The Korea e-Sports Association, often abbreviated KeSPA, is a South Korean organization established to manage e-Sports in South Korea. The organisation oversees more than twenty e-sports, including StarCraft: Brood War. KeSPA was influential in elevating the e-Sports brand, managing television and online broadcasts, and the formation of new events, commercializing it in the process. Although the era under KeSPA-governance enabled Brood War tournaments to feature some of the largest prize pools in e-Sports history with many professional players signing lucrative contracts, KeSPA found itself embroiled in a number of controversies over the years.
KeSPA was founded in 2000 after the approval of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. For more than ten years, the KeSPA oversaw the Korean Starcraft: Brood War professional scene. It was formed largely to represent the interests of the various professional Korean teams, with KeSPA by and large composed of representatives from the corporate sponsors of the pro-teams (e.g. SK Telecom T1, KTF, etc.). For example, the SK Telecom representative led the board of directors starting in 2008. Beyond these representatives, who were part of KeSPA's board of directors, KeSPA operated with a variety of managerial staff to handle day-to-day operations.
KeSPA regulates e-Sports broadcasting by channels, such as the two major StarCraft channels, OnGameNet and MBCGame, and later, the online streaming service, GOMtv. Both OnGameNet and MBCGame had their own professional leagues, the OnGameNet Starleague (OSL) and the MBCGame StarCraft League (MSL). KeSPA was instrumental in urging OnGameNet and MBCGame to cooperate for the Proleague team event, including supporting a team of custom map makers specifically for team competition.
KeSPA operated the Brood War pro-gamer registration system. Players seeking to compete in most professional tournaments, including the OSL and MSL had to acquire a pro-gaming license. This was either obtained by competing in the qualifier tournaments that were held multiple times in a year or through endorsement by a professional Brood War team. New players frequently were signed by teams through a Rookie Draft.
KeSPA also published a monthly ranking of pro-gamers based on their results in KeSPA-sanctioned leagues, called the KeSPA Ranking.
Dispute between KeSPA and OGN/MBCGame over Proleague Rights
The Proleague was a team-based competition that initially existed, from 2003-2004, as two separate team leagues orchestrated by OGN and MBCGame. With prodding from KeSPA, the two networks forged by an alliance in 2005 to co-broadcast the tournament, recognizing the cooperation made financial sense as the two networks were finding operations of two independent leagues to be cost-prohibitive. In sharing the broadcast, OGN and MBCGame managed operations largely by themselves as they built the infrastructure and provided the venues (ranging from television studios to sports stadiums), maps, schedules, advertising, promotion, etc, while KeSPA took on a lot of the financial obligations with respect to acquiring corporate sponsorship, as well as regulating game play by players, teams and referees.
In February 2007, news emerged that KeSPA claimed the broadcast rights to the Proleague and wanted to commercialize these rights. Leasing the broadcasting rights to competitions had emerged as a lucrative and common practice in professional sports, including the Olympics, football, basketball, etc, where a broadcaster paid the organizing body and rights-holder various fees for the the right to televise and/or stream an event, or series of events. For example, NBC Sports signed a series of multi-billion dollar contracts with the International Olympic Committee to secure the rights to broadcast the next several Olympic games in the United States.
As KeSPA sought to sell these broadcast rights, OGN and MBCGame, by and large, balked at having to pay KeSPA for rights they felt they already had, by virtue of their having operated and cultivated the popular Proleague into its present state, as well as intimating their concerns over their limited financial means as, by and large, small, niche cable networks. Unable to negotiate a contract with the two networks, KeSPA put the broadcast rights up for auction, with IEG winning the auction as the sole bidder. IEG was a sports marketing and management company who also owned the professional gaming team, eSTRO. In mid-March 2007, news surfaced of protracted negotiations between KeSPA, IEG and OGN and MBCGame, with the two broadcasters seeking, in effect, to sub-contract broadcasting rights from IEG, but citing the fees demanded were too exorbitant.
Concurrently, KeSPA, siding with IEG, worked with the pro-gaming teams to forbid their players' participation in the preliminaries of MBCGame's 2007 GOMTV MSL Season 2, effectively playing its trump card as it directly retaliated against MBCGame. Thus, with the next Proleague, the 2007 Shinhan Bank Proleague Round 1 scheduled for early April 2007, a tense situation developed where the uncertainty over the future of the Proleague drew concern from not only pro-gaming players and teams, fans, and casual spectators, but perhaps mostly importantly, corporate sponsors, who may elect to provide financial backing to other available ventures, thus threatening the future of professional StarCraft.
Corporate sponsors, such as Shinhan Bank, began to express their concern, as did fans, who had become increasingly agitated, staged protests and posted complaints on KeSPA forums. Finally, in late March 2007, the parties announced an agreement had been reached between OGN, MBCGame, IEG, and KeSPA, to enable to resumption of Proleagues, as well as the MSL preliminaries. Although the terms were not revealed, it is believed the two networks agreed to contract the broadcast rights from IEG and KeSPA, with royalties paid for derivative works, such as VODs.
Dispute between KeSPA (and OGN/MBCGame) and Blizzard
In 2007, KeSPA began charging OGN and MBCGame for licensing fees, effectively through the broadcasting rights sold to IEG, which then sub-contracted out the rights to the two broadcasters. Shortly thereafter, Blizzard Entertainment begins contacting KeSPA concern this licensing as they felt Blizzard's copyrights/intellectual property, or IP, had been violated. KeSPA felt they had managed and cultivated the StarCraft e-Sports brand from the ground up for the past several years into the blooming business it had become with minimal if any support from Blizzard, such that now that the game's market and brand had become lucrative, Blizzard decided it wanted to reap some of the financial benefits.
Concurrently, Blizzard was communicating with Gretech, who operated and owned GOMtv, and the streaming content provider had largely recognized Blizzard's IP rights. Blizzard also supported the broadcaster by contributing significantly towards its GOM Starleague prize purses. Officially, KeSPA stopped sanctioning GOM's Starleagues, claiming that it overworked the players, but giving pro-teams the option to participate. A few of the teams stopped participating, and GOM leagues stopped. Speculation arose suggesting that KeSPA was taking vengeance against GOM for siding with Blizzard.
In April 2010, Blizzard broke off negotiations with KeSPA, noting little to no progress had been made in the past three years. KeSPA responded publicly, breaking a pre-determined Non-Disclosure Agreement, or NDA, in the process, stating that Blizzard was requests were too exorbitant. According to KeSPA, Blizzard was asking prior approval to all league such as contracting sponsorship, marketing materials, broadcasting plans, licensing fees for running of leagues, ownership of all broadcasted programs and derived works, such as VODs, and the right to audit KeSPA. KeSPA also stated in this response that they were willing to pay a "reasonable" fee in potentially arriving at a compromise. With StarCraft II being released, fans speculated that Blizzard was making a stand with Brood War to ensure their IP and copyrights would be properly recognized, as well as to have better control over financial implications of what would likely be successful sequel.
In May 2010, with negotiations having broken off, Blizzard announced it had provided exclusive rights for both Brood War and StarCraft II to Gretech with a term limit of three years. With Gretech having acquired broadcasting rights, they initiated contact with the various parties in June 2010, but until August 2010, are unable to communicate effectively with KeSPA, OGN, or MBCGame. KeSPA and Gretech enter into an NDA to formally negotiate, while OGN manages to sign an agreement for the 2010 Korean Air OSL. MBCGame intimated that the financial burden was too great and ended both of their running leagues before August 2010.
From August to October 2010, negotiations continue, but no long term compromises were reached. One of the most contentious points appeared to be over scheduling, as Gretech wanted its GOM Starleague tournament to be broadcasted during prime time slots, thus shifting the Proleague, but KeSPA refused.
Unable to reach a settlement, in late November and December 2010, Blizzard would issue statements on the matter, stating their wishes to have their intellectual property rights properly addressed and licensed. Blizzard apparently stepped into the GOM and KeSPA/OGN/MBCGame negotations and demanded that KeSPA agree to Blizzard's original demands with respect to derivative works -- that is, Blizzard owns 100% of the rights.
Soon thereafter, a number of lawsuits were initiated by Blizzard against MBCGame and OGN. The broadcasters effectively wanted to contest the magnitude of rights Blizzard actually have over derivative works as the original author.
In March 2011, GOM gave up exclusive rights to Brood War, amidst the various legal proceedings, announcing that they relinquished tournament operation and broadcasting rights back to Blizzard Entertainment. Effectively, with the inability to find a compromise between GOMtv and the existing game broadcasting companies, and thus an inability to commercialize on the rights, GOM stepped away from the situation, likely with a cost savings. Some speculated Blizzard was exerting its influence on GOM as it recognized that a compromise with KeSPA was near, amidst the various legal proceedings.
In May 2011, after several court-ordered mediation sessions, the dispute was finally settled, allowing OGN and MBCGame to officially broadcast Brood War officially. Blizzard had recognized the rights of KeSPA, pro-gaming teams, MBCGame and OGN with respect to running Starcraft: Brood War Tournaments and ownership rights of derivative works. As such, KeSPA and the broadcasting stations can run tournaments as they saw fit, and Blizzard would not restrict the sales of any derivative works that is created from tournaments. Meanwhile, KeSPA and the broadcasting stations would pay Blizzard a licensing fee for use of the game, as well as place Blizzard's logo during the contests. The license fee will be a yearly fee paid to Blizzard by KeSPA, OGN, and MBCGame, separately.
"Free Agency" Period Controversy
On August 11 2009, KeSPA announced the first ever "free agency" period for its governed players from August 12-31, 2009, where professional players had opportunity to negotiate with another team. The period allow pro-gaming teams to sign and employ players for a contracted duration of time, as well as guarantee players' rights to sign with other teams after their contract had expired.
It is of note that the "free agency" terminology is very loosely used, with the terms for signing with a new team being highly restrictive, including requiring the player to have participated in a prescribed number of games over a prescribed period of time, and most importantly, being highly punitive in requiring the signing team to pay re-compensation or transfer fees to the player's former team, as detailed below.
To be eligible for free agency, players must have played a minimum amount of team games. They were required to have appeared in over 25% of regular season Proleague games (excluding playoffs) since 2005. Appearing in a team's lineup counts as an appearance, even if the player did not actively play a game. Additionally, players were required to have been active for the following number of years after June 27, 2006:
- Pro-gamers registered before June 27, 2006: Three years.
- Pro-gamers on non-corporate teams: Four years.
- Pro-gamers on corporate teams: Five years.
The re-compensation or transfer fee rules were particularly punitive. Teams that wish to acquire free agents must either 1) Repay 200% of the pro-gamer's existing annual salary to their original team, or 2) Repay 100% of the pro-gamer's annual salary to the original team and, also, sign over one player to the original team (excluding six players on their protected players list). These re-compensation rules appeared to directly target the players with the most lucrative contracts, as it only applied to pro-gamers who earn more than ₩50,000,000 KRW per year, with those earning less being excused from it. Furthermore, players were restricted to negotiating a contract with the team that bids the highest amount, rather than their teams of choice. Notably, players were not allowed to employ agents.
The list of players eligible for the Free Agency period were:
- Hwaseung - Jaedong, HiyA
- SKTelecom - Bisu, Midas, iloveoov, Canata
- Samsung - Stork, JangBi, TT, firebathero, oDin
- KT Fingerboom - fOrGG, Shine, Luxury, 815, FireFist, Nal_rA
- MBCGame - Sea, Light, Saint, HyuN, Pusan
- CJ - sAviOr, Iris, Much
- Hite - go.go, YellOw(ArnC)
- Estro - UpMaGiC, SangHo, TesteR
- STX소울 - Hwasin, Calm, July, Kal, SoO
- WeMade - NaDa, Mind
- Woongjin - free, GGPlay
Although most star players, including Jaedong and Bisu, returned to their original teams, the free agency period caused much consternation, with protracted and, frequently acrimonious, negotiations between players, parents, teams, and KeSPA.
Transition to StarCraft II
At the beginning of the StarCraft II beta phase, Blizzard Entertainment tried to promote its new game directly to the teams and players of the Brood War pro scene, but the invitation was turned down by most of the invites and the event was cancelled. This was perceived as the sign of a power struggle between Blizzard and the KeSPA. In April, Blizzard stated that, after three years of fruitless negotiations with the KeSPA, it was going to cease the talks and begin looking for a new partner in South Korea. The KeSPA put the blame on its American counterpart, and the two organisations seemed to be unable of working together. It then appeared that the KeSPA wouldn't take any role in the upcoming StarCraft II professional scene, as, on May 26th 2010, Blizzard and GOMtv signed a partnership agreement giving to this channel exclusive rights to broadcast e-Sports matches of Blizzard games for the next three years.
Subsequently, the KeSPA kept overseeing the Brood War events in South Korea, while GOMtv organised and broadcast the main Korean StarCraft II individual and team leagues. However, the Brood War scene suffered a series of losses in 2011 and 2012, with the end of the MSL and the reorientation of MBCGame channel toward music videos, as well as of the disbanding of three major teams (MBCGame HERO, WeMade FOX and Hwaseung Oz).
In May 2012, KeSPA announced plans to integrate Brood War and StarCraft II competitions with help from the two major broadcasters, OnGameNet and GOMTV, and Blizzard Many of the most recognized KeSPA players had started playing, if not entirely migrating to, StarCraft II by July 2012.
KeSPA's transition continued in September 2012, with its monthly rankings incorporating StarCraft II activity. The 2012 Proleague and OSL, both sanctioned by KeSPA, marked the first year StarCraft II was included in the premier team and individual tournaments in Brood War history, before Brood War was removed completely in the next iteration of the leagues.
Match Fixing Scandal of 2010
In April 2010, reports surfaced of collusion between pro-players and illegal betting services to rig professional league matches. From 2008-2009, a number of former pro-gaming actors, including ex-players, coaches, and journalists, worked with these betting sites to coordinate and pay various pro-gamers to rig various matches. KeSPA was reported to have discovered the situation and attempted to communicate with some of these brokers to the control the situation, without success. The authorities then investigated the collusion, accessing bank records, phone and electronic records, while a long lists of potential pro-gamers, including some of the most popular and successful at the time, such as Bisu, Jaedong, Fantasy, and sAviOr, were leaked.
Although most of the initially leaked list were not implicated, by May 2010, over a dozen players were found guilty and/or admitted to their participation. KeSPA was instrumental in banning players involved in what would be referred to as the Match Fixing Scandal, with several forced to retire.
Sponsorship of Team 8
In late 2011, with some sponsors having turned away from existing team sponsorship, due to waning fan interest, concerns about corporate affiliation with Brood War after the aforementioned match fixing scandal, or other reasons, KeSPA announced it had secured sponsorship and the organization itself would be forming the professional Brood War team Team 8, a so-called featuring the likes of Jaedong, Sea, and Mind.
Banning of Players during Competition
Over time KeSPA has stirred up controversy among fans, players, and coaches over its practice in its judgment on rules. The most controversial type of disqualifications have been over sending chat messages, such that only gg and ppp were allowed in KeSPA-sanctioned events. Some of the notable players who have been disqualified are Leta and GoRush. Many people on the Internet have displayed their discontent regarding these disciplinary actions against the players.
- What is KeSPA
- KeSPA at Wikipedia
- Esports earnings ranking of games
- 2008 Top Pro-gamer salaries
- KeSPA as a negative influence
- KeSPA and OGN MBCGame Proleague rights
- KeSPA introduction from official KeSPA website
- KeSPA composition described in Proleague controversy
- KeSPA map making support
- 2009 KeSPA rookie draft
- KeSPA auctioning off Proleague
- Sports broadcasting rights contracts
- NBC and Olympics
- KeSPA IEG auction, rebuffed by MBCGame OGN
- OGN and MBCGame negotiations under way with IEG
- Ongoing broadcasting rights negotiations with OGN and MBCGame
- Proleague negotiating terms
- Proleague compromise reached after protracted negotiations
- OGN and MBCGame agreement with KeSPA over Proleague
- MBCGame and OGN agreement continued
- Blizzard partners with GOM
- Blizzard ceases KeSPA negotiations
- KeSPA speaks out over impasse with Blizzard
- GOMTV and Blizzard sign contract
- KeSPA responds to Blizzard
- Gretech deadlocked with broadcasters and KeSPA
- Gretech and KeSPA NDA
- Gretech and OGN sign for OSL rights
- MBC claims exorbitant costs
- MBCGame claims Gretech not familiar with television broadcasting
- Gretech and KeSPA em passe
- KeSPA Gretech and MBCGame talks break down
- Gretech continue and shift scheduling for KeSPA events
- Gretech and KeSPA negotiate terms
- Gretech and KeSPA cease
- Gretech's official stance
- Gretech claims negotiations over, KeSPA claims otherwise
- KeSPA negotiating in good faith
- KeSPA trying best to compromise
- Blizzard news conference defend matter
- KeSPA responds to accusations from Blizzard
- Blizzard Sues MBCGame Game
- Blizzard Sues OGN
- First/Second Court Session
- Third Court Session
- GOM exclusive rights given up
- Blizzard KeSPA officially reach agreement
- KeSPA and Blizzard officially near
- Kespa free agency
- List of 2009 free agents
- Jaedong father expresses frustrations and retirement possibility
- Free agency signings
- Controversy surrounding KeSPA free agency
- Players free agency wrap-up
- "Pro-game teams snub Blizzard?". TL.net, 3 March 2010.
- "Blizzard to cease negotiations with KeSPA". TL.net, 25 April 2010.
- "KeSPA Speaks Out On Intellectual Property Rights". TL.net, 4 May 2010.
- "GOM TV/Blizzard Sign Exclusive Broadcast Agreement". TL.net, 27 May 2010
- Integration announcement KeSPA at TL
- TL thread on KeSPA stars migration
- TL thread on September KeSPA rankings
- Starcraft gambling news
- List of Starcraft progamers being investigated
- Match fixing scandal conclusion
- TL thread on KeSPA banning match fixers
- KeSPA announces Dream Team and sponsors
- KeSPA new rules on what can be typed in games
- Nal_rA Disqualified
- RuBy disqualified
- Leta disqualified