The ECE Stakeholder Relationship Diamond – Why Athletes Should Care!

My name is Eliott Cheeseman and I am an esport agent. I am a law school graduate from Queen’s University in Canada. I believe esports are the future of sports entertainment.

There have been two constants in my life: sports and video games. Whether it was plugging in my first Super Nintendo or lacing up a new pair of hockey skates…I have always been driven to compete…driven to win! Both of these passions have helped me understand the focus, drive, mindset and determination an athlete must develop to succeed consistently at their chosen sport, and how they retain that mindset throughout their career and beyond.

As I look out over the wild, wonderful and fast growing world of esports, I see a world with a myriad of moving parts, all kinds of growing pains and massive issues that need to be addressed. Never before has a sports frontier emerged so quickly and grown so exponentially. With a global audience of over 380 million and an annual revenue closing in on 1 billion dollars it’s even got the International Olympic Committee giving serious thought as to its future potential.

As the esport industry matures, the relationship between these four main areas will become increasingly important. The focus of this blog series will cover the relationships in these four areas:

  1. The Athletes
  2. Game Developers
  3. Labour Relations – which includes unions and all forms of legal representation
  4. Intellectual Property (IP)

I put these 4 areas onto the ‘ECEsports Stakeholder Relationship Diamond’ to show how and where the points converge. As the industry grows, the diamond can, and will, be pulled and pushed in and out of equilibrium depending on the forces or interests that are paramount, and how those forces affect the relationships between the areas at any given moment. Balance, fairness and equality in every respect prevails when the diamond actually resembles a diamond.

To begin the conversation let’s take a brief look at the relationships between the people represented by the points on the diamond. In future blogs we’ll look deeper into the individual ‘points’ themselves but by way of introduction, let’s dissect some inter-diamond relationships.

The Athlete / Labour Relations

Sports and unions go hand in hand. While this wasn’t always the case, we need to look no further than the NBA, the NHL, or the MLB to see how player associations have shaped the culture of today’s sports organizations. As the esport industry grows, it will begin to move past the unrepresented and unregulated chaos that presently occurs. The esport industry has already begun to establish more order and stability, by adding permanent franchises, revenue sharing agreements, player-centric features, and other financially successful elements of the traditional sports family – but there is still much left to do if esport athletes want to be as successful and protected as their traditional sport counterparts.

Game Developers / Labour Relations

While sports and unions may go hand in hand…the incarnations we see in traditional sports today have typically been initiated by the players in reaction to the need for fair representation in every facet of the sport. Game Developers have been reading the writing on the wall and are scrambling to get ahead of the curve by attempting to establish unions or player associations. Riot Games in particular has taken decisive steps toward creating a players’ association for the North American League of Legends Championship Series.

While we may applaud Riot for ‘putting the player first’, we have to ask…what’s in it for them? The conflict of interest here is obvious. How can a Game Developer truly have the player’s best interests at heart? I’m picturing the negotiation table…representatives from Riot’s developers on one side and Riot appointed athlete representatives on the other. What’s the common denominator here? Who wins? Riot. All day, every day. Athletes should not view a player association of this nature in a positive light. This type of union will never be a true representation of the player’s interest. A true union is an independent organization – by the athletes, for the athletes.

Athletes / Intellectual Property Rights/Law

Intellectual property (IP) relates to “intangible” assets – examples include inventions, brands, new technologies, source code and artistic works. More specifically, IP pertains to patents, trademarks, copyright. IP also extends to trade secrets and confidential information; however, these latter two categories are not governed by a specific statute which makes interpretation and action challenging.

What’s important to understand are the concepts of ‘creation’ and ‘ownership’. When someone creates something, they own the IP and there are legal rules about the when, where and how others can use it.

What does that have to do with esports athletes? A whole lot as it turns out. The most successful athletes have built themselves a persona, an identity – a brand. Esport athletes should take notice – and apply many of the same principles. Something as simple as trademarking a ‘gamertag’ (i.e. an esport athlete’s online identity) is crucial for protection against that brand being hacked, misused or stolen. A gamer’s brand, reputation, and livelihood can be destroyed if they are not legally protected. And it’s not just gamers, many streamers, athletes and content creators have received notices of copyright infringement when they use unlicensed music during a stream, or in a video.

Game Developers / Intellectual Property

Then there is the actual video game. Nobody ‘owns’ the sport of football or soccer or baseball. These games are simply the platforms on which traditional athletes ‘play’. They are paid to play a game that nobody owns, in the context of an owned league incorporating equal representation. In esports, however, athletes actually have ZERO rights when it comes to the game itself. The game and all associated IP is ‘owned’ by the Game Developer and that developer allows players to play.

The link between the developers and their IP is the crux of the issue here. Athletes create a name and brand based on a platform (i.e. the video game) – but they do not “own”, or have an absolute “right” to use, that platform, it is a privilege – one that can theoretically be removed at any moment because they have no ownership or power to ensure the continued presence of the platform / game itself.  This puts athletes in an incredibly precarious position as evidenced by Blizzard’s 2018 decision to discontinue Heroes of the Storm’s competitive league, the Heroes Global Championship.  Players who had trained and prepared, for months, were left twisting the virtual wind.

So yes, the landscape is evolving, the issues are many, the relationships are crucial and the stakes almost incalculable! I’m here to help esports and esports athletes grow and succeed. As one who has a deep passion for esports competition, the shift it represents in our culture, and the new ground the industry is breaking, I see the need for professional representation. Athletes need to have their rights and careers protected. They should feel like they have someone who will take care of the business side of the industry, so that they can focus solely on competing. They should feel safe knowing that their representative will put their interests, needs and desires first at all times, period.   

Thanks for reading my blog. The above content is not legal advice but observation about the vast esports field. If you have any questions or comments, or would like to schedule me to speak at your event, contact me at [email protected]

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