Shady Contracts, Raw Deals: Inside the Industry of Managing Video Game Stars

“I don’t think the work we do falls under the purview of the act, but that act is over 40 years old at this point and really designed to protect talent from predatory practices,” says Swartz. “Regardless, we are quite confident that we do not fall into that category. We are extremely, extremely professional and we’ll be out of business very quickly if we try to take advantage of talent.”

One of the only true agencies endemic to this space is Evolved, run by Ryan Morrison, who is also a founding partner of the law firm Morrison Rothman. California’s labor commissioner has vetted Evolved’s contracts, though at one point the firm represented 70 percent of players in the Overwatch League, creating potential conflicts of interests. (Morrisson says his “heart strings got pulled.”). Now he represents a fifth of the league.

In a Twitlonger posted on June 23, a former employee of Morrison’s law firms named Ma’idah Lashani accused Morrison of conflicts of interest and sexual harassment, and said that he made inappropriate remarks about a transgender staff member. Morrison Rothman contracted a neutral law firm to investigate the allegations, and in July, announced it had found “no evidence” of sexual misconduct or inappropriate relationships with team owners. “While Mr. Morrison has made mistakes in the past, he has taken and will continue taking considerable steps and actions to improve,” the firm wrote. Lashani says she declined to speak with the investigator because the investigator would not sign a letter ensuring confidentiality.

“I absolutely am the first to admit that when I came into this industry, my most professional job beforehand was bartender. The way I networked, joked around and behaved was unprofessional and immature,” Morrison told WIRED. “A person is only as good as their worst moments. I genuinely believe that and I’m working every day to be better.”

The mainstream success of Fortnite in 2017 was a watershed moment; the saccharine shooter game birthed the major gaming celebrities du jour—your Ninjas, your Tfues—who have architected brand empires atop it. “It was a game that hit the mass audience—younger and older—in a way we hadn’t seen from Minecraft. It also has a competitive side and a livestreaming side on top of it,” says Peter Seville, a talent agent with Creative Artists Agency. “That, plus celebrities getting involved, definitely elevated the exposure and number of brands looking into the space.”

William Morris Endeavor, United Talent Agency, and Creative Artists Agency—all traditional, decades-old Hollywood agencies—have begun representing streamers as clients. While they may not be endemic to gaming’s idiosyncratic culture, their deep background in film, sports, and music helps them advocate for clients clawing for relevance in the gaming entertainment world. Top streamers have begun diversifying their brands with book and television deals, which these agencies have experience brokering.

“We take a long-term growth roadmap with talent because I think it’s in their best interest. A lot of these kids are 16, 17. It’s tough to try and project yourself out 15, 20 years in the future,” says WME agent David Huntzinger. “I think things are changing and becoming a bit more standardized.” FaZe CEO Trink says that the space is moving so fast that, at least twice a year he asks his legal department to review their contracts.

“Having originally come from film and TV, where the standards and practices have been set for two, three decades, is very different from being in a world where people are making up new rules,” says CAA’s Seville. “I think now we’re seeing that old rules are being applied in ways that I think are really helpful.”

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Part of what’s helped standardize the space, Seville says, is money. Traditionally gaming-adjacent brands—energy drinks, hardware companies—were spending $5,000 or $10,000 a month for a celebrity streamer to namedrop or use their product live just a couple of years ago. “That was considered a pretty solid deal,” Seville says. “At this point, they’re looking at seven-figure deals and above.” And as the financial stakes get higher, the infrastructure of big business follows.

www.wired.com

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