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Introducing the new legal challenges of E-Sports. By N. Emre Bilginoglu

Editor’s Note: Emre Bilginoglu[1] is an attorney in Istanbul and the co-founder of the Turkish E-Sports Players Association, a non-profit based in Istanbul that aims to provide assistance to professional gamers and to work on the relevant laws affecting them. 

The world is witnessing the rise of a new sport that is growing at an incredible speed: E-Sports. We are only starting to understand its legal implications and challenges.

In recent years, E-Sports has managed to attract thousands of fans to arenas to see a group of people play a video game. These people are literally professional gamers (cyber athletes)[2] who make money by competing in tournaments. Not all video games have tournaments in which professional players compete against each other.

The most played games in E-Sports competitions are League of Legends (LoL), Defense of the Ancients 2 (DotA 2) and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO). LoL and DotA are both Multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games, a genre of strategy video games in which the player controls a single character in one of two teams. The goal of the game is to destroy the opponent’s main structure. CS:GO is a first-person shooter (FPS) game, a genre of video games where the player engages combat through a first-person perspective. The main objective in CS:GO is to eliminate the opposing team or to terrorize or counter-terrorize, planting bombs or rescuing hostages. Other games that have (popular) E-Sports competitions include Starcraft II (real time strategy), Hearthstone (collectible card video game), Call of Duty (FPS) and FIFA (football).

The gaming requires cooperation between team players, a high level of concentration, rapid reactions and some seriously fast clicking. E-Sports is a groovy term to describe organized competitive computer gaming. The E-Sports industry is exponentially growing, amounting to values expressed in billions of dollars. According to Newzoo, a website dedicated to the collection of E-Sports data, there are some 250 million occasional viewers of E-Sports with Asia-Pacific accounting for half of the total amount. The growth of the industry is indubitably supported by online streaming media platforms. This article aims to explain what E-Sports is and to give the readers an insight on the key legal questions raised by it. 

Is E-Sports a Sport?

The introductory legal question regarding E-Sports is whether it is a sport. There are different definitions of “sport”. According to the Council of Europe, “sport” means all forms of physical activity which, through casual or organised participation, aim at expressing or improving physical fitness and mental well-being, forming social relationships or obtaining results in competition at all levels.

SportAccord a non-profit association which is composed of autonomous and independent international sports federations and other international organisations contributing to sport in various fields, also offers a definition of sport. According to this definition, sport:

1) includes an element of competition;

2) does not rely on any element of “luck” specifically integrated into the sport;

3) does not pose an undue risk to the health and safety of its athletes or participants;

4) is in no way harmful to any living creature;

5) and does not rely on equipment that is provided by a single supplier.

Sport categories designated by SportAccord are primarily: physical sports (e.g. basketball); mind sports (e.g. chess); motorized sports (e.g. motorcycle racing); coordination sports (e.g. snooker); and animal-supported sports (e.g. equestrianism).

SportAccord also states that activities with limited physical or athletic activity would be carefully considered. E-Sports indeed involves a limited physical activity. The professional gamer generally sits in front of a designated computer. However, at this point it is important to highlight the existence of multiplayer video games that involve a considerable amount of physical activity. Home video game consoles that detect movement were released in early 2000s, paving the way for true E-Sports cyber athletes in the near future. Until now however, games that require physical activity have not been played at a professional level.

Having said this, E-Sports does involve a clear element of competition, does not rely only on luck, does not pose an undue risk to the health and safety of its competitors and is not harmful to any living creature. At some point, it does rely on equipment that is provided by a single supplier, as the subject game that is played is in general produced by a single supplier. In other words, E-Sports clearly complies with the remaining criteria (2 to 5) suggested to be defined as a “sport”.

Even though there are a myriad of multiplayer games, one mostly categorizes E-Sports as a primarily mind and coordinated sport. It does not require lots of physical activities except for very fast finger movement. A similar sport is chess. It is challenging to oppose the argument of David Papineau, professor of philosophy of science at King’s College London, who, as regards chess, said that “(t)he activity is playing a game, therefore it is not a sport but a game”. However, chess is a strategy board game and at the same time it is an organized sport with an international governing body, namely FIDE.

Can E-Sports Be an Olympic Sport?
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is the supreme authority of the Olympic movement. The IOC decides which sports are included in the Olympic Games. Choices of the IOC always bring forth discussions and debates in the sports community. Some sports are discontinued and some are re-introduced. Wrestling was announced to be dropped from the 2020 Olympic Games in 2020, but was reinstated seven months after losing its place. Even though wrestling is one of the founding sports of the Olympics, the IOC could have removed it from the Olympic Games. The IOC recently reinstated baseball and softball, and added skateboarding -, karate, climbing and surfing- to the sports programme for the Olympic Games in Tokyo 2020. Therefore, it is possible to say that popularity is one of the crucial elements for a sport to be included to the Olympic Games. Chess, led by FIDE, is attempting to be an Olympic Sport. Although the attempt for Tokyo 2020 was not successful, things may change in the future.

In my opinion, E-Sports can very well be regarded as an Olympic sport in the near future. Whatever game that is played on a professional level, may be regarded as its discipline. The crucial setback is the perishability of games. Video games become “obsolete” with time. This is especially the case with sports games. Squads and the game play changes every season. That is one of the reasons why FIFA releases a new video game every single year. Therefore, video games such as FIFA are unlikely to make it to the top E-Sports games awarding prize money.

What type of Governance for E-Sports ?

The formation of a single internationally recognized E-Sports federation would be a first step in a long journey to reach the Olympics. Currently however, several international E-Sports organizations exist.

In South Korea, where E-Sports is what football is to Brazil, the South Korean E-Sports Association was founded in 2000. The Association regulates the working conditions of cyber athletes. The highest earnings in E-Sports by countries are listed as: China, the United States, South Korea, Sweden and Canada. As for international associations, three of them need to be mentioned.

First, there is the World E-Sports Association (WESA), founded in 2016 by a group of E-Sports teams and ESL (i.e. largest video game event company in the world). WESA aims to professionalize the industry, regulating matters regarding revenues and schedules. WESA even has an internal arbitration court, namely WESA Arbitration Court. It operates independently from WESA and is open to everyone involved in E-Sports, such as players, teams, organizers and publishers.

The second is the International e-Sports Federation (IeSF), an international organization based in Seoul, South Korea. A total of 46 nations are member of the IeSF. It has listed seven objectives in its Statute, the first one being as follows: to “constantly improve e-Sports and promote it in the light of its values - humanitarian, educational, cultural, unity of purpose and ability to promote peace”. IeSF is a signatory of the World Anti-Doping Code (WADC). ESL also endorsed the WADC and conducts doping tests on cyber athletes. Stimulants- drugs that improve reaction time and concentration are prohibited.

The third association worth mentioning is the International eGames Committee (IEGC), a non-profit E-Sports organization, supported by the government of the United Kingdom. It aims to positively shape the future of competitive gaming.

In my view, countries that seek to be a part of the E-Sports world should establish their own national federations and apply to IeSF. IeSF should collaborate with WESA, which is founded by the most significant organizations in the industry. IeSF is capable of growing into an internationally recognized authority that is in charge of international competitions between national teams, whereas WESA would be in charge of all competitions between clubs.

E-Sports and Free Speech
Since there is a certain amount of (virtual) killing and planting bombs involved, some games are not suitable for children. Deciding who can play which game is up to certain institutions around the world. One of them is Pan European Game Information (PEGI). PEGI is the age rating system for video games in Europe, Israel and Quebec. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is another institution providing an age rating system for video games, this time for North America. PEGI and ESRB standards are generally not legally binding. PEGI standards are legally enforced in few jurisdictions, one being the United Kingdom. Another example is Austria. In Austria, protection of minors are implemented by states. Two of the nine states, Vienna and Carinthia, legally adopted PEGI standards.

California passed a law that prohibited the sale of certain video games to minors. It was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that video games were protected speech under the First Amendment.[3] The Supreme Court had its own reasons, such as “Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively.or “This country has no tradition of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence.”

E-Sports and IP Law
Apart from constitutional law, video games can be subject to other fields of the law. Intellectual property law is one of such fields. For example, DotA is a fan-made custom map originated with Warcraft III, a strategy video game created by Blizzard Entertainment. It was not a separate game until published by Valve Corporation as Dota 2. Blizzard sought to prevent registration by its competitor Valve of the trademark Dota by resorting to the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Subsequently, Blizzard and Valve reached a settlement agreement and Valve went on to publish Dota 2.

Playing Dota 2 is free of charge and Valve speedily hosted its first competition in 2011, with a prize pool of 1.6 million dollars. The International became an annual Dota 2 E-Sports tournament. The prize pool for the tournament in 2016 was approximately 20 million dollars. The team Wings Gaming of China completed the tournament in first place and was awarded 9.1 million dollars. The final was viewed by almost 6 million spectators. Dota 2 tournaments have awarded a total prize money of approximately 90 million dollars so far. League of Legends took the second place with 36 million dollars, followed by Counter Strike: GO (nearly 27 million dollars) and Starcraft II (nearly 22 million dollars). 

E-Sports Clubs, Athletes and the Law
The E-Sports teams that participate in these kind of high level competitions have different rosters for different games. They are starting to become more and more important business entities with their superstar players. The teams are mainly sponsored by tech firms, consumer electronics companies, gaming equipment producers, web hosting companies, automobile manufacturers, energy drinks manufacturers and business people who dream of owning a sports team but who cannot afford to acquire a professional football club. Football clubs themselves are also keen on forming their own E-Sports club, not only limited to football games. PSG (FIFA, LoL, Starcraft, CS, Call of Duty and Hearthstone) Schalke 04 (LoL) and Manchester City (FIFA) have already signed their own E-Sports players. Besiktas was the first football club in the world to form an E-Sports team in 2015. Fenerbahce has also entered the arena in 2016 and will be competing in the upcoming Turkish League of Legends season with a roster of accomplished players. As for football, FIFA and EA Sports organise the FIFA Interactive World Cup 2017. FIFA announced that the winning prize would be 200 thousand dollars.

High level cyber athletes are mostly men. However, the industry is trying to tackle gender discrimination and promote women cyber athletes. Cyber athletes sign contracts with their teams and sometimes receive salaries from video game developers. The developer of League of Legends, Riot Games chooses to pay salaries to competitors. Cyber athletes may want to make some extra money by streaming on online platforms, an important issue while drafting a contract. Therefore, E-Sports concerns both labor law and contract law. It also concerns criminal law, as there have been several incidents of betting-related match-fixing in E-Sports. In one such case, the manager of a LoL club was inciting his players to lose against big teams, claiming that the organizers would kick them out of the league should they win. The players allegedly did so, believing their manager. In the end, the manager was found to be betting against his own team, which finished the season with no wins. A player of the team attempted suicide, leaping off a building. Fortunately, he survived. In another case, a Dota 2 player placed a bet against his own team in a major event and won $322. “322” is now a nickname for players who deliberately fail in a game.

In Turkey, where I practice law, E-Sports players became athletes licensed by the “Federation of Developing Sports”, established by the Sports Ministry. There are about three thousand licensed players. The level of professionalism in elite clubs is surprising, and they are actually pretty successful in international tournaments. Space Soldiers (CS:GO), SuperMassive (LoL) are followed by tens of thousands of fans, even though they were founded only a few years ago.

The primary concern of the athletes and their families in general is the lack of opportunities after their brief but intense careers. Successful cyber athletes require a superordinate level of reactions and excellent reflexes. These attributes become slower with time. Consequently, cyber athletes are usually active between the ages 18-23. It is arduous for them to find time to study, as they need at least eight hours of training per day. National legislators around the world should also focus on devising E-Sports regulations, as more and more professional contracts are being signed. Cyber athletes are transferred from clubs to other clubs as in any other sport and foreign cyber athletes may encounter problems regarding their visas. France recently tackled the legal vacuum and granted a specific legal status for cyber athletes.

Call it a sport or not, E-Sports is growing exponentially. It is an industry worth billions and watched by millions. Although the industry is a commercial success, there are still lots of legal issues to tackle. These legal issues fall within the scope of various fields of law causing lawyers to work on improving their respective national laws.

Transfers of cyber athletes, drafting contracts for cyber athletes and the resolution of contractual disputes are some of the key issues, as well as tackling doping and match-fixing, intellectual property rights, broadcasting rights in particular, and the exploitation of minors or professional gamers. WESA and IeSF are significant international organizations that can endeavor on unifying E-Sports regulations and tackling legal problems faced by the players and the clubs.

The 21st century will offer more new games to play. Considering the current growth in the industry, I would dare predict that the industry will be worth hundreds of billions in the near future. I would recommend the countries and E-Sports governing bodies leading the industry to work together and bring forth certain essential regulations. This would also benefit game developers, as their games and gamers would find a place in the industry on a legal basis. I would also suggest the industry to incite women cyber athletes and facilitate their involvement in professional competitions, so that possible instances of discrimination are proactively precluded.

[1] Nurettin Emre Bilginoglu, LLM, Attorney-at-law - Istanbul, Turkey.  E-mail:

[2] Although there is no precise definition of a “professional E-Sports player”, the approach of FIFA could be deemed applicable by analogy. According to Article 2 of FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players, a professional is a player who has a written contract with a club and is paid more for his footballing activity than the expenses he effectively incurs. In E-Sports, certain players are paid more for their gaming activities than the expenses they incur.

[3] Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, 564 U.S. 786 (2011).

Comments (1) -

  • Adem Yaşar

    2/6/2017 4:55:32 PM |

    A new milestone has been recorded in the history of eSports. So, that is very good to deal with this matter in terms of legal implications.
    Good luck from Heidelberg University

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