On Monday, May 20, 2019, eSports icon Turner ‘tfue’ Tenney filed a lawsuit against Faze Clan Inc. (i.e., FaZe Clan), the gaming collective that made him a star. Tenney wants the courts to release him from a 3.5 year “Gamer Agreement” he signed with FaZe Clan on April 27, 2018.
Tenney shot to stardom almost immediately after signing with FaZe Clan, earning millions of fans across a variety of social media and video streaming platforms through playing the popular battle royal game Fortnite. Between streaming revenues, tournament victories, sponsorships and other revenue sources, it is estimated that tfue has made between $3 million and $5 million (USD).
According to the complaint, the Gamer Agreement included provisions that allowed FaZe Clan to claim a “finder’s fee of up to eighty (80) percent of the revenue paid by third-parties for Tenney’s services.” Something that FaZe Clan boss, Ricky Banks (AKA FaZe Banks), denies entirely. In an interview, Banks claims that FaZe Clan has only made $60,000 off of two endorsement deals it originated for Tenney, representing a 20% cut – something Banks refers to as “standard.” Banks goes on to state that FaZe Clan has collected zero percent of Tenney’s prize winnings, streaming revenues or tournament winnings.
The complaint, which was filed in the Superior Court of the State of California, in Los Angeles County, is aimed at getting Tenney’s contract with Faze Clan declared invalid. Among various legal arguments made, Tenney’s counsel argues that the Gamer Agreement with Faze Clan runs afoul of California’s Talent Agency Act. The Act requires any person who “who engages in the occupation of procuring, offering, promising, or attempting to procure employment or engagements for an artist” must be licensed and conform to professional regulations. The definition of artist in the Act is broad, including any person “rendering professional services in motion picture, theatrical, radio, television and other entertainment enterprises.”
Other arguments made in the complaint for invalidating or terminating the Gamer Agreement include: failure to pay revenues received by FaZe Clan for work done by Tenney; illegal and anti-competitive restraints related to the “Exclusivity and Matching Right” portion of the Gamer Agreement; and unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business practices.
Regardless of the merits of Tenney’s arguments related to whether Faze Clan is operating illegally as a Talent Agency under California Law, the lawsuit underlines a growing concern in the eSports industry. As the complaint highlights, “unlike traditional ‘sports’,” the revenues in eSports are driven by videos and other content generated by the gamers themselves. In general, eSports players make more money in YouTube views and streaming on platforms like Twitch, than on tournament earnings.
The eSports world is very new, and as such, law makers have not had much time to review and regulate the industry effectively. With eSports expected to become an over $1 billion a year in revenue industry in 2019, and the broader influencer marketing industry estimated to reach $10 billion by 2020, there is serious money at stake. In fact, more and more cities either have or are building their own dedicated eSports stadiums, like the Blizzard Arena in Burbank, or Philadelphia’s Fusion Arena. ESports is no longer an untried fad; it is here to stay.
Couple this with the fact that the professional gamers themselves are usually young, with many being minors (Benedict “MrKCool” Ward was 14 when he was signed in 2016), there is a significant risk of them being exploited. Tenney himself was 20 years old when he signed with Faze Clan.
It is not dissimilar to child actors, or young sports talents, in that without proper representation and counsel, bad deals will be made. With so much at stake, it is truly important for both the gamers and their representatives, whether it be parents or professional agents/counsel, to understand what they are agreeing to when entering into any kind of talent agreement.
On the other side of things, it is just as important for the professional gaming leagues, clans and other collectives to ensure that their contracts with talent do not run afoul of any legal requirements or restrictions, like those alleged by Tenney’s counsel. Just as important is to ensure that these organizations take a long view on their agreements with talent, as there are numerous revenue streams to address, and player turnover can be an issue.
These organizations must also consider their ability to cut or trade gamers, similar to how professional sports leagues do with their players. Unlike traditional professional sports, where the game is the same year in and year out, the games played by eSports gamers/teams change, and there is no guarantee that today’s Fortnite superstar will be the same talent in Apex Legends, or whatever comes next.
Having counsel that understands and appreciates the complexity of eSports and how it differs from representing other forms of talent is critical in ensuring that nothing is overlooked. While the eSports industry may be relatively new, the concepts and issues are not, especially to counsel that grasps the landscape and relevant issues. This is ultimately what will provide the stop gap in ensuring both gamers and organizations are properly protected, while awaiting the inevitable regulation of the industry as a whole.