Are Professional Gamers Getting Played?
ESports, or competitive video gaming, has exploded in popularity in recent years. Professional video game players compete against each other for prize pools, drawing millions of viewers online and in live arenas. In 2017, the global eSports economy is projected to reach $696 million (up 41% from 2016), with a global audience of 385 million viewers.1 Some owners of traditional sports teams have begun to buy eSports teams in anticipation of the growing market, and some colleges have even begun offering athletic scholarships to competitive video game players.2
What once consisted mostly of independently organized tournaments, competitive video gaming leagues now see much greater developer involvement, many who also view eSports as a vehicle to advertise their game.3 Although the rise of eSports is a global phenomenon, three game publishers based in the United States currently dominate the industry: Riot Games (League of Legends), Valve (Dota, Counter-Strike) and Blizzard (Starcraft).4.
The ESports industry is similar to traditional sports in many ways, but one major difference between them is that video game publishers own the intellectual property of the game itself, while a traditional sports league like the NFL does not own the game of football.5 This arrangement gives game publishers great control over teams, leagues and players. For example, game publishers can impose bans or fines on players and teams that cannot be appealed, unlike in many leagues for traditional sports.6
ESports competitors feel the effects of this power structure in several ways. There are no unions to protect them, league contracts are usually not available for the public to view, and the players themselves are often inexperienced in contract negotiation as most eSports competitors are either teenagers, or in their early-mid-twenties.7 As a result, players sometimes find themselves in restrictive contracts, or are mistreated by their teams.8 League contracts often restrict players’ ability to move between leagues or to different games, which minimizes their bargaining power and potential income.9 Some teams prohibit players from having boyfriends or girlfriends and limit their ability to visit home to a few times a year.10
Although the eSports industry is still up and coming, the protection of player interests will play a role in the long-term growth of the industry.11 Many possible solutions have been raised to protect player interests in the United States, including unionization, player education, as well as government regulation.12 Game developers, with the power they hold as intellectual property owners, have the ability to take a larger role in this as well.13 Riot Games, publisher of the popular League of Legends, has mandated that teams participating in its North American and European League Championship Series contractually employ players and coaching staff beginning in 2017, making them eligible for employee benefits. 14 Some teams already employ their players as employees, but the majority of players are deemed as independent contractors.15 While publishers stepping in for players appears to be a promising sign, some commentators suggest that this was a pre-emptive move to prevent players from filing lawsuits citing Department of Labor violations.16
https://www.law360.com/articles/895515/esports-still-struggling-with-top-heavy-power-structure [https://perma.cc/QX8D-QRJV]; http://www.espn.com/esports/story/_/id/15577117/power-dynamics-esports-role-publisher [http://perma.cc/8K4N-DFCF].↩
http://abcnews.go.com/Sports/power-dynamics-esports-developing-alternative-dispute-resolution/story?id=39315885 [https://perma.cc/Y6WG-C3ZF]; Katherine E. Hollist, Time to Be Grown-Ups About Video Gaming: The Rising ESports Industry and the Need for Regulation, 57 Ariz. L. Rev. 823, 836 (2015).↩
Hollist, supra note 6, at 834.↩
Hollist, supra note 6, at 829.↩
Jas Purewal & Isabel Davies, The eSports Explosion: Legal Challenges and Opportunities, 9 Landslide, 2016, at 28.↩
Id.; Hollist, supra note 6, at 839-47.↩
Id.; Purewal & Davies, supra note 11, at 28.↩