Esports Biggest Problem Cannot Continue Unaddressed

Griffin's League of Legends team was the center of the one of esports biggest scandal, culminating in fines and indefinite suspensions.
Griffin's League of Legends team was the center of the one of esports biggest scandal, culminating in fines and indefinite suspensions. / Photo courtesy of Colin Young-Wolfl/Riot Games

Withholding payment, exploitative contracts, and withdrawing from an esports league while only giving players a few hours’ notice. These are all instances of player mistreatment within the esports industry, and these incidents are far from isolated occurrences. Since its inception, esports has grappled with the issue of player mistreatment. Outrage typically lasts for a brief period of time before it quiets down, and people largely forget about these events. Though, this trend cannot continue. This dark side of esports must be brought to, and remain in, the forefront so it can be confronted head-on and finally overcome.

First, let’s understand the pervasiveness of player mistreatment in esports before examining its consequences and potential pathways to move forward.

In the fall of 2019 Riot Games Korea and China as well as the Korea e-Sports Association (KESPA) launched investigations into League of Legends Champions Korea (LCK) team Griffin. First reported by Dexerto, the investigation came after former Griffin coach Kim “cvMax” Dae-ho accused the organization of unfairly pressuring Seo “Kanavi” Jin-hyeok, Griffin’s former jungler, into signing a contract while he was a minor. Quickly, immense backlash against Griffin arose and led to an extended period of outrage and demand for punishment against Griffin. 

The extended collective anger and demand for Griffin to be held accountable was undoubtedly due to the egregiousness of the allegations. The community pressure prompted Riot Games to open an investigation into Griffin. Their investigation concluded that Griffin’s former director Cho, who is now banned from the LCK indefinitely, pressured Kanavi into signing a contract as a minor. Moreover, during Riot’s investigation, they heard testimony that cvMax verbally and physically abused his players. These allegations prompted another investigation that ended in Riot Games filing a prosecution case against cvMax. In the end, Griffin’s League of Legends was disbanded after the horrific allegations of player mistreatment were confirmed.

Among the plethora of esports organizations who withheld payments from their players is Epsilon Esports. As reported by EsportsTalk, the organization appears to have been inactive since the fall of 2020, a little over a year after the initial reports emerged. The allegations stem from numerous teams under the Epsilon brand. Multiple H1Z1 Pro League players accused the organization of withholding $16,000 after the scene fell apart. Moreover, CS:GO player Smooya said he would constantly have to inquire about his wages while a former Call of Duty pro reported he is still owed over $10,000 by Epsilon. Payment issues run deep in the world of esports and are unfortunately quite common occurrences.

The final incident I’d like to address involves the former Giants Gaming Rainbow Six Siege team. On May 28, 2021, Giants Gaming announced their departure from the Rainbow Six Siege esports scene. Former Giants Gaming IGL Glen “Lunarmental” Suryasaputra quickly spoke out, saying the players were only informed of their organization’s departure the night before the official announcement was made. Moreover, although Giants Gaming offered assistance to their former roster while they scrambled to find a new home and remain in the Rainbow 6 APAC South League, the players never took them up on said offer. Incidents like these are frequent and place players in tough positions to rapidly find a new organization to call home or else face losing their job and source of income. 

During my research, I had the opportunity to interview Lunarmetal, who provided insight into the players’ perspective on the topic of player mistreatment and potential steps forward. Moreover, he commented on his former situation with Giants Gaming withdrawal and whether organizations have an obligation to inform their players ahead of time if they plan to leave an esports scene.

“I cannot speak about our own contractual arrangement with Giants, but most contracts should and would have a termination clause which includes a timeframe for an advanced notice, and it is up to all the parties involved to determine what's a 'fair' timeframe. I would say that in our case a 2-3 months advance notice (roughly the length of 1 stage) would've been fair…” 

“As for the second part about aiding in transition, I do not feel that it is the organization's responsibility to do it as long as all other contractual obligations are met. What I mean is let's say our contract ends at the end of 2021, and they inform us (with enough advance) that they would no longer want to continue in R6. It would not be in their responsibility to look for a new home for us.As for whether that SHOULD be the case, I really don't know. In an ideal franchised league, different teams/orgs wouldn't be exiting or entering the league year on year anyways.”

All this talk of instances of mistreatment begs the question: What does this problem mean for the esports industry? 

The enduring nature of player mistreatment presents a massive blockade to the advancement of the industry. The profession of esports is still relatively new and is delegitimized when professional players allege instances of mistreatment. The continuation of this issue inhibits esports from truly cementing its status as a popular and up-and-coming form of entertainment.

All workers, no matter their industry, deserve good and equal treatment. Unfortunately, ample evidence demonstrates that the esports industry frequently fails to meet this ideal. Many basic worker rights are denied to esports players through a series of unethical acts, primarily by organizations, which undermines the professionalism of not only the specific esports organization or gaming scene but the esports industry as a whole.

Luckily, this issue area is not one with zero solutions. There are a diverse range of pathways that can be explored to resolve, or at the very least mitigate, player mistreatment.

The first path forward is through the use of emerging and growing esports law firms, particularly ESG Law. ESG Law is the first law firm in the world solely dedicated to esports and already has big name organizations, talent, and players as clients. ESG Law’s mission, though accomplished in a multitude of ways, boils down to helping legitimize and expand the esports industry. 

The ESG Law profile reads: “ESG Law is at the forefront of the esports industry, helping establish new norms and balancing power dynamics to support more sustainable growth.” One of their big ways for helping to legitimize the scene is through improving player contracts, namely by: “Drafting the industry-standard player contract from scratch, which is more balanced and comprehensive than ever before”

ESG Law is the world’s first esports specific law firm and is dedicated to strengthening the industry including through standardizing player contracts / Photo courtesy of ESG Law

The creation of the ESG Law firm itself, and now many others like it, illustrates the power imbalance, and resulting prevalence of mistreatment, throughout the industry. It also stresses the need for better protections for players to help stabilize the altered scales of power within the industry. Most importantly, though, the firm presents a strong path forward that would take into account a variety of critical stakeholders within the industry. By setting a new standard contract it could persuade individual esports leagues and/or esports organizations to adopt this standard. Such a contract is almost guaranteed to be a fair and balanced one given the broad spectrum of interest ESG Law is considering. The contract would protect players’ rights and ensure proper working conditions while not placing excessively oppressive restrictions on the esports organizations.

The idea of standardized contracts is a fairly optimistic one, however, as many barriers like language and other differences across regions (such as living standards) would inhibit successful and fair standardization.

As Lunarmetal articulated, “There are too many different factors to consider and it is almost impossible to determine what's fair and not with players from different regions. As an example, a contract that is fair in [Southeast Asia], would be exploitative in other parts of the world. At the same time, if you'd pay everyone in the world like you'd pay NA players, then Orgs would have too much cost to bare and none of them would even want to be part of the ecosystem”

One popular option for exploration is for players to form an association or union to protect their interests. These unions would serve as a method through which the players can exert their influence and increase standards by which they must be treated. Though a difficult barrier emerges as esports face a distinct challenge not present in leagues such as the NFL or NBA. Given that developers own the rights to their games, while leagues like the NFL and NBA cannot own the rights to the games of football and basketball, they essentially hold all the power. Consequently, a difficult power struggle emerges. This dynamic makes it much more difficult for players to unionize, as the unions struggle to possess any substantial power.

The newer Counter-Strike Professional Players' Association (CSPPA) has seen recent success in forcing league changes according to the interest of the players. As reported by Dot Esports, before returning to LAN play, ESL and CSPPA negotiated protocols that would make players comfortable going back to in-person competition. Without the association, players likely would have little impact on ESL’s policies. Consequently, unions and players associations are demonstrated to have an impact, though the extent to which they will be able to impact overall player treatment and even contract negotiation remains to be seen.

While Lunarmetal favors unionization efforts, he remains cautious noting that there would be a big barrier to enforcement.

“Yes, I agree we should have one, but the how is the tricky part. I would say that if you want a union to have a say across different gaming titles AND gaming scenes, you'd need to have an International organization/forum established to have jurisdiction over these affairs. Something similar, though on a totally different scale, would be like having a UN or a WTO, but for esports.”

Counter-Strike Profession Players' Association, CSPAA, CS:GO
The CSPAA has given players substantially more power in the CS:GO esports scene. Can their success be replicated across esports more broadly? / Photo courtesy of CSPAA

Lunarmetal continued, illuminating that it is virtually impossible for individual players to hold their organizations accountable.

“The only thing that would protect you is the contract you have with organizations and even then, it becomes extra tricky to take any legal action when your organization can be from the opposite side of the globe.”

Speaking from his own experience, former Rainbow 6 pro player Dimitri “Panix” de Longeaux agrees that most individuals would have lots of difficulty holding their orgs accountable. 

“When signing I couldn't really negotiate those terms because we're not in CSGO or LoL and most of us are not important enough to have a real weight in negotiations, [especially] with the unconditional rules.”

In the aftermath of the scandal involving Korean esports team Griffin, immense pressure emerged from fans and industry professionals pushing for fair contracts between players and organizations On Sept. 4, 2020, nearly a year after the initial investigation into Griffin’s mistreatment of its players began, the South Korean government finally took action to protect professional esports players. The South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism released a set of standard contracts for esports players. There were three different versions of standard contracts depending on the various types of players: The Esports Player Standard Contract, the Esports Trainee Standard Contract, and the Teenage Esports Player Standard Affiliated Agreement. 

These contracts were drawn up after extensive conversions from various esports experts, players, and gaming officials. This marked one of the first governmental mechanisms, anywhere in the world, designed specifically to protect esports players and it only was enacted a little over a year ago.

This example demonstrates another potential route of action that governments can take to protect esports players within their jurisdictions. By forcing organizations to abide by standardized contracts, governments are able to increase protections and conditions for players.

Panix supports the idea of standardized contracts believing they would be able to ensure basic protections not only to the players but to organizations as well. He envisions more of an international esports body administering these standards rather than some form of governmental action.

This body would be able to “Put some basic rules on contracts that are international. Like, a specific amount needs to be on the contract in order to buy it out. You can negotiate down, but not up. It shouldn't be crazy numbers, which destroy negotiations in disfavor of the player and allow the contracting organisations to force loans or jail their players. Enforce the respect of the duration of a contract as well. Then we can also imagine rules against players who would try to go around buy outs, go directly to other teams/players to show interests and other abusive actions we could imagine.”

Elaborating, Panix continued to speak on the need for an international body that would be able to unify standards across countries that allow for more exploitative contracts than others. 

“The fact also that esport legal status is not really being addressed, that there's not one big entity or a consensus between countries is the biggest issue. Some organizations are enjoying the situation to choose in their contract a country with [a] legal base which [will] advantage them.”

The most unlikely option, which would essentially be the “nuclear option” for players, is to have governments enact specific laws targeted toward players’ treatment and contracts within esports. This option would present a major step in government involvement and regulation of esports, something that is almost nonexistent today. South Korea’s standardized contracts are distinct from this in that esports organizations are not required to build their contracts off the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism’s standardized versions. However, a governmental legislative act would codify standards into law. Essentially, all organizations within that government’s jurisdiction would be forced to comply or otherwise face legal penalties. Again, this is an extreme option. The esports industry can almost certainly determine and enact a response that doesn’t necessitate government action and strict adherence under the threat of severe punishment.

ESL Cologne
Government legislative action is an extreme option that the esports industry can hopefully avoid. / Photo courtesy of Helena Kristiansson/ESL

The final potential option to mitigate player mistreatment in the esports industry is for individual leagues to punish organizations who are proven to have mistreated their players. These punishments could come in the form of monetary fines, or, if the transgressions are severe enough, potential bans or suspensions of individuals within the organization (it would be unfair to suspend the team from competition when they are the victims). First, there is an inherent problem with the idea of monetary fines as it would be incredibly difficult to punish large organizations spread across multiple games with many sponsors. Monetary fines would have to be large enough to substantially impact large organizations. However, if the fines are large enough to punish large organizations, then they would almost certainly destroy smaller organizations. This problem creates a complicated dichotomy and makes it difficult to establish a monetary punishment system.

It's important to note that these ideas are also extremely unlikely steps forward as two great challenges deter the methods’ potential effectiveness. First, by instituting stringent punishment there is the possibility that current or future organizations are dissuaded from participating in or joining the league. Second, and a far greater obstacle, would be how each league defines mistreatment. Defining the idea of mistreatment itself would stir up lots of debate as various stakeholders would have conflicting opinions. Additionally, if left up to individual leagues, there would not be a standard definition of mistreatment across the esports industry and thus organizations would be unequally punished across various gaming scenes.

Player mistreatment is one of esports greatest flaws and one that should have been addressed in a substantial matter long ago. Unfortunately, the problem of player mistreatment is not isolated to a single esports scene but rather present throughout the industry. Additionally, it takes many different forms which further complicates the crafting of a response to the issue. Though, these aforementioned options for moving forward all represent possible steps that, if taken, would result in substantial improvements to player treatment across the board.

I mentioned earlier that outrage typically emerges immediately after a scandal before quickly quieting down. This briefness stems from a multitude of factors, but primarily from the lack of accountability. When an organization is not held to any standards nor punished for any wrongdoing regarding player mistreatment the issue is easily forgotten about. Esports leagues must actually take some form of action rather than just releasing some statement regarding the matter or even ignoring it entirely. Look at the Riot investigation into Griffin during their LoL scandal for example. Moreover, lots of responsibility falls on individuals as well. Individuals need to make sure they continue to demand accountability. If the voice of the fanbase subsides then organizations can get away scot-free. However, if the voice remains loud then leagues will be forced to address the issue. 

If esports truly wants to establish itself as not only a professional but a sustainable industry that can maintain its growth, then it must prioritize building and maintaining a healthy ecosystem for its players. Though, none of this change will occur unless the demand for it is too big to be ignored.