Why Tfue's Lawsuit Is Esports' Wake-Up Call to Revamp Deals (Guest Column)

Fortnite Still - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Epic Games

One of the most famous professional 'Fortnite' players in the world is suing one of the best known gaming organizations in the industry, and agent/attorney Ryan Morrison says this could be the first of many fights unless stars and their teams come back to the table.

If you ask a teenager to name their favorite athlete, there is a larger chance than you’d think that they would name a Fortnite player. And that favorite person is, in many cases, the one making headlines this week as the first player to sue his team: Turner "Tfue" Tenney. He has quickly grown to dominate the space, and he has his skill, personality and incredible work ethic to thank for that success. Tfue can also thank the organization that signed him, FaZe Clan.

FaZe is without argument one of the most popular organizations in esports, and signing with them will immediately boost a player's social media following, personal brand and overall chance at success. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Turner was going to be a star, but signing with FaZe raised his ceiling and sped up the process.

It’s similar to basketball: Anthony Davis is a great talent and a superstar no matter what team he plays on — but if he had been drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers instead of the New Orleans Pelicans, you’d see far more Davis jerseys being worn. However, NBA players have a players association fighting for their rights and making sure the relationships between talent and team are mutually beneficial. Esports has no such thing.

In the early days of esports, the goal of most teams was to sign the best players in each game and build a brand around them. Winning meant, for the most part, prize money and team sponsorships. However, each year, more eyes were attracted to the industry and esports saw incredible growth in ways most insiders would have never dreamed of. Top tier organizations soon had champion level teams across various titles, and true giants were formed. With incredible growth, comes incredible valuations. Investments came from celebrities such as Drake and sports dynasties like New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft's company The Kraft Group. With these investments came the need to find new sources of revenue. It was no longer enough to rely on prize money, and teams started to collect from areas of revenue that had historically been reserved for the player, including their YouTube channels and Twitch streams.

While those media rights were valuable to the players, the gamers were, for the most part, unrepresented by either an agent or attorney and they signed away their rights without reading their contracts. It’s not dissimilar to a high school band getting an opportunity to sign with a record label and barely skimming their lengthy contract. In their heads they made it, and they couldn’t sign quickly enough.

That’s why when I first entered this industry six years ago it was a struggle to convince players to let us help with their agreements. While today I represent hundreds of them at both my talent agency, Evolved, and my law firm, Morrison Rothman, it took years of working entirely pro bono and nearly begging the players to let us help them. They didn’t understand their value, or why they needed an attorney or an agent. I was fired countless times because it was “rude” to have a lawyer, and because teams told them if they let a lawyer see their contract their offer would be pulled.

This is, of course, not the case with all teams. Owners of organizations such as NRG, Immortals, Liquid, Cloud9, Envy, Splyce, Fnatic, Misfits and G2, just to name a few, have always worked hand in hand with the players' agents. However, there are others, at both the top and the bottom of the industry, that lock up countless players in long-term deals and take full advantage of the excited young person chasing their dream.

No one is anti-team, but the industry is so one-sided — and there is so much money being generated — that it is time to examine how we can create more mutually beneficial relationships going forward. As it has been, whenever the teams faced a financial struggle, it was the players who would pay the price. Twitch stopped paying teams money, so teams demanded a cut of players streams. Sponsors wanted to spend big on single streamer activations, so teams demanded the players fire their agent and let the team be their exclusive representative. Yes, salaries skyrocketed after the big rounds of investment came in, but players were asked to give up control of every other revenue stream as a result. Now, as salaries come back toward earth, teams demand to keep all those other rights. What they post on their Twitter accounts, what platform they can stream on, what kind of videos to upload on their YouTube channels, what they wear on and off stage, what games they are allowed to play, when they are allowed to date or even just have a visitor — players in many cases don’t control any of it. This can’t be the way it continues.

All this said, this is a good problem. It means the industry has evolved to a place where these kinds of discussions are necessary. That’s exciting, and we can work to make this an industry that is sustainable and beneficial for all involved. There are too many fans of the games, too many young careers just starting out and too many multi-million dollar companies behind these teams now. There is no reason everyone can’t get together at a table, throw out the old agreements and reimagine how a relationship between a Fortnite star and his team should look. FaZe grew Tfue as much as Tfue grew FaZe. If the agreement was set up for that success, or if the industry starts looking to the future and not holding on to its past, we will see fewer lawsuits and more success. For everyone.

Ryan Morrison is a founding partner of Morrison Rothman LLP, a law firm dedicated to digital entertainment, and CEO of Evolved Talent, the world's largest professional esports talent agency.