Contract Conflicts Creating Players Associations in eSports
Over the past decade, the competitive video game community has blossomed into something no different than any other professional sport: young, skilled individuals entering into contractual agreements with organized leagues and teams. Resulting in what is now known as “eSports,” this development has seen a diverse range of issues from poor player living conditions in team houses to failures by the team to pay their players, sparking actions for breach of contract. As the eSports scene continues to grow, leagues should mimic other professional sports leagues in implementing players associations to ensure these young players are not exploited.
Through provisions in an eSports contract, players are required to practice their gameplay strategies through exhibitions to hopefully win tournaments in exchange for an income, typically while living in what is known as a “team house.” When the living conditions in one of these team houses are so poor they render players unable to perform their contractual duties, surely that is a breach of contract. One such case of this was when Nick Smith, former coach of “Tainted Minds,” a League of Legends eSports team, alleged that “the team house was often without power over a period of two months… includ[ing] bad computers that crashed too often to play on, a lack of air conditioning, and mold growth in the house.” There were also issues of timely payment of the players as specified in the players’ contracts. Due to the confidential nature of this issue, copies of the players’ contracts are not available to the public.
In contract law, when a party fails to provide the services that they are contractually obligated to provide, it can be argued as a material breach. Under material breaches, the breaching party has a reasonable amount of time to cure that breach. What is viewed as a reasonable time and reasonable efforts to cure a breach is up to the arbitrator or judge. Should the material breach not be cured in a reasonable amount of time, that breach matures into a total breach, in which damages can be sought. In the case of Tainted Minds, for all issues regarding the team home, the organization attempted to cure all issues by offering different housing to the team and regularly contacted the landlord about the issues. The landlord’s timeliness on fixing some of those issues is a whole different story. These prompt attempts were viewed as reasonable. However, regarding timely payment, the organization did not adhere to what was clearly required by the contract. The organization paid its players in one lump, instead of within the period specified, and a breach was found on their behalf. Had the organization simply been a few days late in paying the players, this could have been a stronger argument for curing the breach in a reasonable amount of time.
So, how is the eSports community preventing these types of difficulties? The answer lies within the establishment of players associations. Players associations are implemented to aid in the prevention of these types of contract disputes and offer the league’s players a collective pool of resources for adequate representation on matters like those brought forth in the Tainted Minds case. To contextualize this, the National Football League’s Players Association states that it “[r]epresents all players in matters concerning wages, hours and working conditions and protects their rights as professional football players.”
Furthermore, in most professional sports leagues, collective bargaining agreements are typically negotiated by the players associations which detail certain minimum requirements that any contract between an organization and player must adhere to. Without these minimums, players would be much more susceptible to contracts of adhesion. Adhesion contracts, much like a cell phone contract, exist when a party has no opportunity to bargain for the terms present in the agreement. Through protections already set by a player’s association, these naive, young players can take the risk necessary to carry out their passions.
One other perk of collective bargaining agreements is that they will typically outline a grievance procedure, particularly in the form of arbitration. Neutral arbitrators in contract disputes lead to fairer rulings with, hopefully, less backlash. Revisiting the Tainted Minds case, the investigation into the contract dispute was conducted mainly by Riot Games, the creator of League of Legends, resulting in a ruling many followers of the community felt had fallen short. Passing the investigation torch on to a disinterested third-party is a way to avoid further similar incidents like these.
Thankfully, many of these associations are beginning to appear, as the North American League of Legends Championship Series (NALCS), has announced its first ever player’s association. This is part of a growing pattern in eSports where other professional gaming leagues such as the Overwatch League and the ESL Pro League for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive are also seeing players associations being organized. While the eSports community is still arguably in its infancy despite its rapid growth, it could learn a great deal from other professional sports leagues and should adopt many of the same player protection mechanisms found therein.