On May 22, 2015, Riot Games, Inc., creator of League of Legends, announced changes to the League of Legends Championship Series rules. One of the notable changes is the addition of Rule 11.3, the “Best Interests of the LCS” rule. This rule states:
"LCS officials at all times may act with the necessary authority to preserve the best interests of the LCS. This power is not constrained by the lack of any specific language in [these rules]. LCS officials may use any form of punitive actions at their disposal against any entity whose conduct is not within the confines of the best interests of the LCS." (Emphasis added)
These rules are known as “bests interests of the game” clauses, and some derivation of this clause exists in most, if not all, professional sports. This clause is an important addition for Riot, as it grants Riot the authority to act in response to matters which are not explicitly covered by the rules. It also brings Riot’s rules a bit closer to those which exist for professional sports.
Professional sports leagues have used these clauses to punish activity of both players and teams that do not neatly fit into the predefined rules and provisions established through the collective bargaining process. A recent example of such a clause being invoked was Alex Rodriguez’s suspension from Major League Baseball for 211 games (which was later reduced to 162 games) for his use of performance enhancing drugs and attempting to obstruct and frustrate Major League Baseball’s (“MLB”) investigation into his conduct. MLB specifically noted that Rodriguez’s punishment was based upon his violation of the prohibition against using banned substances and the “best interests of the game” clause.
On one hand, the vague nature of a “best interest of the game” clause is necessary because it is impossible to foresee all potentially harmful events and subsequently create a rule barring such activity. However, the broad language of the clause creates the opportunity for abuse, to which there is little recourse, unlike in professional sports. In professional sports, a decision to punish a player by the sport’s commissioner can be challenged in arbitration because the commissioner’s authority is granted by the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players’ union. However, as the LCS Rules are not collectively bargained, Riot has the ability to create and enforce rules as it sees fit, with legal impunity.
What is even more troubling is the fact that Riot explicitly denies appeals for its discipline. Rule 11.1 explicitly states “All decisions regarding the interpretation of the rules…and penalties for misconduct, lie solely with the LCS, the decisions of which are final” and “LCS decisions with respect to these Rules cannot be appealed.” Effectively, the new “best interests of the LCS” rule authorizes Riot a broad disciplinary power to which there is no recourse at law or even an appeal.
At the very least, an appeals process should be implemented to curb some of Riot’s unyielding disciplinary power and grant a modicum of rights to the players. However, as the LCS is not collectively bargained, such a decision would have to come from Riot themselves, which would be unlikely. Given the finality of Riot’s disciplinary system, it will be interesting to see how Riot utilizes this rule in the future.
(This article also appeared on Gods of Mayhem)
Last night, Alex Rodriguez passed Willie Mays for fourth place on Major League Baseball’s all-time homerun list. Much like the baseball fans that deny Rodriguez’s achievements due to his performance enhancing drug use, the Yankees are denying Rodriguez his $6 million bonus for likely the same reason.
Rodriguez’s contract with the New York Yankees contains a rare provision known as a milestone-marketing bonus. This type of provision pays the player a substantial sum for the marketing rights related to milestone accomplishments. The only players to receive such provisions in their contracts in recent memory are Rodriguez and Albert Pujols. Following Pujols’ contract, such milestone-marketing bonuses were banned by Major League Baseball. However, to Pujols’ and Rodriguez’s delight, the ban on such clauses was not retroactive, thus allowing such clauses to remain enforceable.
Pursuant to Rodriguez’s milestone-marketing clause, he was to be paid $6 million for passing Willie Mays on the all-time homerun list. However, Brian Cashman, the Yankees General Manager, has publically stated that they will not pay Rodriguez the $6 million bonus. The Yankees argument is presumably that the bonus payment is contingent upon being able to market the milestone achievement and since Rodriguez was suspended for the 2014 season due to performance enhancing drug violations, the milestones no longer have marketability.
Interestingly, the contract is reportedly clear that the Yankees agree to pay the sum of $6 million, and that “Such payment will be made within fifteen (15) days of its designation of the Milestone Accomplishment under Paragraph 1, above.” The Yankees still have some time to make the payment as indicated in the contract, but if Rodriguez is not paid, he would have to take legal action against the Yankees to get his bonus. This matter would be especially important to Rodriguez, as he may be able to achieve additional designated milestones in his contract, and thus be entitled to more moey.
If Rodriguez were to sue the Yankees, once the fifteen day period expires, he would allege (amongst other causes of action) that the Yankees breached his contract. In order to prove a breach of contract, the following elements must be proved:
1. The existence of a binding contract
2. One of the parties to the contract materially breached the contract
3. The material breach caused damages
Rodriguez’s potential case hinges on element 2. A breach occurs when a party fails to perform its obligations under the contract. However, that definition immediately calls for clarification as to what obligations the breaching party has under the contract. Cashman’s statement, that “We (the Yankees) have the right but not the obligation to do something, and that’s it,” is particularly interesting, as such rights are usually explicitly stated in contracts. Unfortunately, it is impossible to ascertain the validity of such a statement without seeing Rodriguez’s contract.
Understandably, the Yankees are upset that Rodriguez has been implicated in multiple performance enhancing drug scandals. However, whether or not he is owed the $6 million milestone bonus is determined solely by the language of this milestone-marketing addendum to his contract. If the language is as clear as reports have stated, an argument that the bonus is not owed would have to be quite creative, and still may not pass legal muster.
Rodriguez can also file a grievance with the Major League Baseball Players Association. Greg Bouris, spokesman for the Players Association, has already stated “The Union is prepared to intervene on Alex’s behalf.” Despite Rodriguez’s past drug use, the Union would not want any team to establish a precedent of refusing to pay any player a contractually agreed upon amount.
Of course, there is still time for the Yankees to make good on Rodriguez’s bonus. The contract allows for the bonus to be paid within 15 days of the milestone being achieved. Despite Cashman’s comments, it would not be surprising for the Yankees to pay Rodriguez the bonus within the designated window. In effect, the comments would then serve as a way of publically shaming Rodriguez for his conduct. Given Rodriguez’s litigious history, the Yankees have to expect him to take action if he is not paid.
At the beginning of any relationship between an eSports player and their team, a contract should be entered into that describes the services the player is to perform, compensation, and the duration of the agreement, amongst other clauses. Depending upon how this contract is drafted, a player will either be considered an employee of the team or an independent contractor. This distinction is critical in establishing the obligations that a team has to a player and the rights that the player holds. In the eSports business, the trend has been to attempt to classify players as independent contractors.
ESports teams, like many other businesses, would prefer to employ independent contractors instead of employees for several reasons, including:
How Courts Determine Independent Contractor Status
However, what eSports teams may be unaware of is that calling players independent contractors is not enough to actually be considered such. In fact, many of these contracts, if challenged in Court, would be found to create an employee/employer relationship. Due to the overwhelming benefits to a business using independent contractors, Courts have scrutinized independent contractor agreements by utilizing tests to determine whether such a relationship is sufficiently established, or if the agreement instead creates an employee/employer relationship. New York Courts utilize two tests, the first being the Economic Realities Test, which is as follows:
The second test is the Common Law Test, which is as follows:
In both of these tests, the totality of the answers of the above questions will be examined to determine how to classify the parties' working relationship. It is worth noting that these factors are not exhaustive, and the Court may undertake additional inquiry. An example of an additional factor in the eSports context would be whether the player is required to wear a uniform.
Analyzing Player Contracts: Economic Realities Test
Teams typically exert a great amount of control over their players in a variety of ways. This could include booking player travel, requiring players to use equipment provided by team sponsors, requiring players to promote team sponsors, requiring players to be active on social media/Youtube/streaming services, requiring players to live in a team house, and more. This factor is extremely important, as independent contractors are supposed to maintain a great deal of control over their work and environment.
Secondly, players are very invested in the team. Their actions and cooperation with other players are how the players (and team) can profit by winning matches and tournaments. This factor may also weigh against eSports players being found to be independent contractors by a Court. However, the third factor supports the notion that players can be independent contractors, as the work requires highly skilled individuals who may work at their own initiative (in some circumstances).
The fourth factor is completely determined by the contract itself. Generally speaking, the longer or more permanent a contract seems, the more likely it is that they are not an independent contractor.
The fifth and final factor strongly holds in favor of finding an employee/employer relationship, as the players are a crucial component of the team's business. From the totality of the factors within the Economic Realities Test, it appears likely that a professional team would be found to create an employer/employee relationship with its players.
Analyzing Player Contracts: The Common Law Test
The Common Law Test is unclear in this scenario. An argument could be made that the first factor, whether the worker works at his/her convenience, could go either way in Court. Certainly there are things the player must do at certain times (matches, tournaments, etc.) but they may not be on a strict timetable for content creation. This factor would be determinate upon each individual team's practices.
The second factor, whether the worker is free to engage in other employment, slightly holds in favor of an employee/employer relationship. Players can be free to partake in tournaments without their team should the team not participate, but players cannot play for multiple teams in the same events. By default, in those situations a player cannot work for multiple teams.
Fringe benefits is an interesting factor in this analysis, as it can arguably be in favor of or against a finding of an employee relationship, depending upon the specific team's actions. Independent contractors technically should receive no fringe benefits (meals, company car, benefits, etc.). However, if a team allows a player to keep items that were provided by third parties, namely sponsors, or allows the player to live in team subsidized housing, then the player can be said to have received fringe benefits. In those examples, this factor would lean towards the finding of an employee/employer relationship. However, any benefits are team specific.
The fourth factor, whether the player was on the team's payroll is also team dependent, as some teams pay salaries and some do not. Generally, a salaried worker is much more likely to be found to be an employee and not an independent contractor.
The last factor in this test, whether the worker was on a fixed schedule, is very similar to the first factor. As stated in analyzing the applicability of the first factor to the eSports team/player relationship, this factor can go either way.
Importantly, the Court can examine additional factors to each test. A factor that has been employed by New York Courts was whether the worker is required to wear a uniform. In the eSports context, a uniform can be said to be a team's jersey. This factor could realistically go either way in determining whether an employee/employer relationship exists. Although players are largely required to wear team jerseys at events, many, if not most, are not required to do so when creating content.
Effectively, players who are classified by a team as being independent contractors may not be held to be independent contractors by the Court, if their contract is challenged. Should the Court find that an employee/employer relationship exists, then a team loses all benefits of hiring the player at independent contractor status and is then subject to the totality of laws involving employee/employer relations. Therefore, the team would incur increased costs and liability. Although each State's law will differ as to how these contracts are analyzed, it appears that there are strong arguments to be made under New York law that eSports players are actually employees of their teams and entitled to benefits as such.
Recently, strong allegations have surfaced that eSports is suffering from a performance enhancing drug ("PED") use problem. These PEDs are not the steroids and human growth hormones of other sports, but are instead neuroenhancers.
These kinds of drugs (Adderall, Ritalin, Selegiline, etc.) are known as "smart drugs" due to their abilities to enhance focus, calmness, and act as stimulants, which debatably enhance performance in professional gaming. Although there appears to be much confusion as to whether such neuroenhancers are banned from professional gaming (a quick Google search reveals many questions on the topic and few actual answers), if it is banned, there appears to be little enforcement as noted in the link above.
Irrespective of neuroenhancers' status as potentially banned substances in professional gaming, utilizing such substances can have an impact upon a player's/team's existing sponsorship agreements.
As I noted previously, sponsorship agreements generally contain morals clauses. A morals clause allows a sponsor the opportunity to cancel a sponsorship should the athlete or team act in a way that is harmful or damaging to the sponsoring brand. In other words, morals clauses allow sponsors a means of exiting a sponsorship agreement with an athlete engaged in a scandal or otherwise illegal activity.
The use of neuroenhancers in pro-gaming, regardless of whether the substance is banned, can trigger a sponsorship's morals clause in several ways:
Any of the above reasons, which certainly is not an exhaustive list, could also be the cause of a scandal within the sport. Although scandals could be sufficient to independently trigger a morals clause, when combined with any of the above points, a scandal makes it much more likely.
Similarly, a team sponsorship may be impacted by a team member's use of neuroenhancers. Depending on how the morals clause is written, a single team member's actions may be sufficient to trigger the morals clause and permit the sponsor to cancel the sponsorship agreement.
As the eSports industry determines methods for curbing its PED problem, teams should keep in mind that any PED use can impact the sponsorships that they have worked hard to obtain. No team would want to lose its sponsor because a morals clause was triggered in an effort to perhaps gain a competitive advantage. Even worse, future sponsors may be hesitant to sponsor a player and/or their team due to past PED use.
Last week, I discussed why professional gaming teams should become businesses in order to secure sponsorships. With the staggering growth of eSports, online viewing of eSports competitions totaling 2.2 billion hours, and a dedicated gaming arena opening in Ohio, professional gaming is quickly becoming its own segment of the sports and entertainment industry. Although professional eSports teams may lack a traditional front office, there is room for a business adviser who secures sponsorships and other business opportunities for teams.
This business adviser would serve in a similar capacity to a sports agent for the team. Traditionally, sports agents represent individual professional athletes in negotiating their on-field contracts and securing endorsement agreements. However, as professional gaming is a tournament based league without individualized salaries, salary negotiation services and individual representation would be irrelevant.
Instead, a professional gaming sports agent would focus on sponsorships and other business opportunities for the team. An effective agent could leverage a team's substantial online presence (Twitter followers, YouTube subscribers, Twitch followers, etc.) to sponsors in return for sponsorships to provide products and financial support for the team. Such a tactic is not new for agents, as they have leveraged online followings for professional athletes and then-amateur athletes (see here) into sponsorships. Utilizing an agent would be in the best interest of eSports teams, as it leaves the players to focus on their sport while the agent secures much needed sponsorships to help get the team to additional tournaments.
The question then arises as to how agents would be paid. Normally, sports agents take a percentage of their players' salaries that they negotiated (generally 3-5%) and a higher percentage of any endorsements they secure (15-20%). However, that preexisting model does not fit professional gaming because players, or even teams, are not paid a salary. Additionally, many professional gaming sponsorships supply products, and not cash, which would be impossible to take a percentage of. Instead, agents would likely seek a percentage of tournament winnings in exchange for their services, as well as a percentage of any sponsorship money secured for the team.
Due to an agent's necessary reliance on tournament winnings and substantial online followings to be paid, teams that have yet to make a name for themselves in professional gaming may find it difficult to find an agent to represent them. It is important to remember, in both professional sports and e-sports, that agents do not establish a brand, but leverage an existing brand and shape it. An agent needs a foundation to leverage, and only the team itself can create that foundation.
Given the increase in popularity of eSports, and the money that is starting to flow through the industry, there is rising potential for a budding agent role for teams.
In the past few years, e-sports (playing video games competitively for profit) has seen staggering growth in the United States. This growth has largely been fueled by the development of a professional tournament association, the inclusion of e-sports in the X Games competitions, and at its core, technology which allows players to connect and compete in ways never previously possible.
Viewership of the e-sports tournaments is also extremely high. Last year, online viewers watched a total of 2.4 billion hours of competition footage. Live events have also sold well, prompting Major League Gaming (the preeminent e-sports tournament body) to establish an arena in Columbus, Ohio. As with the rapid rise of any industry segment, e-sports tournaments have received sponsorships from well-known brands such Coca Cola and American Express. Although the tournaments and their governing bodies have received substantial sponsorship income, teams have not had the same financial success.
Many teams are able to secure small sponsorships which supply products such as controllers and apparel. However, there is a lack of sponsorship dollars supplied to the teams, which may be what is needed most as the expenses of professional gaming can be high. One of the reasons that teams have difficulty securing sponsorships is due to their business organization, or rather the lack thereof.
For e-sports to develop into a true professional league, and for teams to see the sponsorship dollars they desire, teams will have to learn from the businesses of their MLB, NFL and NBA counterparts. Firstly, professional sports teams are business entities, not just a group of people who are acting together. This is extremely important because State law differs as to whether unincorporated associations can enter into contracts, and as to the rights of these associations as a whole. Further, choosing a business entity for the team simplifies the sponsorship process for the brand as it eliminates any question regarding whether the contract is enforceable.
The choice of what business entity to select is a trickier subject, and would have to be determined on a team by team basis. At this early stage of professional gaming, there is no "one size fits all" approach. Professional sports teams have Owners and front offices that handle the business end of the team while the players play. However, that wouldn't be the case at this stage of e-sports. Simply put, the players will also have to handle their team's business. That can become problematic in several situations, especially when team members are minors. Minors' business activities are restricted by State and Federal law, but State law may allow for some creative business-formation possibilities if there are team members over 18 who can start the business. For instance, some states allow minors to be shareholders in a business. Any team considering turning their team into a business should consult an attorney before doing so.
There are a myriad of reasons teams don't receive the sponsorships they desire, including the lack of a formalized business structure. If your team wants to be treated as a legitimate business, make sure your team is actually a business first.
I recently joined Quora to answer Sports Law, Business Law and Sports Business questions. I will turn some of these questions into longer, more in-depth, blog posts, but many of my answers wont reach the blog. You can give my profile a follow here: http://www.quora.com/Roger-R-Quiles-Esq
I answered my first question last night, which asked "Can college athletes be paid a salary?"
While you're on Quora, feel free to peruse the other interesting questions, or post your own! If there are any topics you would like me to answer, feel free to send me an email or leave it in the comments.
I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge with the Quora community!
Quiles Law is an esports and sports law firm based in New York City.
60 Bay Street, Suite 700
Staten Island, New York 10301
(P) (917) 477-7942
(F) (917) 791-9782
Attorney Advertising. The information presented in this site should not be construed to be formal legal advice nor is it intended to form any attorney/client relationship. Our attorneys, collectively, are licensed to practice law in the States of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Copyright Roger R. Quiles, Esq., 2017. All rights reserved.