Asser International Sports Law Blog

Our International Sports Law Diary
The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

Never let a good fiasco go to waste: why and how the governance of European football should be reformed after the demise of the ‘SuperLeague’ - By Stephen Weatherill

Editor’s note: Stephen Weatherill is the Jacques Delors Professor of European Law at Oxford University. He also serves as Deputy Director for European Law in the Institute of European and Comparative Law, and is a Fellow of Somerville College. This blog appeared first on and is reproduced here with the agreement of the author. 


The crumbling of the ‘SuperLeague’ is a source of joy to many football fans, but the very fact that such an idea could be advanced reveals something troublingly weak about the internal governance of football in Europe – UEFA’s most of all – and about the inadequacies of legal regulation practised by the EU and/ or by states. This note explains why a SuperLeague is difficult to stop under the current pattern of legal regulation and why accordingly reform is required in order to defend the European model of sport with more muscularity. More...

New Digital Masterclass - Mastering the FIFA Transfer System - 29-30 April

The mercato, or transfer window, is for some the most exciting time in the life of a football fan. During this narrow period each summer and winter (for the Europeans), fantastic football teams are made or taken apart. What is less often known, or grasped is that behind the breaking news of the latest move to or from your favourite club lies a complex web of transnational rules, institutions and practices.

Our new intensive two-day Masterclass aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (RSTP) to a small group of dedicated legal professionals who have the ambition to advise football clubs, represent players or join football governing bodies. The course combines theoretical insights on FIFA’s regulation of the transfer market with practical know-how of the actual operation of the RSTP distilled by hands-on practitioners.

Download the full Programme and register HERE.

The Team:

  • Dr Antoine Duval is a senior researcher at the Asser Institute and the head of the Asser International Sports Law Centre. He has widely published and lectured on transnational sports law, sports arbitration and the interaction between EU law and sport. He is an avid football fan and football player and looks forward to walking you through the intricacies of the FIFA transfer system.

  • Carol Couse is a Partner in the sports team at Mills & Reeve LLP , with extensive in-house and in private practice experience of dealing with sports regulatory matters, whether contentious or non-contentious.  She has advised on many multi million pound international football transfer agreements, playing contracts and image rights agreements on behalf clubs, players and agents.
  • Jacques Blondin is an Italian lawyer, who joined FIFA inundefined 2015, working for the Disciplinary Department. In 2019, he was appointed Head of FIFA TMS (now called FIFA Regulatory Enforcement) where he is responsible, among other things, for ensuring compliance in international transfers within the FIFA Transfer Matching System.
  • Oskar van Maren joined FIFA as a Legal Counsel in December 2017, forming part of the Knowledge Management Hub, a department created in September 2020. Previously, he worked for FIFA’s Players' Status Department. Between April 2014 and March 2017, he worked as a Junior Researcher at the T.M.C. Asser Instituut. He holds an LL.M in European law from Leiden University (The Netherlands).
  • Rhys Lenarduzzi is currently a research intern at the Asser International Sports Law Centre, where he focuses in particular on the transnational regulation of football. Prior to this, he acquired over 5 years of experience as a sports agent and consultant, at times representing over 50 professional athletes around the world from various sports, though predominantly football.

(A)Political Games? Ubiquitous Nationalism and the IOC’s Hypocrisy

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a L.LM. candidate in the European Law programme at Utrecht University and a former intern of the Asser International Sports Law Centre


1.     Sport Nationalism is Politics

Despite all efforts, the Olympic Games has been and will be immersed in politics. Attempts to shield the Games from social and political realities are almost sure to miss their mark and potentially risk being disproportionate. Moreover, history has laid bare the shortcomings of the attempts to create a sanitized and impenetrable bubble around the Games. The first blog of this series examined the idea of the Games as a sanitized space and dived into the history of political neutrality within the Olympic Movement to unravel the irony that while the IOC aims to keep the Olympic Games ‘clean’ of any politics within its ‘sacred enclosure’, the IOC and the Games itself are largely enveloped in politics. Politics seep into the cracks of this ‘sanitized’ space through: (1) public protests (and their suppression by authoritarian regimes hosting the Games), (2) athletes who use their public image to take a political stand, (3) the IOC who takes decisions on recognizing national Olympic Committees (NOCs) and awarding the Games to countries,[1] and (4) states that use the Games for geo-political posturing.[2] With this background in mind, the aim now is to illustrate the disparity between the IOC’s stance on political neutrality when it concerns athlete protest versus sport nationalism, which also is a form of politics.

As was mentioned in part one of this series, the very first explicit mention of politics in the Olympic Charter was in its 1946 version and aimed to combat ‘the nationalization of sports for political aims’ by preventing ‘a national exultation of success achieved rather than the realization of the common and harmonious objective which is the essential Olympic law’ (emphasis added). This sentiment was further echoed some years later by Avery Brundage (IOC President (1952-1972)) when he declared: ‘The Games are not, and must not become, a contest between nations, which would be entirely contrary to the spirit of the Olympic Movement and would surely lead to disaster’.[3] Regardless of this vision to prevent sport nationalism engulfing the Games and its codification in the Olympic Charter, the current reality paints quite a different picture. One simply has to look at the mass obsession with medal tables during the Olympic Games and its amplification not only by the media but even by members of the Olympic Movement.[4] This is further exacerbated when the achievements of athletes are used for domestic political gain[5] or when they are used to glorify a nation’s prowess on the global stage or to stir nationalism within a populace[6]. Sport nationalism is politics. Arguably, even the worship of national imagery during the Games from the opening ceremony to the medal ceremonies cannot be depoliticized.[7] In many ways, the IOC has turned a blind eye to the politics rooted in these expressions of sport nationalism and instead has focused its energy to sterilize its Olympic spaces and stifle political expression from athletes. One of the ways the IOC has ignored sport nationalism is through its tacit acceptance of medal tables although they are expressly banned by the Olympic Charter.

At this point, the rules restricting athletes’ political protest and those concerning sport nationalism, particularly in terms of medal tables, will be scrutinized in order to highlight the enforcement gap between the two. More...

“Sport Sex” before the European Court of Human Rights - Caster Semenya v. Switzerland - By Michele Krech

Editor's note: Michele Krech is a JSD Candidate and SSHRC Doctoral Fellow at NYU School of Law. She was retained as a consultant by counsel for Caster Semenya in the proceedings before the Court of Arbitration for Sport discussed above. She also contributed to two reports mentioned in this blog post: the Report of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,  Intersection of race and gender discrimination in sport (June 2020); and the Human Rights Watch Report, “They’re Chasing Us Away from Sport”: Human Rights Violations in Sex Testing of Elite Women Athletes (December 2020).

This blog was first published by the Völkerrechtsblog and is republished here with authorization. Michele Krech will be joining our next Zoom In webinar on 31 March to discuss the next steps in the Caster Semenya case.

Sport is the field par excellence in which discrimination
against intersex people has been made most visible.

Commissioner for Human Rights, Council of Europe
Issue Paper: Human rights and intersex people (2015)

Olympic and world champion athlete Caster Semenya is asking the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to make sure all women athletes are “allowed to run free, for once and for all”. Semenya brings her application against Switzerland, which has allowed a private sport association and a private sport court to decide – with only the most minimal appellate review by a national judicial authority – what it takes for women, legally and socially identified as such all their lives, to count as women in the context of athletics. I consider how Semenya’s application might bring human rights, sex, and sport into conversation in ways not yet seen in a judicial forum. More...

New Event - Zoom In - Caster Semenya v. International Association of Athletics Federations - 31 March - 16.00-17.30 CET

On Wednesday 31 March 2021 from 16.00-17.30 CET, the Asser International Sports Law Centre, in collaboration with Dr Marjolaine Viret (University of Lausanne), is organising its fourth Zoom In webinar on the recent developments arising from the decision of the Swiss Federal Tribunal (SFT) in the case Caster Semenya v. International Association of Athletics Federations (now World Athletics), delivered on 25 August 2020.

The participation of athletes with biological sex differences to international competitions is one of the most controversial issues in transnational sports law. In particular, since 2019, Caster Semenya, an Olympic champion from South-Africa has been challenging the World Athletics eligibility rules for Athletes with Differences of Sex Development (DSD Regulation), which would currently bar her from accessing international competitions (such as the Tokyo Olympics) unless she accepts to undergo medical treatment aimed at reducing her testosterone levels. In April 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected her challenge against the DSD Regulation in a lengthy award. In response, Caster Semenya and the South African Athletics Federation filed an application to set aside the award before the Swiss Federal Tribunal. In August 2020, the SFT released its decision rejecting Semenya’s challenge of the award (for an extensive commentary of the ruling see Marjolaine Viret’s article on the Asser International Sports Law Blog).

Recently, on 25 February 2021, Caster Semenya announced her decision to lodge an application at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) against Switzerland on the basis of this judgment. In this context, we thought it important to organise a Zoom In webinar around the decision of the SFT and the pending case before the ECtHR. Indeed, should the ECtHR accept the case, it will be in a position to provide a definitive assessment of the human rights compatibility of the DSD Regulation. Moreover, this decision could have important consequences on the role played by human rights in the review of the private regulations and decisions of international sports governing bodies.


Participation is free, register HERE.

New Video! Zoom In on World Anti-Doping Agency v. Russian Anti-Doping Agency - 25 February

Dear readers,

If you missed it (or wish to re-watch it), the video of our third Zoom In webinar from 25 February on the CAS award in the World Anti-Doping Agency v. Russian Anti-Doping Agency case is available on the YouTube channel of the Asser Institute:

Stay tuned and watch this space, the announcement for the next Zoom In webinar, which will take place on 31 March, is coming soon!

A Reflection on Recent Human Rights Efforts of National Football Associations - By Daniela Heerdt (Tilburg University)

Editor's Note: Daniela Heerdt is a PhD researcher at Tilburg Law School in the Netherlands. Her PhD research deals with the establishment of responsibility and accountability for adverse human rights impacts of mega-sporting events, with a focus on FIFA World Cups and Olympic Games. She published a number of articles on mega-sporting events and human rights, in the International Sports Law Journal, Tilburg Law Review, and the Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights.


In the past couple of years, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) made remarkable steps towards embedding human rights into their practices and policies. These developments have been discussed at length and in detail in this blog and elsewhere, but a short overview at this point is necessary to set the scene. Arguably, most changes were sparked by John Ruggie’s report from 2016, in which he articulated a set of concrete recommendations for FIFA “on what it means for FIFA to embed respect for human rights across its global operations”, using the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) as authoritative standard.[i] As a result, in May 2017, FIFA published a human rights policy, in which it commits to respecting human rights in accordance with the UNGPs, identifies its salient human rights risks, and acknowledges the potential adverse impacts it can have on human rights in general and human rights of people belonging to specific groups. In October 2017, it adopted new bidding regulations requiring bidders to develop a human rights strategy and conduct an independent human rights risk assessment as part of their bid. In March 2017, FIFA also created a Human Rights Advisory Board, which regularly evaluated FIFA’s human rights progress and made recommendations on how FIFA should address human rights issues linked to its activities. The mandate of the Advisory Board expired at the end of last year and the future of this body is unknown at this point.

While some of these steps can be directly connected to the recommendations in the Ruggie report, other recommendations have largely been ignored. One example of the latter and focus of this blog post is the issue of embedding human rights at the level of national football associations. It outlines recent steps taken by the German football association “Deutscher Fussball-Bund” (DFB) and the Dutch football association “Koninklijke Nederlandse Voetbalbond” (KNVB) in relation to human rights, and explores to what extent these steps can be regarded as proactive moves by those associations or rather spillover effects from FIFA’s human rights efforts. More...

New Event! Zoom In on World Anti-Doping Agency v. Russian Anti-Doping Agency - 25 February - 16:00-17:30 CET

On Thursday 25 February 2021 from 16.00-17.30 CET, the Asser International Sports Law Centre, in collaboration with Dr Marjolaine Viret (University of Lausanne), organizes a Zoom In webinar on the recent award of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in the case World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) v. Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA), delivered on 17 December 2020.

In its 186 pages decision the CAS concluded that RUSADA was non-compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code (WADC) in connection with its failure to procure the delivery of the authentic LIMS data (Laboratory Information Management System) and underlying analytical data of the former Moscow Laboratory to WADA. However, the CAS panel did not endorse the entire range of measures sought by WADA to sanction this non-compliance. It also reduced the time frame of their application from four to two years. The award has been subjected to a lot of public attention and criticisms, and some have expressed the view that Russia benefited from a lenient treatment.   

This edition of our Zoom in webinars will focus on assessing the impact of the award on the world anti-doping system. More specifically, we will touch upon the decision’s effect on the capacity of WADA to police institutionalized doping systems put in place by certain states, the ruling’s regard for the rights of athletes (Russian or not), and its effect on the credibility of the world anti-doping system in the eyes of the general public.

To discuss the case with us, we are very happy to welcome the following speakers:

Participation is free, register HERE.

Revisiting FIFA’s Training Compensation and Solidarity Mechanism - Part. 5: Rethinking Redistribution in Football - By Rhys Lenarduzzi

Editor’s note: Rhys Lenarduzzi recently completed a Bachelor of Law (LL.B) and Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.) at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, Australia. As a former professional athlete, then international sports agent and consultant, Rhys is interested in international sports law, policy and ethics. He is currently undertaking an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on Transnational Sports Law.


As one may have gathered from the series thus far, the question that comes out of this endeavour for me, is whether redistribution in football would be better divorced from the transfer system?

In my introductory blog I point towards historical, cultural, and of course the legal explanations as to why redistribution was established, and why it might be held onto despite obvious flaws. In my second blog, I point out how the training compensation and solidarity mechanisms work in practice through an African case study, as well as the hindrance caused and the Eurocentricity of the regulations. The key take-away from my third blog on the non-application of training compensation in women’s football might be that training compensation should apply to both men’s and women’s football, or neither. The sweeping generalisation that men’s and women’s football are different as justification for the non-application to the women’s game is not palatable, given inter alia the difference between the richest and poorest clubs in men’s football. Nor is it palatable that the training compensation mechanism is justified in men’s football to incentivise training, yet not in women’s football.

In the fourth blog of this series, I raise concerns that the establishment of the Clearing House prolongs the arrival of a preferable alternative system. The feature of this final blog is to consider alternatives to the current systems. This endeavour is manifestly two-fold; firstly, are there alternatives? Secondly, are they better?  More...

Revisiting FIFA’s Training Compensation and Solidarity Mechanism - Part. 4: The New FIFA Clearing House – An improvement to FIFA’s training compensation and solidarity mechanisms? - By Rhys Lenarduzzi

Editor’s note: Rhys Lenarduzzi recently completed a Bachelor of Law (LL.B) and a Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.) at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, Australia. As a former professional athlete, then international sports agent and consultant, Rhys is interested in international sports law, policy and ethics. He is currently undertaking an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on Transnational Sports Law.

In September 2018, the Football Stakeholders Committee endorsed the idea of a Clearing House that was subsequently approved in October of the same year by the FIFA Council. A tender process commenced in July 2019 for bidders to propose jurisdiction, operation and establishment. Whilst many questions go unanswered, it is clear that the Clearing House will be aimed at closing the significant gap between what is owed and what is actually paid, in respect to training compensation and solidarity payments. The Clearing House will have other functions, perhaps in regard to agents’ fees and other transfer related business, though those other operations are for another blog. It will hence act as an intermediary of sorts, receiving funds from a signing and therefore owing club (“new” club) and then moving that money on to training clubs. Whilst separate to FIFA, to what extent is unclear.

I have landed at the position of it being important to include a section in this blog series on the soon to commence Clearing House, given it appears to be FIFA’s (perhaps main) attempt to improve the training compensation and solidarity mechanisms. As will be expanded upon below, I fear it will create more issues than it will solve. Perhaps one should remain patient and optimistic until it is in operation, and one should be charitable in that there will undoubtedly be teething problems. However, it is of course not just the function of the Clearing House that is of interest, but also what moving forward with the project of the Clearing House represents and leaves unaddressed, namely, the issues I have identified in this blog series. More...

Asser International Sports Law Blog | League of Legends European Championships - Challenging the Boundaries of Sport in EU Law - By Thomas Terraz

Asser International Sports Law Blog

Our International Sports Law Diary
The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

League of Legends European Championships - Challenging the Boundaries of Sport in EU Law - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a third year LL.B. candidate at the International and European Law programme at The Hague University of Applied Sciences with a specialisation in European Law. Currently he is pursuing an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on International and European Sports Law.

1.     Introduction

The surge of e-sports has stimulated a lively discussion on the essential characteristics of sport and whether e-sports, in general, can be considered a sport. However, one should not overlook the fact that e-sports encompass a broad range of video games that fundamentally differ from one another. Thus, as one commentator recently underlined, “the position of video games and the e-sport competitions based on them should be analysed on a case-by-case basis.”[1] In this spirit, this blog aims to provide a concise analysis of one of these e-sports, League of Legends (LoL), and one of its main competitions, the League of Legends European Championship (LEC), to assess whether it could be considered a sport in the sense of EU law. The LEC offers a fascinating opportunity to examine this issue especially since the previous European League of Legends Championship Series (EU LCS) was rebranded and restructured this year into the LEC.


2.     What is League of Legends and the LEC?

At the time of writing, LoL released nearly a decade ago by Riot Games (a game developer based in the USA) and rapidly became one of the most played video games in the world due in part to its free to play business model. This means that anyone can download and play LoL on their computer without ever having to pay anything. In-game microtransactions exist but do not provide any competitive advantage. The game itself involves two teams of five players who each control a ‘champion’, which are characters in the game that each possess unique abilities. A team only wins when it has destroyed the enemy base (‘nexus’). The game is not only a popular video game, but it is a popular e-sport. The most recent world championships finals attracted 99.6 million unique viewers. While these numbers are greatly due to its popularity in China and South Korea, there is also a sizeable European viewership of LoL. For example, the LEC regular season matches have reached a record-breaking 355,000 concurrent viewers in its 2019 spring competition.

The LEC is LoL’s highest level of European competition and is owned and organised by Riot Games who establishes and enforces the rules which apply to the teams participating in the LEC. Consequently, Riot Games is truly at the apex of professional LoL in Europe by setting both the in-game parameters (the rules of the game) and the regulations that govern its competitive play. As explained earlier, Riot Games restructured and rebranded its previous European competition, EU LCS, into the LEC. While previously the EU LCS was characterised by a pyramid structure with a promotion and relegation system familiar to the European sports world, the LEC introduced a franchise model to follow its sibling competition in North America, the League Championship Series (LCS). The LEC itself is a limited liability company registered in the Republic of Ireland as League of Legends European Championship Limited.[2] The LEC buy-in fee for teams already in the EU LCS was reportedly set at 8 million euros and 10.5 million euros for those outside the EU LCS. Additionally, big brands such as KIA, Shell, Foot Locker and Red Bull sponsor the LEC and are featured during the broadcast. Besides being produced and diffused weekly by the official Riot Games English broadcast team in a professional studio in Berlin on Twitch (an online video game livestreaming service) and YouTube, the LEC partners with other official broadcasters who provide coverage of the matches in other languages (French, Spanish, Polish, German, Italian). Nevertheless, before examining the LEC’s position under EU law, a review of the broader arguments on the fundamental traits of sport will contextualise the Court of Justice of the European Union’s (CJEU) interpretation of the concept of sport.


3.     Is LoL played in the LEC a sport competition?

The academic discourse on the definition of sport has provided a plethora of elements and conditions for an aspiring sport to meet in order to be considered a ‘real’ sport. Needless to say, this blog will not be able to address all of them. However, the characteristics identified by Suits and elaborated by Jenny et al. and Abanazir are a good starting point for this brief review.[3] Suits explains that sports are in essence games that require skill, where the skill requires physicality, that the game have a wide following, and that this following have a certain level of stability. Abanazir delved into the concept of stability in the e-sports context by explaining institutionalisation’s central role in achieving permanence.

On the first requirement, there is very little room to argue that professional LoL does not require a great amount of skill. Suits explains that games of skill provide ‘unnecessary obstacles’ (in relation to daily life) “to realize capacities not otherwise realizable” that do not rely on pure chance.[4] Playing LoL is not in any way a necessary part of human life, yet many players practicing LoL play to refine and improve their mechanical skill (the physical element of the game, e.g. muscle memory and reflexes). Chance sometimes plays a role in LoL, but it is rarely a decisive factor in determining the outcome of a competitive match. Generally, Riot Games has taken steps over the years to limit the elements of pure luck in its game.

The role of physical motor skills in e-sports has been explained in detail by van Hilvoorde and Pot, and this blog will not dive into the arguments on whether actions taken in a video game can be considered taking place in the ‘real’ world.[5] Assuming that it does, the skill required in LoL is intrinsically connected to its physicality. LoL is played on a computer with a mouse and a keyboard. High level play requires precise movement of the arm, wrist and/or hand to most effectively control one’s character with the mouse. Additionally, the clicks and inputs registered by one’s fingers on the mouse and keyboard must be timed precisely and with enough practice these movements become muscle memory. The classic example of a game that does not require this sort of physicality is chess because the manner in which one moves a chess piece from a to b does not affect the result of the game. On the other hand, LoL demands precise and timed movements of the player’s arms, wrists, and/or fingers to be played optimally. One can be a LoL strategic genius but without a sufficient level of mechanical skill, it is impossible to become a professional LoL player.

Next, a large following is probably the easiest criteria for LoL and the LEC to fulfil. Between the large viewership that watch the LoL events online and the thousands of spectators that come to watch the championships live, there is very little doubt that LoL and the LEC have a wide following at the moment. However, this point leads into the next element which arguably may be the hardest criteria for it to satisfy in the long term: stability.

Video games and consequently, e-sports, generally reach a point where they have achieved their max popularity and eventually begin to lose players and viewers. Often times, this is the result of newly released video games pushing older and ‘outdated’ games out of the spotlight. LoL has remained at the forefront of e-sports for nearly a decade and there is little suggestion that this will change in the near future. Part of this is Riot Games’ continued support of LoL by regularly updating the game. Updates are released nearly every other week and can range from graphical improvements, balancing the game to ensure the viability of new strategies, the introduction of new champions (currently 143 champions) and tweaks that improve the way the game runs on the computer. Abanazir describes that changes such as these “present a double-edged sword” because while they keep the game fresh for players, they can result in drastic changes to the best strategies (meta) to win the game.[6] Thus, professional teams and players must continually adapt their play to conform to the meta. Nevertheless, updates have never fundamentally changed the goal and overall ‘rules’ of the game. Professional LoL is always two teams of five players, each controlling one champion, aiming to destroy the enemy nexus.

From an outsider’s point of view, it may seem that the constant flux of the meta would truly damage any of LoL’s claim to stability. However, in this context, it is imperative to highlight the institutionalisation of the LEC. Institutionalisation describes the appearance of “standardisation of rules, the formalisation of learning of the games, the development of expertise and finally the emergence of coaches, trainers, officials and governing bodies.”[7] The very fact that the meta often changes have pushed professional teams to hire analysts that review the team’s play and are constantly searching for new and creative ways to play LoL. Additionally, all professional teams have at least one coach who not only define the team’s strategy before each game, but also ensure that players observe strict practice schedules. During LEC matches, referees (Riot Games employees) are always present in order to ensure that the LEC rules are observed, which greatly lends to the idea of a ‘standardisation’ of the rules.[8] In fact, Riot Games directly state that the creation of the LEC Rulebook is to help “unify and standardize the rules used in competitive play.”[9] From this outline, there are many indications that the LEC and LoL have many of the characteristics of a sport and currently have achieved a certain amount of stability and institutionalisation. The true test will be whether these structures continue to last as they have been developed and implemented over the past eight years.


4.     A Sport under EU Law?

Recently, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled on whether the English Bridge Union could benefit from a sports exemption under the VAT Directive and in doing so examined the concept of sport under that Directive.[10] Furthermore, in this case, Advocate General (AG) Szpunar provided an enlightening opinion to the Court examining the concept of sport in the context of the VAT exemption.[11] Both provide a good opportunity to infer how the Court would perhaps go about determining whether the LEC is a sport competition under EU law. This being said, the sport exception in the current VAT Directive would not apply to the LEC since Article 132 (1) (m) applies only to services provided by non-profit organisations. Nonetheless, should League of Legends European Championship Limited eventually restructure into a non-profit, it would not be far-fetched to imagine a situation in which it would seek to have VAT reimbursed from authorities under a sports exception in the future. After all, Riot Games has repeatedly stated that it does not make a profit on its e-sport activities.[12]

The AG’s opinion began by explaining that the concept of sport in the exemption should be “interpreted in a narrow manner, while bearing in mind the purpose and objective of the exemption.”[13] From this it is clear that the analysis of the concept of sport differs depending on the applicable provision, which could mean that the LEC could be considered a sport competition under one provision and a purely economic activity in another context. The AG goes on to identifying elements which preclude an activity from being considered a sport and states that “where a physical element is not necessary, sport is defined by competition and the fact that equipment is provided by not just one supplier -  which excludes activities without a broad basis in civil society, such as commercial products in the market place, designed by firms for pure consumption (for instance video games).”[14] If this interpretation of the concept of sport had been endorsed by the CJEU, it would have constituted a tremendous obstacle for the LEC. Indeed, if the ‘equipment’ also encompasses the game itself, it is impossible to argue that Riot Games does not hold a monopoly over the supply of LoL. Moreover, Riot Games has made and continues to support LoL in order to make money. In analysing this opinion, Abanazir explains the core issue well: “e-sport competitions based on video games created for purely consumption purposes and organised by persons aimed to profit from these activities may find themselves out of the scope as they are perceived to be devoid of social function.”[15] Indeed, it can seem difficult for the LEC and LoL to argue that it has a deeper ‘social function’ but perhaps this requirement might not be completely insurmountable. An argument could be made that the e-sports aspect of LoL is not only a commercial product made for pure consumption especially because LoL is a free to play game, and Riot Games does not seem to be making any profit in its e-sport related activities. Riot Games and the LEC have also taken steps to enhance the social function of LoL by investing in regional leagues to develop local talent.

In its ruling on the Bridge case, the CJEU sidelined the AG’s approach and decided to focus on a physicality requirement. The Court, in examining the specific VAT provision, found that sport must be “characterised by a not negligible physical element,” and the fact that an activity has elements of competition, professionality and organisation were not deemed sufficient to argue that the activity is a sport for the VAT exemption.[16] Physicality was the central criteria in the CJEU’s interpretation of the concept of sport, but in doing so, it did not give any further clarity as to the threshold of physicality required for an activity to benefit from the VAT sport exemption. It has already been contended above that LoL does have a clear physical element which is intrinsically connected to the game’s skill, yet the question remains whether the physicality would be considered more than negligible by the CJEU.

In summary, if LoL and the LEC were to be examined under the VAT Directive sport exemption, it would be confronted with several challenges. The approach endorsed in the AG’s opinion would have been the most problematic since LoL is mainly a commercial product designed to attract consumers and ultimately profit a private company. However, the CJEU chose to focus its interpretation of the concept of sport on a physicality criterion. This decision may give the LEC a wide enough window to argue that the fine motor skills involved in LoL are enough to fulfil this condition.

5.     Conclusion

In its current form, the LEC would not be able to benefit from the sport exemption in the VAT Directive, but this is just one provision of EU law, and there could be other opportunities where it could attempt to claim to be a sport. In the meantime, this gives an opportunity to Riot Games to continue to develop and emphasise the social function of its e-sports competitions, which might entail building a not-for-profit entity to run the competition and to strengthen the redistribution of economic gains to the grassroots. In any case, LoL and the LEC share many characteristics with established sports, but it remains to be seen if this will be enough to boost its recognition as a ‘real’ sport in law and society.

[1] Cem Abanazir, ‘E-sport and the EU: the view from the English Bridge Union’ (2019) International Sports Law Journal 102.

[2]LEC Rules’ (LoLEsports).

[3] William Morgan, Ethics in Sport (3rd edn, Human Kinetics 2018) ch 1: Elements of Sport by Bernard Suits; Seth Jenny et al., ‘Virtual(ly) Athletes: Where eSports fit within the definition of “Sport”’(2016) Quest 1; Cem Abanazir, ‘Institutionalisation in E-Sports’ (2019) Sport, Ethics and Philosophy 117.

[4] Morgan (n 3) ch 1.

[5] Ivo van Hilvoorde and Niek Pot, ‘Embodiment and fundamental motor skills in eSports’ (2016) Sports, Ethics and Philosophy 14.

[6] Abanazir (n 3).

[7] Jenny et al. (n 3); Abanazir (n 3).

[8] See LEC Rulebook Art. 8.15.

[9] LEC Rules (n 2).

[10] Case C-90/16 The English Bridge Union Limited v Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs ECLI:EU:C:2017:814.

[11] Case C-90/16 The English Bridge Union Limited v Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs ECLI:EU:C:2017:814, Opinion of AG Szpunar.

[12] Steven Asarch, ‘“League of Legends” cuts esports budget, can Riot Games bounce back?’ (Newsweek, 28 August 2018); Derrick Asiedu head of Global Events at Riot Games confirmed this in a Reddit post: “We’re a long way from breaking even (revenue minus cost equalling 0)”.

[13] English Bridge Union Opinion (n 11) para 21.

[14] English Bridge Union Opinion (n 11) para 38.

[15] Abanazir (n 1).

[16] English Bridge Union (n 10) para 19, 25.

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