Future of Sports Law - Part 2 | Rahul Gandhi (ESL)

Welcome to Part 2 of our two-part series on eSports and the future of sports law.  Today Milan chats with Rahul Gandhi (his cousin!) about what it’s like to work in legal services for ESL, originally the “Electronic Sports League”, and some of the legal issues commonly encountered on the job.  ESL organises eSports competitions worldwide and is the largest eSports company to broadcast on Twitch.2 

What is eSports?

Simply put, esports is an umbrella term that encompasses the playing of videogames in an organised and competitive manner.

What is ESL, what is your role at ESL and how did you land such an epic gig?

Electronic Sports League (ESL) is the world’s largest and longest-running esports organisation. We cater to the esports ecosystem in any way we can whether it’s organising and hosting large scale competitions across the world, running national leagues to give amateur players a path to becoming a professisonal, creating esports entertainment content or working towards furthering the industry. An example of the latter would be ESL partnering up with universities to provide esports modules taught by our very own staff!I work in the legal team at ESL UK which essentially involves drafting, reviewing and negotiating various contracts. The workload varies considerably and encompasses many areas of law such as contract law, corporate law, intellectual property law and employment law. I also assist in business development by attending various events – though this isn’t strictly part of my role - I just love going to events and meeting people!I actually got the role by attending a careers fair at a gaming expo. James Dean, the Managing Director of ESL UK (great name, I know!), gave a talk about careers opportunities in the esports industry. I had been trying to find a way to turn my passion for videogames into a career. I spoke to James at the end of his talk, emailed him my CV and... well the rest is history!

What has been your funnest day at work so far?

That’s a tough question – I’ve certainly had some very rewarding days at work. For example I assisted in negotiating a contract for a first-of-its-kind event for a large non-endemic company. It was tricky because the company had never been involved with esports before so explaining some of the legal issues that are unique to esports was challenging. But we eventually worked out all the kinks and came to an agreement. The event went ahead smoothly and seeing the positive buzz around the event (both at the event and on social media) was incredibly rewarding.As for fun days – I do travel to a few international events which are always great fun! Back in August I attended Europe’s largest videogames expo, Gamescom, in Cologne, Germany. ESL’s headquarters are in Cologne so it was an awesome meeting some of my international colleagues, meeting the creators/developers/writers/artists behind some of the games I love and of course playing the latest and greatest games early!

What is the eSports “community” like?  What are the good things and what are the bad things?

The esports community is an interesting one. It is so vast that it is hard for me to give a general impression of it. However, if I had to sum it up in one word I’d say ‘passionate’. For better or for worse the esports community is extremely passionate. It is this passion that has allowed the industry to grow to where it is today and will be crucial in growing it further.One of best things about my experience of the esports community is it dispels some of the stereotypes surrounding ‘gamers’ such as: they stay indoors all day or that they are socially awkward etc etc – having been to various esports events over the last year and making many new friends I can say with certainty that this is not the case! Attending events in person is the best way to see just how social it all is.I wouldn’t say there are any particularly bad things about the esports community as a whole – one of the ongoing issues is ‘toxicity’ or online abuse in esports. Unfortunately the anonymity of the internet leads to a minority of players displaying ‘toxic’ behaviour to other players. This could come in the form of abuse toward newer players that are of a lower skill level than them or ‘trolling’ where players purposely disrupt the flow of the game or other players. The effect is that newer players feel discouraged from playing and engaging with the community – which is the exact opposite of what we as an industry want.

Traditional sports are associated with physical health, exercise and wellness.  Computer gaming doesn’t carry these connotations (and as far as I know Wii Sport does not have a pro tour) but, in your opinion, are there positive things that eSports should be known for?

I’m glad you brought this up. I absolutely think there are positive things! So called ‘traditional’ sports encompass a large variety of sports which don’t necessary fit the above categories. Sports such as darts, archery, snooker and golf (to name a few) don’t necessarily require the athlete to be in peak physical condition. What they do require is training, discipline and extreme technical skill all of which are, of course, highly regarded in their own right. These principals apply equally esports.Professional players learn every aspect of a game and its mechanics and in doing so develop a deep understanding of it – much more than any casual player would have. They must be disciplined in doing this. Many professional players have strict practice regimes when preparing for competitions which involve a combination of activities such as meticulously studying potential opponents, coming together to develop new strategies to win and of course testing these strategies by practicing – it not as simple as just playing the game a lot!As for technical skill, players often have unreal reflexes and hand-eye coordination. They often have to react to what they see as the game develops and make split second decisions as well as adapt their overall strategy on the fly. Skills such as communication, decision making, teamwork as all crucial to the majority of esport titles and are certainly positive skills that should be associated with it.

What are the main games that are played professionally in eSports?  Which is the most competitive and what kind of prize pools are we seeing these days?

There are a huge number of games that have a competitive/professional scene and it is hard to say which is the most competitive as the scene varies so greatly from game to game. If I had to give a top three I’d say the most popular games at the moment are Dota2, League of Legends and Counter Strike: Global Offensive though games such as Player Unknown Battlegrounds (PUBG), Overwatch, Rocket League, Quake Champions, Tekken, Street Fighter and Hearthstone follow closely.As with the titles themselves the prize pools can vary greatly from depending on the game itself and the size, scale and prestige of the competition. Prize pools can be anywhere between a few thousand pounds to more than ten million pounds!At the top of the spectrum would have to be Dota2’s ‘The International’. Without going too far into the ins and outs of the tournament scene, The International is by far the largest and most prestigious competition in the Dota2 tournament circuit. For context the competition was started in 2011 and had a prize pool of $1.6m. In August 2017 the prize pool for the main event of The International was in excess of $24.7m!

What factors are important in turning a videogame into an esport title worthy of professional competition?

There are a couple of crucial factors. Firstly the game needs to be skill based – if a game contains too many elements based on randomness it creates problems. For example a team could train for hours, days and weeks only to lose due to being unlucky with a random element that is impossible to prepare against. It is not conducive to creating a strong professional scene.Tying into the first point is that the game should have a high skill cap. Simply put, the game should make it possible for players to differentiate their level of skill based on their time spent learning and playing the game. This could come in various forms – for example it could be via its mechanics. In Counter-Strike professional players have near pixel perfect accuracy which can only be developed by extensively playing the game and practicing. Another example would be providing the player with lots of options/decisions to make. League of Legends has over 120 characters, each with significantly different abilities and play styles. Understanding how each character’s abilities work, how these abilities interact with other characters’ abilities, composing a team with abilities that synergise and finally developing a strategy to defeat your opponent is something that only the most dedicated players will achieve.Lastly, I think that the game needs to be fun to watch as well as play. There would be little point to having professional competitions if nobody watched them! Esports are strongly community driven and without spectators watching professional competitions the scene would eventually fade away.

What is going to happen to present day eSports athletes when the games they are experts on become “outdated”?

One option is to adopt a new title. In some cases the game that they were an expert in will spawn a sequel that they will get into. For example if FIFA17 was your game and it became outdated when FIFA18 came out, the player might just move over. Depending on the type of game there might be transferable skills. If you played first person shooter titles, say Halo for example – it might be easier for you to switch to another title such (say, Quake for example) because they are both first person shooting games and a player’s pixel perfect accuracy may translate over to the new game without having to go through all of the practice that a new player would.It is worth noting that the lifespan of some of these games can be longer than a player’s career! League of Legends has been around for nearly a decade!In the event the player doesn’t feel like taking up a new title they may retire and either take up another role in the industry either as an analyst or commentator for another, similar game (for example there were professional Street Fighter players that now commentate on games like Tekken or Mortal Kombat).Or, of course, they may just leave the industry entirely and do something completely different – who knows!

What are the main professional competitions and how do we join up?

These vary based on the game – each game is so different that there is no standard structure to how the competitions work. Usually there will be regional and national qualifiers which will lead into the international tournaments.**Shameless plug incoming** at ESL we have a ladder system called ESL Play. Essentially anyone can make an account, form a team and enter online competitions. If your team gains enough points in a season, they will qualify for the ESL UK Premiership and if they finish high enough in the Premiership they will move into the ESL Pro League. Strong results in the Pro League may see your team ending up on an international stage at one of the major events – where the big prize money is!This is ESL’s ‘path to pro’ idea to facilitate amateur players making it to the big one but different games have different systems and it would take an age to explain them all!

Other than the prizes, where does the real money come from in the eSports industry and who is making it?  Is it in live streaming? Is it in gambling?

It really depends on what perspective you’re looking at it from – a player, a team, an organisation such as ESL, a publisher etc. For example let’s take players – in additional to a cut of any prize money won, they will earn a wage from the team. They may also live stream and earn revenue from their subscribers/viewers. Teams are often sponsored which provides them with a revenue stream as well as things such as merchandise sales. It gets a bit more complicated when looking at other organisations and the publishers so I won’t get into the ins and outs of it here! The main point to note is that there are a variety of different revenue streams depending on which perspective you look at it from.One of the hot topics at the moment is the monetisation of broadcast/media rights as a revenue stream. It would certainly be an important one but the problem is how to actually go about achieving it. We need to remember that esports as a spectator sport really took off when websites like Twitch appeared allowing millions of people around the world to watch live broadcasts around the world for free. Changing this too drastically – i.e. making esports events pay-per-view or broadcasting them on premium channels that require payment to view, could upset the fans and potentially decrease viewership.Just to touch on gambling, in some respects I would consider that a separate industry. Obviously esports gambling is intrinsically linked to esports – whether you’re betting on the outcome of a professional match or gambling in-game items on betting sites (though this is a separate issue in itself!). However, in terms of the monetary aspects of gambling I think it is separate because it is a different group that benefit – i.e. it’s not the teams, players, organisations like ESL or publishers etc that benefit.

As you’ve said to me before, “a key difference between traditional sports and esports is that in esports the game is owned by an entity” – does this cause legal complications for the pro tours and others?

Yes, that’s right. Nobody owns the sport of football for example. But, for example, League of Legends is owned by Riot Games and Counter Strike is owned by Valve Corporation. It does add some complications – one area in particular that can become problematic is rules and regulations. Depending on the publisher, they may want more of an active role in choosing the rules and regulations for a competition and these rules may conflict or be significantly different from what the tournament organiser would have chosen. It can be also be confusing for players and teams as different tournaments for the same game may have different rules and regulations.Also, not necessarily related to competitions directly, but there can be complications when it comes to intellectual property – particularly licensing. The publisher owns the game and there can be situations where a competition is held that the publisher is not necessarily involved in, i.e. they give permission for the competition to go ahead but they let it be run independently of them. This can give rise to situations where third parties require additional licences when it comes to permission to broadcast, stream, create video on demand or use content for other purposes such as advertising and social media. It’s not necessarily a complication but rather just additional work and the fact that there needs to be an awareness that these additional steps need to be taken.

What areas of law are relevant to eSports and what are some of the day to day legal issues you contend with at ESL?

Many areas of law relate to esports but in terms of what I deal with on a day to day basis a lot of it is contract, commercial and/or corporate law. Areas like intellectual property sometimes come into it, depending on the type of deal/transaction. I also assist with internal matters that relate to areas such as employment law and data protection.The majority of my work is drafting and/or reviewing various legal documents such as non-disclosure agreements, head of terms, commercial contracts, sponsorship/partnership agreements and talent contracts (talent being people like commentators, stage hosts, analysts etc). I also occasionally assist on internal matters such as updating policies/guidelines in compliance with changes to the law.

We read about the “Flight” match fixing scandal – do you think the danger of corruption in eSports is over or just beginning, and what do you think are the major risks to the integrity of eSports?

It’s hard to say whether it’s over or just beginning, but I think what’s more important is that it is an issue that is getting more consideration. As the industry grows and prize pools increase, you could say that the appeal of match-fixing and corruption increases because there’s more money involved. But the fact that organisations are appearing to guard the integrity of esports is a step in the right direction. For example ESL works with the Esports Integrity Coalition (ESIC) when it comes to ensuring integrity in our competitions.There are a couple of major risks that will always be problematic. Firstly, technology evolves so quickly and can be adapted in so many ways that it can sometimes be difficult to recognise when it is being used. In cases like this it is very difficult to stay one step ahead as it is hard to predict how this technology will manifest itself. Another issue is when players work with others such as bettors or betting syndicates and purposely lose a match in order to gain financially. As I said earlier playing professional esports requires an enormous amount of skill and practice – it is difficult to know if a player purposely reacted slowly or purposely missed a shot because the margins are so small. In a game like League of Legends where each player is making hundreds of decisions each game and where one wrong decision could cost a team the match – how can we identify that a decision that lost the game was made on purpose? The answer is “with extreme difficulty!”Every organisation has their own way to combat this. In ESL’s case every professional competition has referees that know the games inside out that watch the matches being played live and look out for signs of cheating. We also follow the ESIC integrity programme which guides us in how we regulate our professional competitions from an integrity point of view.But the issue of corruption will always be a threat and is something that the industry as a whole will need to constantly monitor and adapt to.

It’s absolutely awesome that you landed a role with ESL given your dream to turn your passion for eSports into a day job – what advice do you have for others in terms of finding a dream job?

My top tip is to be proactive! A lot of people that wish to find their dream job spend too much time just wishing for it.I was guilty of doing that for most of my teenage years – growing up I played A LOT of videogames. I became so enamoured with the medium that I began closely following industry news/trends and subsequently daydreamed about one day working in the industry.I continued to daydream about this for more years than I care to admit. I believed that to work in the games industry you had to be a programmer, an artist, a designer, a writer or have an extremely niche technical skill at some element of game or (in the case of esports) tournament production in areas such as AV, lighting, video editing etc.It was only after I began going to events, speaking to people and trying to find out more about the opportunities in the industry that I discovered a whole series of roles in areas such as sales, marketing, HR and of course legal!So if you have a dream job, don’t just wish for it – be proactive and go for it. You’ll be surprised at just how many opportunities there are! If you would like to be interviewed or offer your thoughts on a recent event, book or article, please contact our Editor In Chief, Michael Bidwell, at mbidwell@mccullough.com.au