteering in esports
UK LoL caster DocDa volunteered with me at British Esports back in 2017 for an after-school esports club for children

Knowing that British Esports is a not for profit entity and knowing it was hardly making any money at all to put back into its operations, this response I received in particular did frustrate me.

I’ve since met the person who responded negatively to the British Esports post and they were nothing but super friendly and polite in real life. The realities of social media, then? Perhaps.

Some companies just can’t afford to pay for volunteers.

‘Don’t hire volunteers then’, I hear you say, and that’s a valid response.

But sometimes it’s not always so black and white. I’ll give you an example.

When I covered Insomnia 68 last year, I did it mainly by myself with the help of Jackelbat (who is now at Swipe Right PR), it was fun but I didn’t get to cover all the content I wanted to due to lack of resources. Quite a few people at the event and some afterwards suggested I get a bigger team of volunteers together to help me at Insomnia 69, as they knew I can’t afford to hire a full team. So I put one together and covered their expenses.

These volunteers worked for a few hours that weekend, got some great experience and were really thankful for it. To me, offering the occasional opportunity like this outweighs the small amount of criticism I may receive on socials for it. It’s not a regular thing, and I think the community understands I’m not a huge, rich corporation that’s taking advantage of people.

I don’t like to advertise for volunteers anymore, and I don’t really have the time to give them proper feedback and guidance given how much I have on and being a dad of three, I just don’t have the time.

But if someone reaches out to me and is offering to help, I don’t always say no to those looking to offer volunteering in esports. Jackelbat offered to help me at Insomnia, he was really helpful and went on to do some other little bits for Esports News UK that year, here and there (a handful of articles and helping out at a few events). I always offered to cover his expenses and he was always polite and often declined, saying he wanted to help. He applied for a role at Swipe Right PR, I gave him a good reference, and he got the job.

British Esports’ head of operations Alice Leaman started out as a volunteer for the federation and secured a full-time role there soon afterwards.

For me, this is the kind of volunteering in esports that works.

This article is not a ‘you should work for free’ argument. Not at all. If you’re going to volunteer, do a small amount, don’t keep working for free for months and years. Get the experience you want, make the connections you want, get the portfolio of work you want and get out. Don’t get taken advantage of.

In late 2021, esports jobs site Hitmarker no longer allowed unpaid roles to be listed. This was met with applause, and I’m glad it meant no more dodgy amateur orgs advertising almost full-time roles for no pay.

But I do think it’s a shame in a way, because I also feel there is a role for volunteering in esports when done right.

TLDR: Five takeaways from the recent volunteering in esports debate, plus guest advice from a top sports journalist

There are three main things I’ve taken from all this.

1. Back when I volunteered and did work experience at Nintendo Official Magazine and all that, I approached the magazines to do the one or two-week work experience placement. Not the other way around.

Now, with social media and job listing sites, we see a lot of companies and people offering unpaid internships and volunteering roles. This results in anger and frustration from the community, which I understand. In my opinion, it should never have reached this point. It’s become skewed, and we need to revert to people who want to volunteer reaching out to companies, not the other way around.

The second thing I’ve taken from all this is around perception and size.

So, secondly, it seems that if a company, product or event is successful/wealthy – or perceived to be – then for it to advertise several volunteer positions or unpaid internships is a no-no.

If a tiny little blog is looking for a helper, that doesn’t get frowned upon as much.

It depends on the nature of the volunteering too. If it’s a couple of hours doing small admin tasks or being a runner, no one may bat an eyelid, but if it’s for something like social media or marketing, I feel like people are more likely to kick up a stink.

You might think this is obvious, but perception varies, and sometimes, bigger companies and brands get away with it. In an ideal world, everything would be fair and people would treat companies fairly – if we’re going to call out one, we should call out others doing similar things.

Look at this post from the UK Overwatch World Cup team 7Lions looking for volunteers. This World Cup is funded by Blizzard, yet I didn’t seem to see any negative reaction to this:

This may be due to people not knowing, or to do with my third point, around social media and the hive mind.

Thirdly, a few well-written critical comments can persuade others to join the bandwagon and the hate train on volunteering in esports.

Once this wave gets larger, not much can be done to stop it. It’s hard to speak out on things and offer a different opinion when the hive mind has decided its viewpoint. This is more a result of the internet than esports, but esports is of course a digitally native industry so it applies.

Fourthly, this is a good point raised by John Jackson of Esports Wales, who said: “Pros of volunteering: It’s great to give people the chance to gain experience and develop. The industry couldn’t develop without them.

“Cons of volunteering in esports [from a company perspective]: You do get so many volunteers that do it for the title, don’t turn up to meetings, don’t do the work, quit out on you, but are first for freebie.”

John Jackson, Esports Wales

This is a great point that I have also seen first-hand with the work I’ve done. People love to get press passes to great esports events, but don’t always deliver what they promised, and this has unfortunately lowered my trust with future potential freelancers and volunteers. So volunteering goes both ways.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with some food for thought.

I am lucky enough to have worked with sports reporter David Ornstein on the Bournemouth University student newspaper years ago.

Lastly, I sometimes give guest lectures on esports journalism to students, and David Ornstein had given me some guest advice for one of my talks, which I’ll end with here.

His message to the students included the following advice: “Make sure you do extra curricular work – student media, work experience – wherever you can get it. I did so much unpaid work without even travel expenses, it doesn’t matter – you’ve got to get it under your belt.

“There will be stints that you go on where they don’t let you do anything [meaningful], but at least you get it in your CV. You’re learning your trade, picking up contacts and building bridges, and that’s crucial.

“Do periods of work experience even at unsociable times, when the rest of your friends are going back from university for Christmas and summer holidays, that’s when you get in and do extra bits of work experience because that will become priceless in the future.”

Today David has 1.8 million followers on Twitter and is one of the most successful sports reporters of our generation.

Cheers for reading to the end of this longer-than-expected opinion piece on volunteering in esports. I hope you at least got some semblance of my thoughts on the topic. I’d love to hear what you think of this topic! Feel free to comment below or in the tweet I shared.