How Are E-Sports Heralding a New Era?
Sports are pretty easy to define. They are “activities involving physical exertion and skill that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often undertaken competitively”, and the examples that come into mind immediately are things like football, basketball and cricket (or baseball, depending on what part of the world you live in). Suffice to say, traditional views of sports do not include video games, but with the rise of e-sports, their impact can no longer be ignored.
Gone are the days when gaming was considered for “select” audiences and considered an underground obsession. Today the top video game players have gone mainstream, and their deals with major companies are a testament to this. The prize money for some of the competitions is comparable to the top physical sports of the world. South Korea even dropped its infamous gaming curfew in 2021, something likely inspired by both high revenues from e-sports and greater acceptance of it by the public.
As the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us, the world (or, at the very least, significant parts of it) is going virtual sooner rather than later. The virtual esports domain may very well require new legislations/rules of sorts to ensure that interests are protected and growth is fostered. IP law is one such aspect that will and has been pivotal to the gaming industry’s growth.
Brand Potential in E-Sports
While a sport in itself cannot be owned by one single entity, the components are managed by certain stakeholders. IP rights are a supplementary earning mechanism which helps not only the players but even other stakeholders. From Micheal Jordan’s jumping silhouette logo to Christiano Ronaldo’s CR7 brand, sports-based Trademarks have given millions of dollars in revenue to both individuals and organizations.
There is now a similar, growing business in the realm of E sports, as today the top E sports stars are celebrities in their own right and having an exclusive brand could really compound their earnings. E-sports have rapidly gained prominence in a relatively small amount of time, being niche and exclusive for decades before a sudden surge (facilitated by online MMORPGs and a growing sense of community) thrust them into the cultural space they are in today. Capitalizing on it can only help people access this new market area, as both producers and consumers.
While the industry has gone mainstream and has proven to be very profitable encouraging top corporations and celebrities (eg: David Beckham) to invest, there is still a lack of structure similar to what is prevalent in other comparable sports. There are also a few relevant IP-based issues born from the structure of IP Law itself.
E-sports: Identifying New Frontiers of IP
IP ownership currently has three major divisions in the gaming industry. Patents allow for manufacturers to protect the technical aspects of their games. Trademarks allow for game marketing, and as discussed previously, can potentially allow pro e-sports players to market their own merch once e-sports gains more momentum. Copyright protects a litany of connected rights that cover almost all visual, auditory, and thematic elements of any game.
However, as with any new usage of technology, there are grey areas in deciding who owns the IP in games. Take the case of Riot Games, creators of the famous League of Legends. Riot’s contract for its championship series stated in clause 5 about how Riot will have complete and undisputable rights over the usage of the characters of the players for any and every commercial purpose.
A huge grey area lies around how can one ascertain properly the discrepancy between individual skill and something that is built in the game and part of the software. In traditional sports, the skills are attained through practice and distinguishable as they are performed by an individual or team in real time. However, in E sports the virtual persona performs a move which in the end leaves a grey area to ponder on how much was the application of the player and how much of it was inbuilt into the game.
Personal brands are also a point of contention. Athletes in physical sports now have widely recognized brand logos connected to their personality and talents. The combination of confusion caused by how IP is split between manufacturers and players, and the relative newness of e-sports as a field, means that there is no real consensus in how a pro gamer can brand themselves without stepping on the toes of the game manufacturers. While merch stores do exist for gamers, they are generally exponentially more small-scale than their counterparts in the physical sporting world.
The Future of IP & E-Sports?
However, the prospects of IPR getting a stronghold in E sports look bright as there is an uptick in the consumption and usage of game streaming platforms like Twitch worldwide. While, in traditional sports players move across from one promotion to the other for better perks, life etc. The division in E sports will be based around IP. Ie; whichever stream acquires the rights to a game will be allowed to stream, they get to choose the criteria, pay models and teams they host to compete for the top championships.
Governing Bodies might need to be formed to hold the mantle when it comes to Protection of IPR by trying to foster the rights of players and organizations on a global scale. S-sports, like regular sports, can only thrive once you apply rules are that are the same for everyone yet equitable based on the different kinds of games and their structures.
Major corporations such as PlayStation have already dabbled in this greater structural change, going as far as to acquire a patent to coach players in game. Such steps prove that IP laws make just make an enormous difference in the competitive fields of not just e-sports, but video game manufacturing.
Author: Apurva Kumar Das, Legal Researcher at PA Legal.
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