Tfue and FaZe Clan’s epic legal showdown could have been avoided if e-sports players just unionised

E-sports stars are hugely marketable but tend to be young adults and relatively unsophisticated as regards business affairs

TFue creates #releasethecontract following fallout with Faze clan

The battle royale between Turner Tenney, aka Tfue, and entertainment company FaZe Clan definitively proves e-sports has the soap opera aspect of sporting competition as locked up as it does the other parts. Sooner or later it will be in the Olympics (it’s under consideration by the International Olympic Committee), and so it should be if the Games want to remain relevant to those under, what, 30?

For those responding with a “WTF?” at this point, Tenney is a pro Fortnite player, and an extremely good one. Think Roger Federer, Dustin Johnson, Chris Froome. FaZe has compared him to LeBron James and itself to the LA Lakers in a video it tweeted outlining its position in a legal dispute that could have far-reaching implications for an industry that rather resembles the Wild West in terms of the way it’s regulated.

At issue is the contract Tenney signed to join the FaZe Fortnite team in April 2018. Given there’s a battle for public opinion in the gamer community, in addition to a legal one, the issue naturally leaked and it naturally provoked uproar when it did.

Tenney was offered a stipend of $2,000 (£1,570) a month for a six-month trial period, with an option to turn that into 36 months at the end. FaZe exercised this.

The contract gave the company sole discretion over whether to increase or decrease the amount. In addition, Tenney was entitled to 80 per cent of cash prizes for playing in tournaments but income generated by in-game merchandise, appearances, touring, etc was split 50-50 with the team. Ditto brand deals brought in by him.

However, brand deals, either digital or otherwise, brought to Tenney by FaZe would, under the terms, hand the company an 80 per cent cut. The last one has generated some particularly heated debate, although the company contends that it never took that much.

There were also other requirements (to attend training sessions, participate in promotional activity, etc) and a stipulation that FaZe be able to match any competing offer at the contract’s end. Under the terms, Tenney was held to be “an independent contractor” – a familiar phrase from this country’s gig economy. The court will be asked to rule whether the terms make him, in effect, an employee. His complaint describes them as “oppressive, onerous and one-sided”.

For its part, FaZe said the deal was a “starter” one signed under a previous management, and that it repeatedly tried to offer greatly improved terms without getting a response. In a tweet its bosses said they won’t simply let Tenney go because of their belief he wants to set up his own competing organisation (it was here that the comparison with the Lakers and LeBron was made).

I’m going to find watching the case’s progress and the tit-for-tat exchanges of the two sides just as much fun as my son does watching the YouTube streams uploaded by pro gamers. But lurking within the entertainment derived from this sort of court case is a serious point. E-sports stars are hugely marketable. But while adults they tend to be very young, and relatively unsophisticated as regards business affairs when they’re getting going.

The offer of a contract with a big name like FaZe to a gamer who has spent hours on end honing their skills in their bedroom is equivalent to a park footballer having a scout from Manchester United turn up at their door. Small wonder some are inclined to dive straight in without paying too much attention to the terms. In football, there is a trade union, a regulator and rules which should, in theory, provide some protection against that. They aren’t always followed, and people still end up getting burned. But they are there.

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The same is true of other sports (such as Major League Baseball). The battle between Tfue and FaZe suggests there’s a clear need for them in their milieu. Such organisations might seem to be anathema in the freewheeling anarchic world of gaming (which is part of its appeal).

But they might actually serve to help both sides. They will otherwise be taking up an awful lot of court time and spending an awful lot of money duking it out in damaging public duels like this one, in preference to fighting the virtual ones of Fortnite’s ebattlefields. There would certainly appear to be space for a digitally savvy union to make some inroads were they to do some outreach.

But those are hard to find. From what I’ve seen, and I say this as a supporter, the movement’s digital skills could use some improvement. Its leaders could do worse than attending to the issue via the chat function offered by Fortnite while having a game. It can be quite therapeutic to play it, especially if you picture your opponents as, I don’t know, Boris Johnson when blasting them to pixelated smithereens.

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