One of the world’s top Fortnite streamers filed a lawsuit this week claiming that the popular e-sports organization Faze Clan has been financially exploiting him. The lawsuit paints Faze Clan as abusive, pressuring the streamer to do dangerous stunts and drink underage, but the story is ultimately one about getting out of a contract, so that the increasingly successful streamer can stake out on his own. It’s a new situation for e-sports, but not for online video creators in general — YouTubers faced similar issues some years ago when they relied on organized networks to grow, but have since abandoned them for more lucrative individual opportunities.
Turner Tenney, better known by the handle “Tfue,” filed the lawsuit on Monday, alleging that Faze Clan’s contract demanded 80 percent of his earnings and broke multiple California laws. Faze Clan is an organization that works with players and streamers to help them secure brand deals and play in tournaments. The organization has denied all allegations and, just a couple of days after the lawsuits was filed, Tenney is backtracking on some of it, too. Tenney said in a YouTube video published last night that “all the stuff about the gambling, the stunts, the drinking” wasn’t accurate. Tenney added that his lawyer is working to remove those allegations. Instead, Tenney wants the focus to be on “this fucking bizarre” contract so he can get out of it.
This is new territory for e-sports, but not YouTube. Creators have for years fought with companies, known as multi-channel networks (MCNs), that work with talent to secure brand deals and advertising revenue. YouTube creators came to realize they didn’t need MCNs as advertisers and brands learned more about the industry. Up-and-coming personalities and established creators could work with talent agents or by themselves to secure deals.
Tenney’s interest in expanding beyond Faze Clan is eerily similar to what happened with multi-channel networks, says Dan Levitt, a talent manager who has worked with some of the most prominent YouTube creators working today. “‘Do I need to join an e-sports organization?’ is the new ‘do I need to join an MCN?,” Levitt said.
E-sports is a booming industry, but one that advertisers still don’t know how to work in their favor, Levitt said. Advertisers do understand the importance of views and subscriber numbers, though. “Players build up their own Twitch channels, especially with Fortnite, which leaned on personalities, and now there’s something to sell to advertisers in a space they want to get into,” he said.
“Win or lose, we’ll still have the most followers and the most views.”
Joining an e-sports organization can mean agreeing to some grueling requirements. Stream upwards of 50 hours a week, on top of training to compete professionally, is a common detail in e-sports contracts, Levitt said. Just glancing at accusations made by Tenney in his lawsuit was enough for Levitt to say, “sounds about right.”
For e-sports organizations, having the most popular streamers has become just as important as winning tournaments, says Andrew Gordon, an attorney who specializes in e-sports and has worked with some of “the largest organizations” as their counsel. “One of the teams I worked with used to say, ‘Win or lose, we’ll still have the most followers and the most views,” Gordon said.
It’s easy for e-sports organizations to take advantage of players and personalities who don’t understand what they’re getting into, Levitt and Gordon told The Verge. Contracts are often dozens of pages long and full of legalese that teenage gamers either aren’t reading or don’t understand. Even Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, easily the most recognizable Fortnite player and streamer, confessed on a recent stream that he didn’t read the first six or seven contracts he signed. Most 16-year-olds don’t have a lawyer on retainer — they’re teenagers.
“They’re being presented with 30 page contracts written by well-paid attorneys. They’re often in situations where they have just days or hours to sign,” Gordon said. “It’s the most life-changing event of their career, and they are under pressure to sign in 12 hours. Most aren’t independently wealthy, and it takes money to hire an attorney. They don’t have a lot of influence with the contracts, and they don’t have the resources to demand what they deserve.”
Those who work at the top level of teams and companies like Faze Clan disagree. Faze Clan co-owner Richard Bengtson, better known as Banks, said the group has “collected nothing from [Tenney’s] Twitch, his YouTube — absolutely nothing.” The lawsuit is just a way for Tenney to get out of his contract, Bengtson said. He called the lawsuit and public drama “complete bullshit” and said he’s “fucking hurting right now.”
Other streamers and YouTube creators have come to Faze Clan’s defense, too. Blevins argued that Faze Clan made Tenney’s career and was the “only reason” he was invited to various tournaments. Tenney should have considered how big of a role Faze Clan played in his success before filing the lawsuit or handled it privately, he said.
“You have the power to go to the companies and say, ‘Look at all of this money and all of these brand deals that are coming in because of who I am. You guy’s don’t deserve 20 percent of a $2 million deal,’” Blevins said.
Tenney may end up getting released from his contract, but neither Gordon nor Levitt think it’s going to change how e-sports teams recruit players. At least, not yet. Until existing e-sports talent collectively demand changes, teenagers and young adults will still give up everything — or 80 percent of everything — just for a chance to try and make it.
“All the power really is in the hands of the organizations,” Gordon said. “Until things change to give players some of that power, I don’t think these contacts will change. Once players start realizing they have power as influencers and start to demand more, maybe then things will change. Maybe.”