By Victoria Gray, Georgetown Law Class of 2020 (Contributing Research, Joseph La Vine)
The esports community is no stranger to innovation and head turning developments. But when the newest diversion from the status quo surrounds an 8-year-old, a high level of attention is rightfully dedicated to the moment in question. This is what happened when an esports organization based out of California made the decision to contract with an 8-year-old Fortnite prodigy, Joseph Deen. The organization—namely “Team 33”—claims to be a highly selective and invitation-only esports team according to its official website. Aside from being competitors at some of the world’s largest tournaments, the Los Angeles headquartered group also says it is backed by wealthy investors, entrepreneurs, and celebrities. Reports estimate that Team 33 has a net worth of a billion dollars.
Tyler Gallagher, the founder of Team 33, said that although Joseph is indeed a child he is extremely skilled. Notwithstanding, this extremely skilled child has now acquired membership in a professional organization, with a $33,000 honorarium pay, and new state of the art gaming equipment valued at approximately $5,000. Monetary compensation and perks aside, an organization aligning itself with an extremely young minor draws necessary comparison to the rest of the esports world. As a member of a group that competes at such high stakes, has a large presence and much notoriety in the esports gaming industry, there is an extreme likelihood that they will be trendsetters for the rest of their industry. Thus, the industry-wide treatment of a decision like this will be referenced when and if similar choices are made by other teams.
While the presence of extreme youth is not a red flag in and of itself, it is notable that many platforms associated with esports do have minimum age requirements. Also, some younger players have been suspended for falsely representing their ages—illustrating or implying that there is somewhat of an observed standard for age range and game play. For example, in 2019 a player was subject to many different penalties after he was discovered to have been misrepresenting his age to be above the minimum age required to stream on Twitch and compete in Fortnite tournaments (13). As punishment he lost his winnings, his Twitch account, and had to sit out on high level play for two years—until he actually came of age.
Where Team 33 is concerned, not only have they signed Joseph, but they have admitted to training him over the past few years and “secretly” scouting younger players that they claim are “the future” of gaming. Although they claim Joseph does not work for their organization, Tyler alluded to receiving profits from his YouTube channel and merchandise. Tyler seems to lay stake in the fact that Joseph would be gaming “with or without us”. The question of Team 33 and Joseph Deen presently represents a sort of an enigma where esports has not had a lot to say about child labor. While Joseph “technically” not working may be true, the law could easily shape the enigma to reflect a “meeting of the minds” for Joseph and Team 33. It is said that he will face no penalties for not practicing with the group or for spending less time gaming to focus on school or other hobbies. However, Tyler also expressed that he simultaneously intends to recoup his $33,000 investment “and then some” over the next few years.
In the press, Tyler has called their agreement a “reverse contract”. Joseph will be trained in games like Fortnite and Call of Duty to become even more competitive and his YouTube presence will be built as he is entered into prize-money-free tournaments. According to Team 33 their only incentive thus far is a percentage cut of Joseph’s YouTube and merchandise (33 percent). He can renegotiate or refuse the contract in 5 years at 13, but at any point before this time if he exercises his “right” to walk away, the YouTube channel and merchandise will belong to Team 33.
This is all supposed to be “just gaming” and no work, which is why Tyler believes no employment law is implicated. However, anyone looking at what has been agreed to could likely determine there is more than an expectation of Joseph to just “play around” online.
He was handpicked, secretly trained from an even younger age, and there is invested money on the line. While Team 33 makes no threats about what would happen were Joseph to not be profitable, even a lay approach would dictate that they expect him to rise to the tone of such a hefty financial backing, which does include regular practices, monitoring, and literal work.
Generally speaking children under 13 years old may not work in California, except in limited situations. Even children above that age must be significantly limited in the hours per day and week they may work, and many know gaming can easily go into countless hours each day, especially when involved in tournaments. Where minors are subject to labor protections as a whole, esports could also defer to the standards of the platforms that also have minimum age requirements in determining whether Joseph should be allowed to be a part of Team 33. Moreover, it would also be hard to say he could simply join SAG-AFTRA. Within SAG children under 16 years of age must be accompanied by a responsible person through the work day. Between the YouTube and prize-money-free tournaments he is already expected to do, as a legitimate child worker he would likely absorb time his parents would need for their own careers.
Finally, giving him the ability to renegotiate or walk away doesn’t change the fact that Team 33 has a hefty first dig at Joseph’s interests, and that there will be a lot of internal pressure to remain loyal in the years to come. While the age-old saying does purport: “do what you love and you will never work a day in your life,” it is hard to believe a billion-dollar betting and gaming arm could be so free in their expectations.