The problem of poaching and player egos: Could contracts boost the UK eSports scene?

We've touched on the topic of player contracts in UK eSports before - ManaLight said that without contracts, players will continue to switch teams for prize money - but now we're exploring the topic in greater detail.

Terra Cotta Army's CEO Wingo "Luna" Chan is putting contracts in place with his League of Legends players, and believes that if enforced across all teams, contracts could greatly improve the UK eSports industry.

With his team in the ESL UK Premiership, and his own experience running leagues in the past (including EnemyDown for Counter-Strike and Team Fortress Classic, as well as university sports such as basketball and badminton), Luna has some interesting views on the topic.

Contracts are of course used at the top level of eSports, and for good reason. In theory they are a brilliant idea, giving the player a set of rules to follow, the agreement to play with a team for a certain amount of time and even a buyout clause. This can help prevent players being poached from other teams, and in a scene like League of Legends where player rosters change frequently, can keep teams together for longer, creating a more professional and sustainable environment.

But as Luna states below, they can be expensive (he has been quoted £2,500 by solicitors for contract fees alone) and difficult to enforce. However, do the benefits outweigh the difficulties, or is the UK League of Legends scene just not ready for contracts right now?

"Well, it's not about whether we're ready or not ready - it's about doing the right thing and keeping it fair for everyone," Luna states.

"Contracts don't have to be soul-binding, it could simply be that the player agrees to play at the i-series events in 2016, for example. Now what some of the players in my eyes were saying, 'well we don't want to do that because the length of contract time is long and our career period is short, plus there's no salary' etc...

"If the org is providing PCs, jerseys, accommodation, flights (for EU players), can you calculate that?. That's a benefit/incentive package for the players. If the org takes that away and you have to pay for it all yourself, it starts to mount up.

 

"A sponsor was upset about seeing a team at the April i-series event in their hoodies out on the road, getting completely drunk and then just rolling around on the floor. But if that team has no contract, they haven't broken any rules."

 

"After coming back from i56, I spoke to a lot of managers, owners and teams, there's nothing wrong with contracts, it's just the perception some people have of them. A part of it is ego, in my opinion, and the belief that if there's no salary on the table, then that contract shouldn't exist. But that's never the case - a contract is simply an agreement between two parties to say this is my obligation and your obligation, and we'll both act towards that.

"What's good about that is if all five [League of Legends] players sign the contract, you know the time you're investing into the practice, the team, your brand (e.g. Doublelift is a brand), you know you can take it to offline competitions without people LAN dodging for example. You get that commitment.

"The period of contract is up for negotiation at the minute; the scene is volatile because of the events that come up. There's nothing stopping you from using the big events like i-series (in the contract), but if you do just one event, then what's the point of having a contract in the first place? If a player just focuses on the ESL UK Premiership then buggers off, they're not part of the solution, they're part of the problem.

"The only way we can sustainably grow this and attract attention here is to have consistent teams and player bases."

HAPPY SPONSORS = MORE MONEY

Okay so contracts can help create sustainability, but can they actually help bring more money into the scene? Luna believes so.

"If you're a sponsor for a team, you want to push your product or services through that team to get to the consumers," he explains. "One of the things that you really do not want to do is deal with all five or ten players depending on the organisation - you want to deal with one contact. So what if something goes wrong? Let's say a player does an interview and doesn't shout out about the sponsors, or what if they carry out misconduct that really upsets the sponsors?

"If they sponsor a team that has no contract, well, the player hasn't really broken any rules. They've not really signed anything, they have no obligation to shout about the sponsors. This ecosystem is now broken, because the sponsors are resenting sponsoring a team now.

 

"If contracts were in place, poaching wouldn't happen. A player switching teams or being fielded in at inappropriate times causes more stress and unnecessary grief to everyone."

 

"This can be refined using contracts. You can say in a contract that if a player cheats, they will get thrown out or fined. If you will do things that upset the sponsors or are a liability to the team, then we're going to fine you. Any normal player with common sense won't be doing any of this, so it doesn't really harm them. But if you sign a contract, you know it's there."

Luna also mentioned one example where a sponsor was upset over a team's actions.

"I spoke to a sponsor back in April, and we're talking about how they're sponsoring teams," he added. "Their budget for 2015 was already used up by then, so they weren't looking to sponsor. But one thing they were upset about was they saw a group of guys at the April i-series event in their team hoodies out on the road, getting completely drunk and then just rolling around on the floor.

"If that was a team they were sponsoring, in their words, 'the next morning I would have been onto the manager straight away, what are they doing?'"

"If you want to join a Sunday hockey team, you have to pay for your club membership and kit, and you're expected to wear that on the day. There's no argument to say 'I don't like that colour or the feel of it'. They're part of the club rules. If we're sponsored by a local energy drink or convenience store, then you have to use that.

"The players are demanding a level which is beyond what the orgs are capable of. If we have contracts nailed down, we can say the players and orgs have a responsibility, and we can prove we can populate the events, then sponsors can come in and say 'hey, these teams and events are stable, we can now push this further'. Then in terms of providing a salary, maybe we can look to do that because we have more money coming in.

"But without sponsors, you have nothing - no prize pools, nothing."

KEEPING EGOS IN CHECK

Luna touched on player power and player egos, and says that contracts - and stricter rules from organisers - can prevent egos from potentially harming teams and their sponsors.

"If you let egos grow, it becomes about the sponsors," he says. "You may misrepresent them and damage the scene. By allowing this to continue, it says that player misconduct is funny and okay to do. But it's not okay. We have to say we don't want any of this.

"Event organisers must also reiterate their rules. If players don't like this, they can tell them to go somewhere else. That should be the ethos and the stringent rules we should have. Although players have a voice, they shouldn't be the ones that dictate the whole thing.

"The managers and coaches of the teams should also draw the line and say this is acceptable or not acceptable. I once read Alex Ferguson's biography, and in one of the interviews he did it was about two of the players that thanked him. They were about to play an important match and were out partying the night before. He went out and dragged them back, and told them: 'If you do that again, you will be benched and never play for me again.'

"When the new generation comes in, they need to be told this is how it's done. Just because Michael Jordan retired, it doesn't mean the basketball scene drops down. The UK eSports scene is not dying either, people are just moving on to better things like LCS. But it doesn't mean it's dying. The players with the egos can take their egos with them. We can get new quality players to push the scene forward. It's the same thing with casters, they might want to move onto bigger things, it doesn't mean the UK scene is dying, it's just progressing. And there are lots of new people coming in."

Luna says that some players refuse to add their team initials in front of their in-game username.

"One of the easiest changes to make is to put the team's name in front of the player's name in the League client," he says. "It takes a few RP to change it. Is that significant? No, but it's about the branding with your team. If you think your name is bigger than the team's, that's where we have ego issues. It looks so much better if we have a line of names that are all the same.

POACHING PROBLEMS

It's no secret that UK eSports teams poach players from other teams. With no contracts in place, there is nothing to stop them from doing so, and it's in a team's interest to acquire the best players.

"Players can switch to teams and ESL has no power over that. The problem is, if we're wanting to keep a competitive integrity we must prevent this as it leads to further team stability," Luna states.

"If contracts were in place, none of this would happen. All the org owners would play by the rules and the players wouldn't break them. Then, an owner of one team can approach the manager of the other and say 'hey, I've got an interest in your player, can you let them know'? Then it's up to the management. Contract clauses should state that if a third party has an interest in a player, they should be able to say, 'okay I'm open to hearing the terms', then you open the dialogue and ask for a compensation for the coaching time etc. Then there's a buyout clause that should be set, which shouldn't have to be revealed.

"If the org putting in a bid says they offer a Snickers bar and 20p for a player, he doesn't have to be released. If you say he's not going to be released unless the buyout clause is met, that's fine, but the specific amount doesn't have to be mentioned.

"Right now, the teams aren't stable - that's very risky for event organisers. If we want to grow the scene, we must stablise as many teams as possible."

Luna believes even if contracts aren't enforced, then a simple rule could help improve UK eSports: Players must stay with the same team until the end of the tournament (for example, the ESL UK Premiership). Or, if contracts aren't enforced across the board, for ESL to introduce a mid-season break where teams are allowed to change their player rosters.

He says: "If teams cannot comply to this, then they should not register in the tournament. A player switching teams or being fielded in at inappropriate times causes more stress and unnecessary grief to everyone."

CONTRACT DIFFICULTIES

"I spoke to over 600 solicitors in the UK since April 2015, and I only managed to find six that were okay to help create an eSports contract," Luna explains. "And the contract fees start at £2,500. So it's not cheap. So if there are any solicitors reading this in the UK, and you can do this for a cheaper rate, please get in touch! We'd love to hear from you.

"We were waiting for a solicitor to come back from a holiday, and in their eyes this is not a high priority, they don't know much about eSports and aren't sure if you're sincere. They took about six or seven weeks before the thing was drafted. I think if we did this on a common basis, it wouldn't take that long. To them, eSports is jargon at the moment.

 

"If we all have contracts in place, it's not about punishment, it's about are we all doing the right thing moving forward. If an event organiser has a simple agreement to play with x, y and z with your team, and you don't have that commitment, don't sign it. Find a team that has an agreement you're capable with, and do that."

 

"You can get a contract template online for a couple of pounds, but the problem with this is that US laws are different to UK laws over punishments and things.

"In UK law, you can't have something in a contract that makes it look like you're trying to penalise the person who signs it. In the States, that's fine, you can say you're fined X amount if you break this rule. In the UK, it's if the rule is broken, then the expenses or liabilities are looked at. It's two different things, and there are subtle differences in UK and US laws."

UNITE TO SUCCEED?

The topic of an eSports governing body has been raised before, but is it going to happen?

"A union is definitely what we need, there's no doubt about that," Luna says. "But we need to do something now rather than wait for or complain there's not a union. Until we have enough attention and standardising, we're not going to get to a union. It will cost millions of dollars to get set up. There will come a time when the League of Legends title dies down, just as Unreal and Quake and Team Fortress have died down.

"The event organisers would change according to the titles. Who should enforce this whole thing right now? I don't think it should be one person - everyone should be involved. Players and team owners will have obligations to fulfil. We need to have something on paper to say 'this org said were going to do this, we want to seek legal advice to get our money back for the tickets'.

"There are so many kids saying they need more money, but how do we regulate this? Any disputes with orgs and players can be solved with contracts. If we say the org is going to take X or each player will get a percentage depending on where they finish, it doesn't matter, as long as it's in black and white in the contract from the beginning. That brings clarity.

"ESL will also be able to hand over money to organisations knowing that contract is in place. It's bounded by legalities. And the sponsors know they will never have a backlash. We still hear that certain leagues are owing players money. This kind of thing should never happen.

"If we all have contracts in place, it's not about punishment, it's about are we all doing the right thing moving forward. If an event organiser has a simple agreement to play with x, y and z with your team, if you don't have that commitment, don't sign it. Find a team that has an agreement you're capable with, and do that."

So, what of TCA? After finishing sixth in the ESL UK Premiership last season, what are their hopes for 2016?

"TCA is definitely aiming to be the number one UK team," Luna says. "Right now, the thing we can say is we'll definitely have to do a roster swap, because we have three EU players and two UK (and thus need three UK players, as per ESL's rules). All of our players know this is the case.

"But as a whole, we have to change the way we act inside the scene, as a player, as a manager, as the owners, as a team organisation, event organiser, everyone. And it's not about doing what's cool or popular, it's about doing what's right."

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