A governance model in sport is necessary to ensure integrity of the sport and to protect rights of its stakeholders: the players, teams, publishers and competition organisers. The existing governance structures in traditional sports have developed over decades alongside the development of the sports. Foremost, a governance system requires a governing body accepted by all stakeholders. There have been attempts in e-sports at introducing models for governance and establishing governing bodies with varying degrees of success.
The challenge in regulating e-sports
E-sports is not one sport. Each game has different internal rules. Further, many countries do not recognize e-sports as a sport at all. E-sports cannot, therefore, take advantage of the existing governance and regulatory structures.
In traditional sports, the governance model rests on national federations that are members of the international federation and are bound by its authority. These national federations regulate the sport domestically based on the rules and principles developed by the international federation. This model is not suitable to e-sports as teams usually have an international composition and the most successful and popular teams are usually not associated with their national federations.
Furthermore, unlike traditional sports, an e-sport is developed and published, and therefore owned, by its publisher. Game publishers exercise complete control over their games. Publishers are at liberty to change the rules of the game. They could even prevent players, found guilty of doping, from participating in the game. There is no comparable scenario within traditional sports that can be looked at as a reference. However, publishers do not usually use this control to fulfil the role of governing bodies. They, primarily, are commercial entities whose purpose is to sell their games. They may not be interested in deploying bandwidth for governance. Many publishers take a hands-off approach and licence their games to competition organisers.
In recent times, several governing bodies have emerged for regulation of e-sports. But each of these present issues. The International e-Sports Federation (IeSF) is the most ‘traditional’ of the governing bodies with national federations as its members. It is, for that reason, not truly representative of the industry. The World E-Sports Association (WESA) has a more suitable approach, but it is limited in scope. It is only active in one e-sport (Counter-Strike: Global Offensive) and only represents competitions conducted by ESL (one of the largest e-sports companies in the world). ESL’s influence on its executive board also raises concerns about its independence. The Global E-Sports Federation is only a few months old and is backed by Tencent, one of the largest videogame companies in the world as “global founding partner”. Until now, none of these entities have been able to gain acceptance in the e-sports community.
Some publishers, such as Riot Games, the publisher of League of Legends, participate in governance and have developed effective regulatory mechanisms for their competitions. In the case of Riot Games, this has been possible as they control and operate the major League of Legends competitions. They operate leagues in North America, Europe, South Korea and Southeast Asia and also the annual World Championship. The regulations include restrictions on ownership of multiple teams, minimum standards for contracts and transfer windows. The regulations also incorporate a code of conduct dealing with integrity violations and prescribe penalties.In some countries, national e-sports federations (with the backing of the government) have been able to regulate e-sports domestically. The Korea eSports Association has support and approval from the relevant government ministry and has regulated e-sports at the national level with great success. Such national regulatory mechanisms have also been put in place in the UK, France, Russia and in the middle-east. In India, the E-Sports Federation of India (ESFI) is not recognized as a National Sports Federation by the Government of India.
Governance structures and regulations are necessary to maintain sporting integrity and to protect rights of stakeholders. Integrity issues include doping, match-fixing, conflicts of interest and corruption. Contractual stability regulations and accessible dispute resolution mechanisms are required to ensure protection of rights.
It is clear that governance models implemented in traditional sports are not suitable for e-sports. An e-sports governance model has to be representative of all stakeholders. It needs the backing of all stakeholders to implement and enforce regulations.
The E-Sports Integrity Commission, formed by various stakeholders in the e-sports industry in 2016, offers a unique solution for integrity issues in e-sports.. The ESIC has developed an Integrity Program for its members, which consists of a Code of Ethics, a Code of Conduct, an Anti-Corruption Code and an Anti-Doping Code. The ESIC’s membership is open to all stakeholders including publishers, tournament platforms and promoters, hardware and software partners, teams and national e-sports federations. An international e-sports governing body could potentially become a member of the ESIC Integrity Program instead of formulating its own integrity regulations.
Considering the above challenges we make the following recommendations:
- An international governing body should involve all stakeholders in e-sports i.e. players, teams, publishers and competition organizers as members. The Executive Board of this body must be truly representative of all stakeholders. Without proper representation (as is the case in IeSF and WESA), it will be difficult to enforce any regulations formulated by such a body.
- The governing body can adopt the ESIC Integrity Program by becoming a member or through a collaboration. The ESIC Integrity Program has been developed in consultation with a variety of industry stakeholders and covers potential integrity issues sufficiently. It would be prudent to adopt this than develop a new set of regulations.
- The governing body must draft and enforce regulations addressing contractual stability, minimum standards for contracts and protection of minors. The ESIC Integrity Program, as it stands, does not cover these issues. These regulations should be drafted with due industry consultations, and while considering the differences in each e-sport. For any such regulations to be enforced, it will require the active support of all stakeholders. So their participation in the development process is crucial.
- The governing body should set up a dispute-resolution mechanism with a final right to appeal its decision before the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Such a system is necessary to ensure the proper enforcement of the above regulations put in place by the body. This is important especially because of the power imbalance within e-sports.
- Alongside such an international body, reform at the national level with government-approved e-sports governing body is required. The South Korea model shows how this can be beneficial for the growth of e-sports. This is also necessary to ensure compliance of the international body’s regulations at the national level. This national body should ensure player registration, approve the domestic competitions/events, and select the national team representatives.
Authored by Vishakh Ranjit, Consultant and Anirudh Rastogi, Managing Partner at Ikigai Law.
Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
 Laura L. Chao, “You Must Construct Additional Pylons”: Building a Better Framework for Esports Governance, 86 Fordham L. Rev. 737 (2017), available at: https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/flr/vol86/iss2/15.
 The Executive Board of WESA consists of two members appointed by ESL, two members appointed by the member teams and one Chairman chosen by these four board members. Please see http://www.wesa.gg/structure/
 Global Esports Federation launches in partnership with Tencent, available at https://esportsinsider.com/2019/12/global-esports-federation-tencent/
 Ryan Hawkins, Esports in the off-season – A guide to the League of Legends free agency period from the perspective of team Fnatic, available at https://www.lawinsport.com/topics/features/item/esports-in-the-off-season-a-guide-to-the-league-of-legends-free-agency-period-from-the-perspective-of-team-fnatic
 Rule 8, the League of Legends 2018 Season Official Rules, available at https://esports assets.s3.amazonaws.com/production/files/rules/EU_Rulebook.pdf
 Supra note 1.
 Jacqueline Martinelli, The Challenges of Implementing a Governing Body for Regulating ESports, 26 U. Miami Int’l & Comp. L. Rev. 499 (2019), available at: https://repository.law.miami.edu/umiclr/vol26/iss2/8.
 Formerly known as E-Sports Integrity Coalition.