Northern Gaming releases Bird amid contract dispute with Empyrean

by Josh Bury Jul 27 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of theScore esports / Northern Gaming / Blizzard Entertainment

Overwatch DPS player Mitchell "Bird" Guernica has been released from Northern Gaming Red and will play for Empyrean, despite a dispute between the two teams that erupted over the weekend when NG claimed that Bird broke his contract.

The dispute became public this weekend when Bird played with Empyrean for the first NA ELEAGUE Overwatch Open Qualifier. In a TwitLonger published Sunday, Northern Gaming CEO Mack Maring claimed that Bird was still under contract and had not been given permission to play with Empyrean.

"We will not be releasing [Bird] for the simple fact that it makes us look like our contracts have no validation, and we will not be seeking legal remedies because we do not want the reputation as the organization who sues players," Maring wrote before the qualifier. "We as an organization refuse to reward individuals for breaking contracts and making a mockery out of the E-Sports industry."

In a followup TwitLonger posted Sunday, Maring said the organization had reversed its position and felt it had no choice but to release Bird from their Overwatch roster, Northern Gaming Red.

"Moving forward, Bird will get no love from this organization or it's players, and he is officially a free bird," Maring wrote. "We are actively looking for a 6th to replace him, and will come back better than ever."

After several attempts, theScore esports has not been able to reach Bird for comment.

Over the course of several interviews with theScore esports, Maring alleged that Bird initially breached his contract with NG by holding secret conversations with Empyrean owner Winston "Pannucci" May while he was still actively playing for NG.

"[Bird] and his new manager, Pannucci, broke a very important clause of the contract between Bird and Northern Gaming when Bird failed to disclose to us that he was communicating with another organization," Maring said.

Pannucci declined to comment on whether or not discussions took place with Bird while he was under contract to NG. However, he said Empyrean and its legal counsel believed that Bird's contract was voided by NG before he left to play with Empyrean.

Under advice from his counsel, Pannucci would not discuss specifics of how NG allegedly voided the contract. However, he acknowledged that Empyrean believed NG had allegedly failed to pay Bird properly, and that the player "didn't feel safe" on the team.

Maring denied that Bird was owed payments, claiming that he had not been with the team long enough to have been paid out any prize earnings or other payments. Bird joined NG Red on June 26, and had been with the team for less than one month when he moved to Empyrean.

"He has been under contract for less than a month thus not being due any money other than what we would consider a 'fair agreement,'" Maring said. "Upon signing [Bird], I gave him $500 as a sign of good faith, as he had been with us for a few weeks at that point. Overall, he was not entitled to ANY money."

Maring also denied that he or the team had threatened Bird. The team does not have a team house and practices together online only, which Maring claimed would limit the threat of any physical violence between them.

He claimed that while the members often joked about running "a fight club-esque boxing match" in a potential future team house, everything was intended in jest. "This included jokes about body slamming each other through objects, dropping the gloves, round house kicking each other, and the ultimate disrespectful move: Dabbing on each other," Maring said. "Bird partook in many of these conversations and never once was anyone truly in harms contention."

Maring admitted that he asked Bird to agree to the condition that he would not play with Empyrean in his parting contract, though he says this happened well after Bird spoke with Pannucci. Maring claimed he had earlier offered a verbal agreement to release Bird either when his contract was bought out, a suitable full-time replacement was found, or the contract expired in September. Maring said Bird initially agreed to that arrangement, but when Pannucci failed to reach a buyout agreement with NG — after making what Maring called "a half-assed offer" — Bird demanded to be released immediately.

Maring claimed that at that point, he told Bird he would agree to release him immediately if Bird agreed on a clause in his parting contract that would prevent him from joining Empyrean. He said Bird did not agree to the terms, but went on to play for Empyrean at the Overwatch Open anyway.

David "NapTime" Fox, another player who has played with Bird on NGR and two former semipro teams, weighed into the dispute with his own TwitLonger on Saturday. He claimed that while with NGR, Bird had attempted to form his own separate team without the knowledge of Maring or his teammates.

"We were given information from multiple sources (some being his OWN FRIENDS and new teammates) that he was doing this, and that he was actively playing with them [the new team]. It was very obvious, and all of the proof was there and valid," NapTime wrote.

NapTime claimed NGR eventually caught Bird playing with his new team.

"He said 'I'm not even home right now', then it turned into 'yes I was on Discord with them but wasn't playing', just to find out he actually was playing with them," NapTime wrote. "I understand he didn't want to release any information due to legal matters, but I asked him as a friend and a teammate to just tell the truth and we could move forward as a team." NapTime says Bird told him "he would think about it," but didn't bring it up with Maring or his teammates before the dispute with Empyrean broke.

Northern Gaming Red has seen considerable success in their short time in the Overwatch scene. They placed third at the OG Invitational, defeating Cloud9 in the process. They also recently took a game from powerhouse Team EnVyUs in the semifinals of the BEAT Invitational.

Empyrean has not yet played at a LAN event. At the Overwatch Open qualifier, they were knocked out in the Round of 16 with a 2-0 loss to Selfless Gaming.

Josh "Gauntlet" Bury is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.