How Can Esport Athletes Control Their Careers?

What started out as a generation of kids playing video games in their dimly lit basements has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry. The world of esports has quickly become a world encompassing movement. The advancement of technology has allowed those kids to start playing ‘together’ by linking them to the world wide web; kids on opposite sides of the planet were able to compete and communicate with each other.

Those kids had kids, and they had kids too and today some of them are playing on esports teams that resemble the traditional sports teams that their grandparents played on. Esports are here to stay. They are legit. They are recognized. They are monetized.

What the landscape ends up looking like is anybody’s guess. There are so many issues and challenges to be addressed. From Game Developer IP to league franchising to global regulatory consistency to player representation and compensation, the esport industry is reacting and adapting as quickly as it can to its own rapidly evolving landscape.

This blog is for the athletes. Esports athletes find themselves being tossed and turned on the choppy and unruly industry sea. Though they may feel small and, at times, powerless, they have more power than they might think.

There are several organizations that are currently ‘up and running’ with the goal of helping or representing esport athletes. So far, their effectiveness is questionable and the results have been mixed. Let’s look at two examples.       

Counter-Strike Professional Players’ Association (CSPPA)

The CSPPA has been lauded as esports first truly ‘independent’ players’ association. It was started through a collaboration between Scott Smith and the lawyers who established the Danish Elite Athlete Association. The CSPPA was established by athletes, is run by athletes, is funded by athletes and it is for athletes. This is what sets them apart as ‘independent’.  However, as the Developer behind Counter-Strike, Valve is NOT required to listen to this group of players – so in a sense, Valve is ‘allowing’ this player labour group to form.  Valve’s positive relationship with the CSPPA is on the basis of choice.

What Valve understands and values is the competitive ecosystem of Counter-Strike. The fan base and following that are present are, in large part, because of the athletes and teams. As a result, there seems to be a genuine desire by the Developer to work with the athletes (see my previous blog for more on this).

North American League of Legends Championship Series Players Association (NALCSPA)

Contrast that to the NALCSPA, a player association that Game Developer Riot may say is ‘independent’ but in no way has it practically worked itself out as such. The NALCSPA was established by Riot, is run by Riot, is funded by Riot but is for athletes. As long as Riot continues to control NALCSPA’s funding, athletes should be wary of any claim of athlete independence. Some actually question the legality of the organization. How can a Developer start, fund and run an organization that, at times, could stand in direct opposition to the goals and objectives of its parent organization? It’s a massive conflict of interest at the very least.

Why is it so hard?  

The overarching issue with ORGANIZING just about anything in esports is that the landscape is prehistorically volatile. The tectonic plates are shifting, the volcanoes are erupting and the climate is unpredictable at best.

Obstacles to Organizational Structure

  1. Game Lifecycle

Esport games have historically come and gone. Unlike traditional sports, esports have a ‘consumer life span’. They are developed, introduced, adopted and played, then their popularity wanes and they find a spot on a dusty shelf. Few have managed to stand the test of time the way Counter-Strike or League of Legends have. By the time athletes have a chance to organize themselves in an effort to address a key issue, the esport could be gone already.

  1. Developer Attitude

Every Game Developer is different. I have discussed this at length here. Every Developer sees and values their organizational relationships differently. While to one, a player may hold a more central position, to another they may be viewed as much less important. With no legislation or representational body governing the esports industry means it is really up to each Developer to decide how they will treat their athletes, and that will directly affect the opportunities and methods athletes can use to fight for their rights.

  1. Lack of Understanding

There is a general lack of understanding of what a players association might look like or how it might be created. Because of the global nature of esports, players are quite literally from around the world. Some players have seen how a functioning players association might work, some may have never seen or heard of one, and some may have no idea that it is even possible. Even if one exists in one country, how does a player from another country become a member, and who guarantees its protections in their space?

At times and in certain circumstances, athletes also misunderstand the legal language used in their contracts. Many times there are ‘verbal promises’ made in the moment to encourage an athlete to sign, but these promises aren’t always kept over the course of time. This ‘lack of sophistication’ on the part of the athlete is nothing to be ashamed of but it clearly needs to be addressed so that the athlete is protected.  

Each of these obstacles presents their own challenges and will require unique and proactive solutions.

Obstacles in Contract Negotiations

Non-Disclosure Agreements

One of the biggest obstacles for athletes in contract negotiations is teams getting athletes to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs). Countless teams attempt to get prospective athletes to sign these prior to entering contract negotiations or even showing the athletes the proposed contract.  The reality is that many of these esports organizations don’t understand what an NDA really is, what it is used for, what it encompasses or how it is enforced.

An NDA is typically used to keep the signer from communicating three things:

  •       Creativity – The signer can’t share any creative ideas or concepts (IP) that they become privy to, nor can they use that idea or any portion of it for profit.
  •       Criticism – The signer can’t share any negative comments or ill will that might cast the organization in a bad light.
  •       Contract – The signer can’t share the contents of their contract.

While it is probably in the best interest of the athlete to not share contractual information to the public because it may jeopardize ongoing negotiations, they can talk to other athletes with the goal of helping them navigate the process.

NDA’s are really only enforceable (and breached by the signee) when the information within the NDA that is contractually obligated to be kept a “secret” has been disseminated to the point that the “secret” information is no longer “secret”.  Few, if any, NDAs between an athlete and a team have ever been brought to a court of law, where its validity and enforceability would be tested. So, there is no real way of knowing whether these documents are even enforceable from a legal standpoint.

When faced with an NDA, the best thing an athlete can do is simply not sign it, though this may lead to the prospective organization to move on from them.  If that happens it is probably for the best – but it’s difficult to watch the dream of signing a ‘big league’ contract walk away. How does an athlete balance these dreams and the reality of the esports industry?

Though there are many questions…the bottom line is that esport athletes have the ability to help themselves.

Things Athletes Can Do To Improve Their Situation

Communicate. Educate. Advocate.

  1. Disseminate Information About Bad Organizations and Owners

Help up and coming athletes (or any athletes for that matter) avoid the organizations where a documented history of ill-treatment is proven. If an athlete has not received the compensation they were promised or has been treated unfairly, or has experienced racism…they ought to let the world know. Athletes are actually doing a disservice to the well-run, professional esports organizations AND other athletes by not speaking out.  

  1. Salary Disclosure

This is exactly what it says…literally disclosing your salary. Though it is a touchy subject for some athletes and organizations, it can actually be a win for the entire industry if implemented correctly. Communicating what you, as an athlete, are being offered by an organization with another person who is in the same process as you, or on the same team as you, helps you understand how an organization is valuing your ability. Learning about what other organizations are paying also helps the athlete understand how they are valuing their players and gives more insight into how the organization they are negotiating with will value and treat them.

  1. Talk Terms with Teammates

Athletes should be talking with each other about the contents of their contracts. This goes far beyond monetary compensation and includes all aspects of the contract including competitive demands, sponsorship potential, schedule requirements, etc. An athlete who becomes aware of contractual differences may be able to address them in future negotiations.

  1. Get Legal Advice

This is not simply asking your friend or your esports ‘agent’ to look at a contract. There are lawyers and firms now who are more than happy to look at athlete contracts free of charge. Try to find a lawyer or firm who has experience in the esport world. They will be the best equipped to navigate and address issues and concerns.

As we saw with the Tfue cause of action, law firms and lawyers who do not live esports every day, do not understand the state of the industry, how the economics of esports organizations work, or the lack of leverage athletes have when dealing with the organizations themselves.  

 

Athletes…

Educate yourself on your contract. Have a lawyer walk you through it in order to understand the clauses, what the team expects of you, what rights you are gaining and what rights you are signing away. At the VERY least this will help you navigate your time with the team – if nothing else.

My DMs are always open, you can get in contact with me on Twitter (@ECheese92), Discord (Eliott Cheeseman#8347) or through the email on my website: www.ecesports.gg. Whatever your situation economically, professionally or contractually, I’m more than HAPPY to lend a hand to athletes at any level who are looking for help. It’s my passion and goal to provide that help regardless of your circumstances.   

Thanks for reading my blog. The above content is not legal advice but observation about the vast esports field. If you have any questions or comments or would like to schedule me to speak at your event, head over to my website www.ecesports.gg  

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