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World ESports Assn. seeks to bring structure to the chaos that is e-sports

During a closed-door meeting inside Spodek Arena in Catowice, Poland, in early March, Pietro Fringuelli grabbed his iPhone and started snapping photos of his smiling compatriots.

This was a moment to document.

If the sport of playing video games ever does become as big a business as football or soccer, then the overnight gathering that stretched to 5 a.m. could prove historic.

On Friday, eight top e-sports franchises and leading match organizer ESL announced that the Poland summit -- which occurred in secret as players competed in a tournament in the arena -- culminated in the formation of the World ESports Assn. It aims to bring to their $500-million global industry the regulations and routines common in traditional sports.

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The body will set guidelines for drafting player contracts and scheduling matches. Member teams without proper insurance could face penalties. Free agency disputes would head to arbitration. And Fringuelli, a German attorney who has advised the Bundesliga, FIFA and UEFA soccer leagues and game publishers, is the organization’s interim commissioner.

It’s not a league, but rather a faction of owners, their players and event promoters that seeks to promulgate its set of preferred practices across many leagues.

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“We are facing situations where a team owner is located in New York, players are located in Sweden and they have disputes regarding a tournament in Cologne” in Germany, Fringuelli said. “You have so many jurisdictions, what do you do? To find a solution for all parties, at the end of the day, we need to find a unified framework.”

The development of WESA marks a sudden shift for a young sport that has become a cultural fascination. Few people imagined that 100,000 hollering fans would visit a sports arena over a weekend -- like they did in Catowice -- to watch players hit keyboards and mice.

Now that it’s happening, industry veterans and a rush of big-money interests from sports, media and tech want to formalize convoluted structures that make it difficult to mint new fans and sponsors. There are thousands of teams, hundreds of tournaments and dozens of “sports.” But fans and some industry executives fear that pushing efforts like WESA too soon could kill the creative chaos that has fueled e-sports to date.

Still, for several years players who collect six-figure salaries with few contractual protections have talked of forming a union. Team owners, who must fight for spots in high-class leagues and win over sponsors with lean sales forces, have discussed organizing too. And the tournament operators who reel in sponsors and millions of viewers have desired stability.

But until Friday, public progress had been scant. The WESA group kept 15 months of negotiations tight-lipped, inviting few other franchises or teams from the Wild West of e-sports to join as founding members. It was a matter of focus and aligning with long-standing, thriving companies, officials said.

Its effort could end up causing further rift in e-sports, though.

As word of WESA’s existence leaked on online forums this week, fans who on average spend more than $200 annually on merchandise, match tickets and prize sponsorships responded with fear and disgust. Fans want e-sports to grow and its players to become global stars like Kobe Bryant or Clayton Kershaw, but not at the expense of losing the openness and wackiness that has defined competitive video gaming’s early years.

In particular, fans expressed concern that ESL’s inclusion in WESA would restrict teams to playing in tournaments run by the company, which is the world’s largest e-sports events promoter.

Fringuelli and ESL Chief Executive Ralf Reichert said WESA is more inclusive than that. Members will approve individual teams to participate in any tournament that meets its standards, and they still aim to attend all major events, including those hosted by ESL rivals such as Faceit and Dreamhack.

ESL’s “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” pro league is the first sanctioned event, and at least four other companies run similar “CS: GO” leagues.

Among the demands is that teams get a share of tournament revenue, which isn’t always the case today. WESA’s staff will be funded also by capturing some revenue from tournaments it sanctions.

“We feel that partnering with the teams and incentivizing them on the success of the league creates a win-win model,” Reichert said.

WESA declined to immediately provide copies of its bylaws and other founding documents.

Franchises and leagues that disagree with WESA’s regulations could form separate organizations, causing further tumult in e-sports. Industry executives said it’s hard to predict the ramifications of WESA’s launch, but they generally welcome any move toward standardization.

WESA could command influence because its teams are collectively worth about $25 million based on sponsorship sales, winnings and brand name, according to SuperData Research. Each of the first eight franchises has won a recent major championship or ranks among top performers annually. It’s a solid starting point for forging relationships with broadcasters, sponsors and governments, Reichert said.

The group’s policies largely borrow from soccer leagues and lessons that Reichert learned while reading through the $100 textbook “The Business of Sports.”

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WESA’s governing board will meet regularly over Skype. Ten working groups of three members each, plus lawyers, are tackling specific issues like the player contract template. Each team is represented on a player council, which elects a player representative to the governing board.

Players will “get a real say in decisions that directly influence us” for the first time, said Virtus.Pro athlete Wiktor Wojtas, who has competed professionally for more than a decade.

The hope is to avoid situations that have marred competitive video gaming, like owners missing payments to players, event promoters hogging profits and doping and betting scandals.

Three-member arbitration panels will step in to decide disputes, with owners still debating how to train more arbiters in e-sports’ intricacies. Each side in a dispute will choose an arbiter, who together will decide their final colleague.

The eight WESA teams are Fnatic, Natus Vincere, EnVyUs, Virtus.Pro, Gamers2, Faze, mousesports and Ninjas in Pyjamas.

That night in Poland, Fringuelli recalled a rare sight on the always-serious face of Fnatic Chief Executive Wouter Sleijffers: a smile.

“You could see that he saw big things ahead,” the interim commissioner said.

paresh.dave@latimes.com

Twitter: @peard33

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