Last November, when fans packed Beijing National Stadium—the famous “Bird’s Nest” that was the main stadium of the 2008 Summer Olympics—they did not come to see anyone run, jump, or throw. Instead, tens of thousands came to watch the world championships of League of Legends, one of the world’s most popular video games.
Esports, the world of competitive video gaming, are big business, and getting bigger with astonishing speed. Increasingly, the best players in the world resemble their corollaries in traditional professional sports, with million-dollar earnings, adoring fans, and agents helping them negotiate contracts. By 2020, e-sports are forecast to be a $1.5 billion global business.
Ryan Fairchild, an attorney with Brooks Pierce based in Wilmington, has parlayed his own love of gaming into a niche practice representing some of the best players in esports. He sat down with Lawyers Weekly reporter David Donovan in Brooks Pierce’s Raleigh office to talk about his practice and the surging global interest in esports. The following is a transcript of that conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Since maybe not all of our readers are familiar with them, let’s start by explaining, what are esports?
So the basic explanation is competitive video games. So you have video games that people play on consoles or on computer systems, and they’re playing against each other, and they’re getting paid to do it. And they’re doing it in big arenas and broadcasting it online and on TV now, so these things show up on ESPN2 and TBS and other networks that broadcast this. So it’s hard for people to envision at first because they say, “Really, they’re playing video games and people are watching it?” But that’s exactly what’s happening. And the explanation I give when people ask, “Well, why would you want to watch somebody play a video game?” is that you watch people play sports. You’re not the person down there doing it, but if you are into watching sports, as I am, and many other people are, then I think the concept is pretty easily graspable that you can watch people who are incredibly good at what they do doing it on TV, on the internet, or wherever.
And your interest in e-sports law comes from your being a gamer yourself?
That’s right. I grew up playing games. Funnily enough, my first job ever was at a mini-golf arcade place back in California where actually some of the people I used to play against when I worked there are now some of the biggest names in the fighting game community. And so I think that I didn’t know it at the time, but I was in e-sports from my very first job and then came back around to it with law.
How good were you as a gamer?
You know, I was okay. I won’t say that I was pushing the top tier or anything like that, but I would play in some of the tournaments against the top people, and if I took a round off them that was a pretty good day. Typically I did not beat the best people out there, but I did alright.
What does your esports practice entail?
So largely it’s contract drafting and negotiations. I’m starting as well to work on corporate issues for other clients and have dealt with a lot of intellectual property issues and employment issues. You think of anything that goes into sports practice, and you’re going to get that in e-sports as well, those different components.
Who would be the parties to these contracts?
Players and the companies that own the teams. Typically I represent players, and so I’ll go in and help them negotiate with the team, help them to draft the contract, get the terms clear and make sure everybody is on the same page, try to get players better protections to make sure they’re going to get paid, those sorts of things. That’s by and large the main part of it.
The esports industry is so new that it seems like it’s still the Wild West out there in terms of figuring out what the business is going to look like.
To a degree, but I think it’s starting to become a lot more professional, and I think there are several reasons for that. I think some of the game publishers have stepped in to create ecosystems that are going to be more conducive to a stable business environment, and also you have major sports franchises, their ownership groups, investing, and they’re bringing a lot of professionalism. I know that when I’ve negotiated opposite those team that have that professional sports background, things go really smoothly, and you have more trust in that process as well. But there are a lot of those organic groups, esports groups that started from the very beginning and you can still have a lot of trust in them. Yes, it’s still a very new industry, but especially this last year, there have just been huge steps taken by various segments to kind of bring it up to speed.
In all the big traditional sports, there are players’ unions that bargain collectively. Do you think that’s something that esports might eventually develop?
Definitely. I don’t know how quickly exactly, but I think it’s headed that way. Especially with Overwatch and League of Legends [two popular video games for which there is a competitive league run by the company that created the game], they’ve created a franchise system so you have a set number of teams that are allowed into the main league for those games, and I think the natural response eventually is going to be to have a collective bargaining agreement. And that will, I think, in many ways help. I’m interested to see how it evolves, but I think that’s sort of where it’s going.
Are there aspects of e-sports law that make it different from the rest of sports and entertainment law?
I don’t know that the law in particular is any different. I think getting the recognition for it is a little different. So, for example, in immigration, there are a lot of visas already set up for professional athletes, whereas you have to explain a little bit more about an esports player and what they’re doing and why that should fit, and so I think there’s kind of this push to make sure that the regulations and laws that apply to sports players and benefit those sports players also apply to e-sports players. Besides that, I think the novelty of the industry means that there’s a lot of innovation and there’s a lot of kind of re-thinking of what was done before, and I think that’s very exciting. But I think there’s also a lot to be learned from what’s already gone before in sports and entertainment law.
It seems Raleigh is becoming a major hub for video game development.
Oh yeah, definitely. In the Triangle you have Epic Games here and a bunch of other developers, but Epic Games has one of the most up-and-coming games right now with Fortnite, and I think that sort of attention is both warranted and exciting. I think that with all the tech we have here, with all the high-density PhDs that you have here, that Raleigh can continue to grow in that sense, and to provide that kind of platform for doing more video game development, which in turn is e-sports development.
There’s chatter that e-sports could be added to the Olympics someday. Do you think that’s something that we’ll ever see?
Yes. And I think it’s not just a credibility thing for e-sports. That’s going to be what traditional sports need to do to make sure they’re still engaging a younger audience. I think the Olympics are going to need esports more than e-sports needs the Olympics. So, yeah, I think we’ll see it.
Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan