Moving Into The Mainstream: Esport’s Overwatch League Mandates Player Contracts

Source: Wikimedia Commons Marco Verch

By Stephen Keegan

This fall, players from across the globe will gather in California to compete in the newest World Cup: Blizzard’s unique, team-based video game, Overwatch. With a global appeal to rival European Football, and prize pools pushing into the multiple millions[1], esports are certainly more than just a hobby for those who did not make peewee football as a child. But, as the six bright-eyed players from each national team sit at their bank of monitors in November, one question still presents many issues: what is the player’s worth and how can they assure they are being properly valued? Blizzard Entertainment, the creator of Overwatch and owners of the newly minted Overwatch League, has addressed this question by adding minimum requirements for player contracts.[2] The players will be compensated a minimum of $50,000 a year, receive health benefits, and an equitable share of prize pools.[3] As esports moves into the mainstream, reasonable and public player contracts have become of rising importance.[4]

Esport teams have received negative press in the past about young players being swindled by unscrupulous owners looking to exploit young athletes for profit. In 2016, a player’s blog showed that his esport team, ironically named “Team Secret,” which was started by former esport athletes in the name of creating a more player friendly environment, withheld player earnings from tournament awards.[5] Taking to social media, EternaLEnVy (sic) claimed that some players on the team were owed as much as $182,000 USD.[6]  Additionally, after all players were promised there was to be no “team cut” of the prize money, it turned out the team was taking  10% of all prizes without informing the players.[7]

Now, as legitimacy becomes a priority in the scene,[8] it seems Overwatch is willing to step up to provide oversight. However, Blizzard is not alone in looking to develop a sustainable player ecosystem. Riot Games, developers of League of Legends (LoL) and operators of the North American League Championship Series (NA LCS) have also taken steps to protect players and teams alike.[9] The more veteran game has taken a slightly different approach by stipulating maximum years for contracts, banning non-compete clauses, and encouraging flexible termination rights vested in the players.[10] Additionally, Riot Games has increased their minimum salary for next year from $25,000 to $75,000 per year.[11]

Mandatory contract terms are not unfamiliar to those in the professional sport scene, with many major league sports having their own player unions.[12] However, in the fledgling scene of esports, the requirements are nascent, if present at all.[13] Concerns often surface in the Major Leagues around draft time.[14] New players, some of them pulled straight from college, are inundated with offers and promises from agents and teams making them feel important and powerful, while also exposing them to terrible risk.[15] Now, when the players haven’t finished high school yet, let alone any higher education, the concerns seem even more real.[16]  Looking at landmark decisions like Shields v. Gross,[17] we know that parents can legally contract on behalf of their infant dependents, but in a new, and constantly changing, environment like esports, a parent may not know what are optimal terms for their child. The decision by Blizzard to create and publicize their minimum requirements is a strong step in the right direction to prevent the exploitation of these athletes.[18] Further, as big names start to invest in esport franchises,[19] it is imperative that they make safe investments that are not at high risk to fail due to unsafe, or exploitative working conditions for the players.

This development is a step forward for esports as a whole; who have fought for legitimacy since its inception.[20] Currently, major broadcasters are airing esports in prime-time spots[21] and games are attracting big name sponsors outside of the gaming industry, such as former professional athletes like Magic Johnson and Alex Rodriguez,[22] as well as corporations like Red Bull and Coca-Cola.[23]  Potentially, these athletes could be competing alongside more traditional sports at the highest non-professional level in the near future.[24]

[1] Arthur Gies, Here are the winners of Valve’s $24 million 2017 International Dota 2 Championships The 2017 International, polygon (Aug. 12, 2017 9:12pm) https://www.polygon.com/2017/8/12/16136964/dota-2-ti7-winners-international. Dota 2 Championship had a total prize pool of over 24 million USD, with the first-place team receiving over 10 million USD.

[2] Player Signings, Salaries, and More in the Overwatch League, blizzard entm’t (Jul. 26, 2017), https://overwatchleague.com/en-us/news/20937016.

[3] Id.

[4] Frank Fields, How to Legitimize Esports, ign (Jul. 26, 2011) http://www.ign.com/articles/2011/07/26/how-to-legitimize-esports.

[5] EternaLEnVy, A Secret Story, np game blog (Oct. 9, 2016) http://archive.is/4OEUP.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] E.g. Paul Tassi, The U.S. Now Recognized eSports Players as Professional Athletes, forbes (Jul. 14, 2013 11:27 AM) https://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2013/07/14/the-u-s-now-recognizes-esports-players-as-professional-athletes/#51de29143ac9.

[9] Thiemo Bräutigam, Riot’s New LCS Player Contracts – A Legal Analysis, esport observer (Nov. 20, 2015) https://esportsobserver.com/riots-new-lcs-player-contracts-a-legal-analysis/.

[10]  Id.

[11] Callum Leslie, LCS Franchising: The Revenue Sharing Model Explained, dot esports: league of legends (Jun. 1, 2017, 3:46pm) https://dotesports.com/league-of-legends/lcs-franchising-revenue-14975.

[12] Cork Gains, Take A Close Look At An Actual Major League Baseball Contract, bus. insider (Apr. 6, 2011, 2:29 PM) http://www.businessinsider.com/uniform-major-league-baseball-contract-2011-4.

[13]See Pete Lewin, Why Every Esports Player Needs a Contract, the esports observer (Nov. 21, 2016), https://esportsobserver.com/every-esports-player-needs-contract/.

[14] See e.g., Andrew Brant, Football’s Other Recruiting, sports illustrated (Dec. 19, 2013) https://www.si.com/2013/12/19/nfl-agents-recruit-draft-prospects.

[15]  Id.

[16] See Jeffrey E. Brand & Steward Todhunter, Digital Australia Report 2016 at 9, interactive games & entm’t ass’n, (Jul. 2015) http://www.igea.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Digital-Australia-2016-DA16-Final.pdf  (Stating while the average age for professional gamers is in the mid-twenties, most leagues allow players as young as seventeen to participate).

[17] Sheilds v. Gross, 448 N.E.2d 108, 108 (N.Y. 1983) (holding that a minor’s assent to a contract, affirmed by the parent, is a validly enforceable contract).

[18] Thiemo Bräutigam, Riot’s New LCS Player Contracts – A Legal Analysis, esport observer (Nov. 20, 2015) https://esportsobserver.com/riots-new-lcs-player-contracts-a-legal-analysis/.

[19] See generally Overwatch League Welcomes First Seven Teams, blizzard entm’t (Jul. 12, 2017) (listing the first League Teams, notably Jeff Wilpon, COO of the NY Mets, and Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, have bought teams in their respective cities) https://overwatchleague.com/en-us/news/20890515.

[20] Frank Fields, How to Legitimize Esports, ign (Jul. 26, 2011) http://www.ign.com/articles/2011/07/26/how-to-legitimize-esports.

[21] E.g., espn: esports http://www.espn.com/esports/.

[22] Saira Mueller, The Most High-Profile Investments in Esports Teams So Far, dot esports (Sep. 29, 2016) https://dotesports.com/general/the-biggest-investments-esports-3871.

[23] John Gaudiosi, Big Brands Gravitating Towards Esports, fortune (Jul 24, 2014) http://fortune.com/2014/07/24/esports-sponsors/.

[24] Rob Harris, Paris Open to Esports on 2024 Olympic Program, associated press (Aug. 8, 2017) https://www.apnews.com/ca6640ffde80403ea17f339247192324.

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