Laying down the law: Legal professionals on how (and if) esports pros can take their org to court

by Sasha Erfanian Mar 7 2017
Thumbnail image courtesy of Lonpicman / Wikimedia Commons

When former Dream Team and mousesports coach Nick “Inero” Smith boarded a plane to Australia to head up Tainted Minds’ OPL team, he was excited to use the opportunity to help develop the amateur scene.

“I had a plan in my head. I wanted to come over here and try something with international players,” he said. “For me, my biggest interest isn't just going straight to LCS, it's not something I'm too interested in. I want to stay in amateur leagues. Or at least, that's what I wanted to do. And just work with players that are in kind of this middle ground between playing professionally and playing as an amateur and just help them through that whole process.”

However, within three months of stepping into their Strathfield team house, Inero would find himself locked in a highly public legal battle with the organization over allegedly poor, contract-violating working conditions he says made it impossible for him and his players to perform at their best.

Not only did the org not have computers for them when they first arrived, but Inero claims internet issues forced them to miss scrims and practice in an internet café. Not to mention the frequent power outages they faced — as many as 12 in one day, according to Inero. Inero said the house also suffered from sanitation issues such as mold and insufficient access to waste disposal due to the organization’s failure to get authorization for a second garbage bin for the team.

“We only had one tiny bin to use for seven people and obviously, trash only gets picked up once a week, right?” Inero said. “And we had no recycling bin, we literally just had that one tiny red bin outside to put all the trash in. And that bin was filled up way too quickly and over time, trash just started piling up in different parts of the house because we had nowhere to put it.”

Inero said that after weeks of Tainted Minds failing to solve the issues, the roster attempted to settle things with the org through mediation with Riot Games. But when that failed, Inero and several players chose to hire a lawyer who helped them send notices of termination for cause due to a breach of contract.

However, to date, Tainted Minds have refused to acknowledge any contract breaches and neither the org nor Riot Games have taken them off the roster in the Global Contract Database, meaning they are unable to join new teams until the situation is resolved. Inero said that Tainted Minds’ refusal to admit any wrongdoing and keeping them in legal limbo has been deeply frustrating for him.

“For them to say, ‘No, you guys are still under contract. We haven't breached anything,’ really, really pissed me off personally because I gave them every chance,” he said. “I tried to be really nice about it, fixing things. I had constant meetings with Tainted Minds trying to help them work through all of this stuff. And yeah, it just, it never got fixed.”

'People are too scared to do anything about it'

The story of Inero and his players is not uncommon in esports. There have been many high-profile cases of players alleging their organization breached the terms of their agreements.

For instance, former Team Secret players Jackie “EternalEnvy” Mao and Rasmus "MiSeRy" Filipsen accused the organization of mishandling their prize money. Team Secret has since parted ways with its then-director Kemal Sadikoglu.

While team owner Clement "Puppey" Ivanov claimed in a March 6 Twitlonger that they had "fulfilled all of our obligations towards previous players for their time at secret," EternalEnvy replied on Twitter that he had still not received compensation.

There was also the case of Marcin "SELFIE" Wolski attempting to leave MeetYourMakers in 2015 due to missed payments only for his manager to threaten his family to force his return. SELFIE was 18 at the time.

Despite the growth of esports, it’s still fairly rare to see players seek legal aid in these cases, as Inero and his players have. Even with thousands in missing prize money and unpaid salary on the line, players will often choose to take the loss rather than take their organization to court.

“Seeking legal help isn't something necessarily players can do very easily,” Inero said. “It's costly, most people are 17 to 20 years old, have no idea how to handle that whole process, have no idea where to even start. And it's just like, I don't know, it seems too overwhelming for them to get into, and most teams just kind of deal with it. And they just suck up the issues and just roll on with it. So I feel like it doesn't get called out as often as it needs to. I feel like it's really, really common and that's just, yeah, people are too scared to do anything about it.”

In January, StarCraft II players Kevin "Harstem" de Koning, Juan Carlos "MajOr" Tena Lopez and Julian "Lambo" Brosig all left Invasion eSport, alleging that the org’s manager, Sebastien “Sebou” Dang, had disappeared with several thousand dollars of their prize money. Though Harstem and MajOr did consult with lawyers, they ultimately decided not to pursue legal action.

“Let me lay down the situation. It's a French team, with a Swiss manager, and I'm Dutch. I think that should complicate it enough,” Harstem explained to theScore esports in January.

The 22-year-old player said he is owed $4,000 from his Top 16 finish at DreamHack Montreal, however Los Angeles attorney and FGC commentator David "ultradavid" Philip Graham said that a protracted, international legal case can very quickly make that sum look like chump change.

“I couldn't even tell you a proper estimate. Certainly, something close to six figures I would imagine. Certainly in the high tens at the minimum,” he said. “When clients of mine in esports in the past have been aggrieved, we've looked into how much litigation would cost and best estimate for something that was not even international, it was local, would have been maybe about $800,000. Compared to seven thousand dollars, it's absurd to consider.”

So the question remains, how can players protect themselves from these sorts of situations before they arise? According to Michael E. Strauss and Christopher P. Hoffman of Reed Smith LLP, it all starts with a good contract.

“One of the core issues that will always dictate what types of remedies players have is what their contract says with the organization,” Strauss said. “These types of issues will turn on whether their contract says 1. they're owed the type of money that they're saying that they're owed. And 2. whether they fulfilled all of their obligations under the contract to earn that money.”

“[If] the player's done everything right and fulfilled everything he or she has to do in order to be entitled to that compensation, then you're in a general sort of run-of-the-mill, traditional breach of contract situation,” Hoffman said “And, y'know, the player at that point has a decision to make in terms of whether to bring a lawsuit, try to address it internally as a housekeeping matter.”

'It's funny how getting salary late kind of desensitized myself from stuff like this'

However, even if you have a contract, that doesn't mean you're immune from trouble. The situation for the former Invasion players is far less cut-and-dry than a simple contract dispute. According to Harstem and MajOr’s mother and manager, Maru Lopez Ramirez, Sebou all but disappeared in December while on a trip to China without either players or Invasion personnel able to get in contact with him.

“The other guys [in Invasion], they are very shocked,” Harstem said. “They apologized multiple times to me, they're basically ... I wouldn't call them victims exactly, because they don't have the same monetary loss as MajOr, Lambo and I have. But, I think it would be very unfair to say that they have the same part in this as Sebou.”

According to Harstem, before Sebou’s involvement with the organization, Invasion had been a simple community team. It wasn’t until Sebou came in that Invasion began fielding pro players, initially signed and salaried out of Sebou’s own pocket.

However, while Harstem said Sebou was independently wealthy, January wasn’t the first time the Swiss manager was accused of failing to meet his financial obligations. In August, Sebou was accused by then-MVP coach Lee "Choya" Hyung Seop of failing to pay former Invasion player Koh "GuMiho" Byung Jae several thousand dollars in expenses and prize money from his time with the team. In a January video AMA, GuMiHo said he still had not been paid. Even earlier, in January 2016, ex-Afreeca Freecs coach Yi "Legend" Seon Jeong accused Sebou of failing to pay fees from an aborted deal with SBENU.

Though Harstem admits the incidents with Choya and, in particular, Legend worried him, ultimately, he chose to trust Sebou. After he left Fnatic in 2015, Harstem says he spoke with several teams, but chose Invasion in part because Sebou had left a good impression on him at IEM Sao Paolo 2014.

“He always tried to help me wherever he could,” Harstem said of working with Sebou. “I've been a player that had a lot of trouble playing offline, and he always tried to help me, just talk to me about it. I always got a lot of trust. Even when I wouldn't be in perfect shape, I would still get sent to tournaments. Yeah, like, him as a person, I don't know. Just like, a nice guy. I liked hanging out with him.”

Though Harstem says they had a good personal relationship, that didn’t mean their professional relationship was smooth. Late payments were the norm at Invasion eSport under Sebou, with salary installments coming in as much as three weeks after the agreed upon day, according to Harstem. The situation became so frequent, that it ceased being an issue for Harstem. It was the new normal.

“It's funny how getting salary late kind of desensitized myself from stuff like this,” Harstem said. “I feel like if this would have happened just without ever getting salary late, I would have been a lot more worried. But because everything was always kind of late, like, you kind of get used to it in a way, you know?”

While Harstem admitted it was still possible that Sebou really was simply out of reach, he was all but certain he had fled with the prize money.

“It just feels very weird still. But I guess that's what it looks like the most. The most logical reason. It's funny, because I had similar conversations with the other guys from Invasion,” Harstem said. “We're all … I guess, confused is the best word honestly. It just, I don't know, makes little sense. I guess we might have been, I guess especially me, might have been a little too naive, too trusting. And I guess we paid the price for it now.”

ultradavid said that while contracts are very important for any player or professional to have, there’s only so much they can do in a situation such as this.

“Having a contract is useful, it's very helpful so that everybody knows what's expected of them and what all their options are, and that by itself is really valuable,” he said. “But oftentimes in business, esports included, the contract itself is only as good as the practical enforcement of it is. And if practically speaking, it's very difficult to enforce because somebody's disappeared off the radar.”

'I feel like it's just a constant thing'

As they wait for legal proceedings to unfold, Inero and his team, many of whom are international players, are waiting out the storm in Australia.

Save for Andrew "Rosey" Rose, who is from Melbourne, Inero and his players are currently staying with Aaron "ChuChuZ" Bland’s family. Inero said the saga has been particularly hard for ChuChuZ, who had planned to make this split his last hurrah before putting League on hold and returning to school.

“He felt really bad, because he just wanted to play this split and try going through OPL in a different team,” Inero said. “And he kind of feels like it was just taken away from him because of everything that happened, which is pretty sad. And I know the other guys feel the same. Like, they just want to play, so they're pretty upset that they're stuck not being able to right now.”

As difficult as the Tainted Minds situation has been for them, Inero said they are far from the first roster to go through this sort of ordeal and that they’re unlikely to be the last.

“I feel like it's just a constant thing,” he said. “I think a lot of teams actually deal with a lot of stuff like this. But a lot of teams are too hesitant to actually call it out, because of the fact that y'know, the organization and Riot just have so much power over you.”

With the difficulties, costs and frustrations legal action could entail for players or any esports professional considering taking legal action in a dispute, the question of whether the effort and heartache is worth it is a difficult one to answer.

However, Hoffman said that it’s important that they consider what the decision will mean for the next player to find themselves in the same predicament.

“There's probably more at stake than just the dollar amount issue,” he said. “Because a lot of what is taking place in real time is setting up the policies, procedures, protocols, and the ways of doing business that the various stakeholders are going to perform under going forward.”

This is the first part of a two-part series. Check back in for Part 2, where we'll look into what enforcement mechanics it will take to lay down the law in esports.

Sasha Erfanian is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.