Leading e-sports players must take trademark protection seriously or risk losing ownership of their gamertags 21 Feb 17
The e-sports industry is growing at a rapid pace and its most successful professional teams are starting to form effective brand protection strategies. However, two IP lawyers in the space warn that many individual players are ignoring the risks posed by the failure to protect their gamertags.
E-sports, the term most commonly used for players or teams competing on multiplayer videogames, is defined as a form of “mind sport”. It has existed since the 1970s but only became a serious commercial venture in the last decade. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of professional teams and players, with competitions often offering multi-million dollar prize money. Some reports even claim that e-sports could “take over football in terms of viewership and revenue in the future”.
Last year we reported that despite the increasingly commercial nature of the e-sports industry, with many teams clinching sponsorship and endorsement deals, legal protection for e-sport team brands was not a priority for many. As an exception, Wouter Sleijffers, CEO of the biggest professional e-sports team by brand value, Fnatic, told World Trademark Review that counterfeit goods had become “a major concern” for the team and an effective trademark protection strategy aided in combatting it. Furthermore, he noted that protection of the Fnatic brand has allowed it to become the most recognisable team in the industry. “At the end of the day, IP is the only real (major) asset we own, our teams and sponsors alike are attracted to us because of the brand reputation and the professionalism that is attached to the Fnatic name and mark,” he explained.
He suggested that one reason why so few teams had invested in trademark protection could be cashflow issues and the need to prioritise other things, such as player and staff pay. However, one year on, Michael Lee, an attorney at Morrison Lee, observes that e-sports teams have now become more focused on their brands. “I think e-sports organisations have upped their game and most major ones have attained registered trademark protection for their logos and name – they have needed to get good at this stuff because many teams have serious problems with counterfeiting,” he notes. However, this new approach has not yet trickled down to individual participants themselves, Lee stating: “I don’t think the players have taken their own brand protection seriously enough.”
While in most other sports, a player’s birth name is their most recognisable asset, in e-sports it is most often the player’s in-game name, or ‘gamertag’. So while football fans will recognise Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, e-sports fans may not immediately recognise Lee Sang-hyeok, Jason Tran or Zachary Scuderi – however, they will be well aware of their gamertags (Faker, WildTurtle and Sneaky respectively).
“We’re moving to a point where the most popular players are, like in many other sports, becoming just as recognisable as the teams,” Lee notes. “So while players sometimes have branded deals that come from sponsorships struck by their team, most are also free to enter into their endorsements with other companies. So we’re starting to see these players signing deals and also creating their own merchandise, and that means they need to be able to protect against unauthorised versions of that stuff. There are also issues due to people routinely stealing these gametag names, or adding a slight modifier such as a number. That often leads to confusion when used on social media (most commonly on YouTube or streaming service Twitch) or in other videogames.”
Another IP attorney in the field, Matt Dillon at Gatzke Dillon & Ballance (a firm dedicated to legal services for e-sports teams), reiterated this need for players to seek legal protection: “The players themselves absolutely need to be more aware of their brand and protecting themselves with trademarks – in fact, I advise players regularly to consider trademarking their gamertag/in-game name.”
Reflecting the continued exponential growth of the e-sports industry, established sports teams such as the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia 76ers have made recent investments into the sector. Therefore, it has become critically important that all parts of the industry, especially official tournament bodies, teams, and players, ensure their brand protection strategy is up to scratch. As Lee concludes: “It’s such a unique and budding field of sports, but the rules and standards aren’t set-in-stone and are currently being worked out. For example, there are no organisations or unions for players just yet. But for brand protection, it is a critical time. Many of the places that are most popular with e-sports are also first-to-file trademark jurisdictions. For players, they won’t want to be last in line. That would be a worst case scenario for these players that live-or-die by their online identity – if someone else gets the trademark first, all of a sudden they don't own the gamertag that people identify them with.”
For law firms, there may be an opportunity to offer specific services to those in the e-sports industry. There are 20 teams that made more than $1 million in prize money last year, and 62 individual players made over $250,000 in winnings. That is set to rise in 2017. But it’s the commercial side – sponsorship, advertising and media rights – that is set to explode, with the industry predicted to be worth $696 million by the end of the year. With commercialisation comes an increased need for brand protection; so the IP community should take note.
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