I am sure that many of you eSports fans have already heard about the King of Blades controversy that took place within the Heroes of the Storm (HotS) community recently. If you have no idea what I am talking about, pause. We have some catching up to do.
To put it simply, a competitive Heroes of the Storm team, Gust or Bust, refused to sign what they considered to be an unfair contract of employment with the organization, King of Blades (KoB). After playing for the org for a number of months, the players grew increasingly dissatisfied with the alleged verbal and emotional abuse at the voice of owner, Ryan Dilello. Upon the team’s decision to leave the org, Dilello threatened them with criminal charges. The team’s response? To leave the org, forming the team Gust or Bust, and go public with their story. Journalist Saira Mueller did a fantastic job explaining the situation in her article on The Daily Dot. You can also read the original post that Chris “DarkChimaera” Beery put up on reddit.
All caught up? Okay, here we go. Although I do have an opinion about the legal aspect of the situation, I want to discuss some truths about the eSports scene that this story is bringing to the forefront, namely the newness of the eSports scene and the need for attorneys, agents, and orgs that exist to protect the interest of eSports athletes.
It is true that we have had competition amongst gamers since Mario jumped on top of his first Koopa Troopa. In fact, I believe a strong case can be made to assert that competitive gaming began to really take shape as ID Software popularized the “Deathmatch” during the 90’s. That being said, situations like the KoB fiasco tells us that eSports as we know it is still in its infancy, and that fact proves to be a harsh reality for aspiring eSports athletes.
In 2016, the dream of being paid to play games is a more respected reality than ever before. According to lolesports.com, The League of Legends World Championships had an overall unique viewer count of 36 million for the Final, “a record-breaking high for any esports event.” The prize pool for Worlds was $2,130,000, and this is still only the 10th largest prize pool in eSports to date. With this kind of money running through its veins and attention to the spectacles, how does it make sense to describe eSports as still being in its infancy?
Significant prize pools and notoriety indicate that there is demand for the sport; however, the possibility for aspiring eSports athletes to truly break into the scene is still slim. As the world recognized that it was entertaining to watch eSports, hundreds of fellow gamers recognized that they too could compete for increasingly coveted positions on professional teams. Even though the potential to make a living by playing their favorite video game is a financial possibility, the likelihood of landing a spot on a winning team in such a competitive industry, no pun intended, is small. This leads to ill-fated situations like the one facing the previous members of King of Blades.
The former members of the King of Blades team are young men, the youngest on the team being 17 years old. So, in this situation, we have relatively young people, naive to their rights and value, making significant decisions with long-lasting consequences.
Consider the five year non-compete clause that was part of the KoB contract. As a player, if you sign a contract with a non-compete clause, that means that if you are kicked off of a team or you decide to leave of your own volition, you are agreeing that you will not compete against that organization for the duration of the non-compete.
I was able to sit down with Xsquire, an attorney specializing in business and IP law, with a vested interest in the Heroes of the Storm community and much to say about this situation:
“From my personal understanding of eSports player careers, the longevity of an eSports career is relatively short. A competitor cannot game longer than a decade, and that’s if they are skilled. Players peak in their late teens to mid twenties and reaction levels already begin to decrease once they hit their thirties. Because of this, a non-compete for 5 years is a virtual death sentence.”
“Think about your first job as a teenager. The concept of being paid to game is extremely tempting. So when you have a situation where teens are going to be under pressure to find a way to sustain a career that they want to go into, and the average teenager is not going to have a lawyer to deal with the formalities, they are more than likely going to be put into a situation just like [Gust or Bust].”
“So what is the take-away here,”
you may be asking. Is it simply that young people need to educate themselves so they are not taken advantage of, and organizations need to conduct themselves in an ethical manner? Well, to be frank, yes. It is bigger, more important than that though.
“This kind of case has great significance for future generations who are breaking into this field. You know, eSports does not have defined rules and regulations, no player’s association, no unions; that is why a case like this is so important. You wouldn’t want to set a precedent of letting owners get away with unethical deals, but you also don’t want to let players break their contracts all over the place.”
We the fans, friends, and supporters need to recognize that eSports is still new. As such, there are going to be a ton of growing pains over the years. Ideally, one of the milestones of this maturation process is an organization that exists to protect heart and soul of the scene, its players. We need to push for this to become a reality. Our players need the proper protection and representation that they deserve.
Until then, here is an exhortation shared by Xsquire and many others who live and breathe eSports: “Players, you need to understand the unique value that you bring to an organization, respect your own skill, and think about how a contract is going to affect you several years out.”
To the members of Gust or Bust, change does not occur overnight, but take heart in the fact that you are one more catalyst in the development of eSports.