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, several startups I've spoken with have informed me that they use independent contractors instead of traditional employees. However, many startups are not aware that independent contractors can still be deemed employees by the Courts.
So why are the startups hiring independent contractors as opposed to employees? Here are some of the benefits:
Due to these benefits, some businesses abuse the label of 'independent contractor.' For that reason, New York courts have employed two different tests to determine whether a worker is an independent contractor or employee.
The Economic Realities Test is as follows:
This test looks at the totality of the answers to the above questions to determine whether an employee/employer relationship exists.
The Common Law Test is as follows:
The factors of the Common Law Test are not exhaustive, and the Court will explore additional inquiries if it feels necessary. An example of an additional factor that could be considered is whether the worker is required to wear a uniform. In the Common Law Test as well, no single factor itself is dispositive of an employee/employer relationship.
Effectively, this means that workers who are classified by a business as being an independent contractor may not be classified as independent contractors by the Court. Should the Court find that an employee/employer relationship exists, then a business loses all benefits of hiring the independent contractor (with respect to that person only) and is subject to the totality of laws involving employee/employer relations. Therefore, the business incurs increased costs and liability.
If your business decides to use independent contractors, ensure that the written agreement with the worker incorporates the factors the Courts could use in determining whether an employer/employee relationship exists.
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