Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, just someone who has followed various esports scenes for a long time. This also isn’t meant to be a call to action for any of the things mentioned, but rather create a discussion of the topic and possible prevention tactics.
This morning /r/smite and Twitter were abuzz with details of the Eager drama. ATR’s side, Zapman’s side, players speaking out… why did this happen? More importantly, how can we prevent it from happening again?
For those who have been around the block a few times in the esports scene, this is nothing new. It’s newish to SMITE, being a young esport, but shady organizations willing to exploit naive kids who have a dream to hit it big playing video games are a dime a dozen. And the naive kids are even more common.
You should probably get that in writing
What are the main problems of the Eager situation? For starters, no one signed any contracts. You wouldn’t rent a house without signing a contract. You wouldn’t buy a car. You wouldn’t start at a new job. You wouldn’t change insurance policies or switch banks. So why would anyone sign on with an org without a legally binding contract? Can you even say you’re “signed on” with them if nothing was ever signed?
Eager players didn’t receive salaries. That’s not abnormal in the esports scene, where players often buffer their income with tournament payouts, streaming revenue, sponsorships, merchandise sales and more. But whatever money or labor is involved needs to be detailed in a legally binding document. Are players receiving equal splits of tournament payouts? Is the org taking a cut? Who benefits from that sponsorship? Where does the merch money go? Are players investing their own funds to get the org off the ground? Are they required to stream a certain amount, or promote sponsorships a certain amount? Do they have to stay on the roster for X period of time? Is whatever money made going to be invested back into the org, or paid out?
Whatever the case, everything needs to be written down, overseen by a lawyer and agreed to by all parties.
It takes two to tango
Sketchy orgs are nothing without the people who agree to do business with them. Players are agreeing to work for no money. They’re joining a team without signing a contract. The mindset of why they would do this is obvious — is there any gamer who hasn’t dreamed of going pro? — or perhaps they were all friends at the time, but that doesn’t mean it’s a smart idea. Whether you’re going into business with a trusted friend or a random stranger, a contract needs to be drawn up and signed.
There’s also the issue of educating players. To an adult or even someone with one law class under their belt, it’s common sense that there needs to be legal counsel involved in this type of agreement. To kids or young adults, it might not occur to them that not only does a contract need to exist, but they should be thoroughly reading it and even asking for legal guidance before signing it.
Advice can be found, should players look for it. Ryan Morrison, known around the web as The Video Game Attorney, tweets out legal facts and advice daily, often commenting on the esports scene. Of course, if you want to have him look over your contract, expect a fee, but he doesn’t shy away from shouting out general advice on social media. DMBrandon, controversial as he may be in the SMITE scene, pinned a tweet in August of 2016 that stands to this day, offering to look over any esports contracts for free. He emphasizes that “If you don’t trust my judgment, find a lawyer.”
The moral vs. the legal
From what we’ve been told by Zap and ATR, nothing appears to be technically wrong on the legal front. In Zap’s own words, “I had no obligations to anyone.” Okay, but that doesn’t stop this from being a scumbag move. His team was left without an organization, meanwhile he was already in talks to play ADC for Monkey Madness (now Spacestation Gaming) before deciding to sit out another split. There’s also the issue of how it was handled — ATR says he couldn’t even make an official statement from Eager social media accounts because he didn’t know what was going on.
Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s okay. This reflects poorly on the (now dead) Eager brand, Zapman himself, and also importantly, the SMITE scene.
Should Hi-Rez take preventative action?
Eager wasn’t the first SMITE org to go down in a similar fashion — we all remember Lydia and Paradigm — and it won’t be the last. As long as there is money in esports and players willing to play without contracts or sign crappy agreements, there will be shady people trying to pull a fast one. Hi-Rez did rule in the players’ favor in the Paradigm dispute, but also commented that “we believe that parties should be free to negotiate in good faith to resolve disputes without immediate involvement from us.”
But perhaps there needs to be some type of action taken. Should Hi-Rez look over players’ contracts who intend to compete in the SPL? Had they done this, alert Hi-Rez employees probably would have been horrified a team was not legally contracted with their organization. But on the other hand, that would be a huge undertaking in a growing scene, and no other esports take great pains to do this. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t be the first.
Or — and we don’t know what goes on beyond closed doors — can players openly reach out to Hi-Rez for advice? When players join the SPL, are they sent a PDF of legal advice, possibly with the contact information for lawyers to contact? Is there an open forum to discuss issues like this — an SPL org falling apart — or are players all alone in dealing with these stressful situations?
Regardless, it’s worth looking into. A year from now, no one will remember Eager, but they will remember this happened in the SMITE scene, and it’s not a good look.Follow @KBopadoo