Man behind Toronto WNBA bid still owes money from failed esports venture

One of the co-founders of a bid to bring a WNBA team to Toronto recently ran an esports organization that unceremoniously folded without paying some of its players.

People once involved with Daniel Escott — who before this bid was the founder and CEO of Iceberg Competitive Esports — say they severely doubt he has the ability to help net Canada its first WNBA team.

Escott, for his part, says he understands those concerns, and is steadfast that his group’s bid is on the right track. But people from the competitive gaming industry aren’t so sure.

“They didn’t have the money, they didn’t have the investors, they didn’t have [the] cash, they just had empty promises,” said Sean Luellen, a former marketing director for multiple esports organizations.

“I wouldn’t be the first one to jump on board a team with that.”

Back in late 2017 and early 2018, Luellen said, he was in talks to join Iceberg as its marketing coordinator. He jumped ship after news about the organization not paying players started to surface.

Esports organizations like Iceberg act as a middle man for professional video game players. They sign streamers (people who host video streams of themselves playing games) to their rosters as well as entire teams that go to gaming tournaments to compete in person.

The esports organization is generally expected to pay for its team’s flights and accommodations to tournaments, as well as a salary.

In return, the organization sometimes takes a cut of tournament winnings, but also makes money through sponsorships that are promoted on streams and on jerseys that are worn at competitions.

Luellen told CBC News from his home in Maryland that players not getting paid is a big issue in the esports industry.

“Whenever it does happen, people turn really fast,” he said.

Kelsy Medeiros, who competes under the name “SuperGirlKels,” signed with Iceberg in February of 2018.

“They were horrible,” Medeiros told CBC News in a direct Twitter message. “I signed with them with promises of salary paid every month, to be sent to tournaments and more, which they did not fulfil.

“They never paid any of their players, closed down and blocked all of us without any explanation. They were horrible.”

Jonathan Dallal is another onetime Iceberg player in the same boat.

“The way they handled the dissolving of the [organization] and paying back money that was owed was truly amateurish as I never received a dime, and I don’t think any of my ex-teammates did either,” he said.

‘The players have not been paid’

Escott, 23, told CBC Toronto on Monday that players were owed somewhere in the ballpark of $5,000 to $10,000 in total when Iceberg shut down early last year.

“The players have not been paid,” he said. “When the organization folded we liquidated as much as we could, but there really wasn’t much left at that point. We had exhausted every financing option to that point to make anything happen.”

The issue, he says, was Iceberg was “given a commitment from an American investor,” but when the time came to commit to the terms of their contract, “the investor basically ghosted us.”

“The esports ecosystem even to this date is rampant with this sort of thing — investors coming in, thinking they can just own something and dictate its terms without any recompense for or concern for what happens to the people in the organization,” he said.

Escott and his group turned heads in recent weeks when they announced plans to bring a WNBA team to the city by 2020, in the wake of the Raptors’ historic NBA Finals win.

WNBA officials have spoken about expansion in the past, but chief operating officer Christy Hedgpeth did not respond to a request for comment about the bid Monday.

She told CBC news last month that the league has no plans to expand “at this time.”

“We are focused on the overall health and competitiveness of our existing 12 franchises,” she said.

Bid details called a ‘fluid situation’

Escott said when it comes to the WNBA, his organization “will have the investors and the financing” to move the bid forward.

“There’s no way we would even get to the point of announcing the bid in the first place if we didn’t have things like a venue, or corporate partners, or the support of different stakeholders in the community,” he said.

Escott wouldn’t, however, reveal any details about where the team would play, or its supposed backers.

“If I were to announce exactly who we’re working with at this point, we could have a different list in three days,” he said. “There’d be no point in announcing some of that right now, because it’s a fluid situation.”

While the bid’s initial announcement came with much fanfare, criticism is mounting online over a lack of concrete details about it.

“Grassroots esports is … a small bite compared to what I would imagine signing a WNBA team would be,” Luellen said.

“Getting sponsorships on a national scale rather than a small scale like esports is definitely a huge jump.”

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