COLLECTIVE BARGAINING CHALLENGES IN THE RISE OF ESPORTS AND PROFESSIONAL VIDEO GAMING

MAXWELL ADAMS

J.D., 2019, Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law; B.A. 2016, Indiana University – Bloomington, Indiana; B.S.P.A. 2016, Indiana University – Bloomington, Indiana. 

On July 24, 2018, North American League of Legends team Echo Fox released player Kim “Fenix” Jae-Hun from its roster. Echo Fox released Fenix at noon that day, and because teams were required to lock in their full team roster for the next season split by 5 p.m., Fenix had only five hours to reach out to other teams, negotiate with those teams, agree on contract terms, and sign a contract with a team before the deadline. Fenix was unable to do so and, consequently, could not play in the 2018 summer split. The imbalance of bargaining power between teams and players in this nascent professional scene means situations like Fenix’s happen every year, and not just in League of Legends. Such player mistreatment in the NFL or NBA would draw the attention of ESPN and social media activists, but for someone like Fenix, people unfamiliar with the professional esports scene may have less sympathy or might just not care about a player who makes a living playing video games.

Even if the typical American cannot sympathize with a twenty-something- year-old who makes a living playing video games, the typical American can appreciate how much is at stake for these players. For North American League of Legends players, the current average player salary is around $320,000 per year, the same amount the average Major League Soccer player makes and even more than the average doctor or attorney makes. While other esports salaries are not as high, they are still above $100,000 per year. Despite these competitive salaries, appropriate safeguards found in traditional professional sports are not in place to protect esports players and their livelihoods and careers. Players and other concerned parties are responding to this imbalance by discussing the possibility of unions or players’ associations fort heir respective esport. Tosome, the idea of professional unions representing video game players may seem premature, even though esports are becoming a sizable presence in the modern professional competitive scene.

Riot Games created the game League of Legends in 2009, and in 2018, the world championship match of League of Legends garnered 99.6 million viewers globally. The world championship featured team Invictus Gaming of China and team Fnatic of Europe, the two remaining teams of twenty-four teams from five different continents that qualified for the world championship. The match was broadcast in nineteen different languages and could be watched on more than thirty platforms and television channels. League of Legends is one of a few video games that has translated into competitive video game playing, otherwise known as esports. Esports is a growing phenomenon globally, with the global esports market predicted to be greater than $3 billion in 2022. This growth has drawn comparisons to professional sports leagues like the National Football League and theNational Basketball Association. The absence of any esports players’ unions is a notable exception to the similarities, although the discussion of beginning some sort of collective bargaining arrangement has started in the more popular esports. The issue of collective bargaining is new to esports in general, but collective bargaining for other professional sports in the United States is decades old.

Part I of this Note explains the background of collective bargaining in the United States and how professional sports in this country have utilized collective bargaining. Part II of this Note transitions to an explanation of esports in the United States. With this background, Part III of this Note discusses the different challenges that esports faces in creating players’ unions under the National Labor Relations Act. Part III closes with recommendations that more financially developed, team-based esports whose primary source of player revenue derives from established season gameplay should take advantage of unionizing, while less developed esports or esports whose players derive their revenue from tournament- style gameplay should not take advantage of esports. Before discussing the option of collective bargaining, each esports league and its stakeholders should consider whether the game developer has promulgated a sophisticated set of league rules, whether the game developer has created a formal league structure in which a defined set of teams will compete, and whether the league and the competing teams have substantial financial investment to sustain their operations.  [Read entire Article here].