Labor Relations and ‘League of Legends’

A few weeks ago, Riot Games, the developers of League of Legends, whose fans otherwise heap overwhelming praise on the company for their positive community interaction, stunned many players by a competitive scene policy announcement. Professional eSports players participating in the upcoming Season 4 Championship Series would be prohibited from streaming competitors’ games entirely. While Riot quickly backpedaled on the policy, the approach and subsequent apology reveals the precarious edge upon which eSports and labor rights reside.

Of course from a business perspective, Riot’s decision made sense. Their most successful players stream to tens of thousands of followers daily, their playing habits and banter happily consumed by avid fans. When one of these streamers decides to hop into, say, Dota 2, Valve gets a lovely promotional opportunity that targets the perfect audience to undermine their competitor. Riot, perhaps understandably, sought to curb their competitors from essentially advertising directly to League players via LCS players.

Also understandable, and indeed predictable, was the fan outcry. More than anything Riot has done up to this point, the contract stipulation seemed to be purely business motivated. Those who enjoy watching League of Legends players, even when they do not stream League, felt slighted. For a company that seems so community focused, Riot showed sudden signs of greed.

While the rule was scrapped quickly as a result of the backlash, disconcerting issues remain, particularly Riot’s positioning of ownership over their players. As Riot staff pointed out in their retraction on Reddit, players are paid employees of Riot during the duration of the championship series. But who regulates these strange new game/labor relationships in which a major corporation is fundamentally shaping the future of a sport that relies heavily on very young participants?

Paul Tassi from Forbes rightly points out that Riot’s decision is not unlike a non-compete clause in which companies legally prevent their employees working for competitors. Even after the retraction, Riot is still limiting competitor sponsorship, so in some ways, they are still applying a non-compete clause in their player contracts. Still, non-compete agreement laws vary state by state. In California, where Riot does business, non-competes are entirely prohibited. The legality of a non-compete for eSports players is fuzzy at best.

Scott, my PopMatters compatriot, compared these issues to similar deals in the NFL. Professional football players often have stipulations in their contracts that limit their behavior. A star running back, for example, may be prohibited from riding motorcycles, as an accident may do irreparable harm to their body and therefore their value to their team. The NFL body is an owned body. Now, it seems, eSports players are similarly commodified.

But can we really apply the same labor norms from the NFL to eSports players? For one, NFL players make an absurd amount of money as salary (although whether they are paid sufficiently for permanent body damage or trained in personal finances is another matter). These players also earn money when they compete in and win championships, but the earnings from, say, winning the Super Bowl, is a fraction of what they make as salaried employees. Rough estimations of LCS salaried players seems the opposite, players receive a wage from Riot, but must earn most of their money from sponsorship deals and tournament prize packages, all of which are split among five players, coaches, and team owners.

Unfortunately I have no numbers to make a solid claim one way or another. Also unlike the NFL, player and team contracts are still secret. While I can tell you Peyton Manning has a five year contract worth 96 million dollars, Riot does not release information on player salaries outside the company. Certainly some players earn a great deal of money for their short run as gaming celebrities, but those amateur players (or those with short-lived careers) put themselves at risk in a volatile and unclear employment situation. As Matt Weber of Team Liquid states in a recent Polygon article, “players are generally young kids who are more then willing to get taken advantage of for a chance to ;play games for a living.’”

This is precisely where eSports fans should be most concerned. In the burgeoning landscape of eSports, exploitation of labor is a legitimate concern. If Riot is to forge ahead with the employee/employer relationship, then it should be treated with all the importance and weight that such a relationship implies. Even with the standards set by the NFL, collegiate and high school athletes are frequently exploited at great cost personally and monetarily. Those driving modern eSports should use this moment as an opportunity to set better labor standards for their players.

Perhaps, as some have suggested, they should start with the formation of an eSports players union. If Riot seeks to create contractual obligations that express a sense of ownership, then players can and should negotiate collectively for a contract free of exploitation. NFL players, even with their immense salaries, are represented as a union by the NFL Players Association, which does engage in collective bargaining on their behalf. If we expect eSports to achieve its status as a legitimate and professional sport, than we should expect sponsors and employees to respect and promote a healthy labor relationship.