Asser International Sports Law Blog

Our International Sports Law Diary
The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

Never let a good fiasco go to waste: why and how the governance of European football should be reformed after the demise of the ‘SuperLeague’ - By Stephen Weatherill

Editor’s note: Stephen Weatherill is the Jacques Delors Professor of European Law at Oxford University. He also serves as Deputy Director for European Law in the Institute of European and Comparative Law, and is a Fellow of Somerville College. This blog appeared first on eulawanalysis.blogspot.com and is reproduced here with the agreement of the author. 

 


The crumbling of the ‘SuperLeague’ is a source of joy to many football fans, but the very fact that such an idea could be advanced reveals something troublingly weak about the internal governance of football in Europe – UEFA’s most of all – and about the inadequacies of legal regulation practised by the EU and/ or by states. This note explains why a SuperLeague is difficult to stop under the current pattern of legal regulation and why accordingly reform is required in order to defend the European model of sport with more muscularity. More...



New Digital Masterclass - Mastering the FIFA Transfer System - 29-30 April

The mercato, or transfer window, is for some the most exciting time in the life of a football fan. During this narrow period each summer and winter (for the Europeans), fantastic football teams are made or taken apart. What is less often known, or grasped is that behind the breaking news of the latest move to or from your favourite club lies a complex web of transnational rules, institutions and practices.

Our new intensive two-day Masterclass aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (RSTP) to a small group of dedicated legal professionals who have the ambition to advise football clubs, represent players or join football governing bodies. The course combines theoretical insights on FIFA’s regulation of the transfer market with practical know-how of the actual operation of the RSTP distilled by hands-on practitioners.

Download the full Programme and register HERE.


The Team:

  • Dr Antoine Duval is a senior researcher at the Asser Institute and the head of the Asser International Sports Law Centre. He has widely published and lectured on transnational sports law, sports arbitration and the interaction between EU law and sport. He is an avid football fan and football player and looks forward to walking you through the intricacies of the FIFA transfer system.

  • Carol Couse is a Partner in the sports team at Mills & Reeve LLP , with extensive in-house and in private practice experience of dealing with sports regulatory matters, whether contentious or non-contentious.  She has advised on many multi million pound international football transfer agreements, playing contracts and image rights agreements on behalf clubs, players and agents.
  • Jacques Blondin is an Italian lawyer, who joined FIFA inundefined 2015, working for the Disciplinary Department. In 2019, he was appointed Head of FIFA TMS (now called FIFA Regulatory Enforcement) where he is responsible, among other things, for ensuring compliance in international transfers within the FIFA Transfer Matching System.
  • Oskar van Maren joined FIFA as a Legal Counsel in December 2017, forming part of the Knowledge Management Hub, a department created in September 2020. Previously, he worked for FIFA’s Players' Status Department. Between April 2014 and March 2017, he worked as a Junior Researcher at the T.M.C. Asser Instituut. He holds an LL.M in European law from Leiden University (The Netherlands).
  • Rhys Lenarduzzi is currently a research intern at the Asser International Sports Law Centre, where he focuses in particular on the transnational regulation of football. Prior to this, he acquired over 5 years of experience as a sports agent and consultant, at times representing over 50 professional athletes around the world from various sports, though predominantly football.




(A)Political Games? Ubiquitous Nationalism and the IOC’s Hypocrisy

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a L.LM. candidate in the European Law programme at Utrecht University and a former intern of the Asser International Sports Law Centre

 

1.     Sport Nationalism is Politics

Despite all efforts, the Olympic Games has been and will be immersed in politics. Attempts to shield the Games from social and political realities are almost sure to miss their mark and potentially risk being disproportionate. Moreover, history has laid bare the shortcomings of the attempts to create a sanitized and impenetrable bubble around the Games. The first blog of this series examined the idea of the Games as a sanitized space and dived into the history of political neutrality within the Olympic Movement to unravel the irony that while the IOC aims to keep the Olympic Games ‘clean’ of any politics within its ‘sacred enclosure’, the IOC and the Games itself are largely enveloped in politics. Politics seep into the cracks of this ‘sanitized’ space through: (1) public protests (and their suppression by authoritarian regimes hosting the Games), (2) athletes who use their public image to take a political stand, (3) the IOC who takes decisions on recognizing national Olympic Committees (NOCs) and awarding the Games to countries,[1] and (4) states that use the Games for geo-political posturing.[2] With this background in mind, the aim now is to illustrate the disparity between the IOC’s stance on political neutrality when it concerns athlete protest versus sport nationalism, which also is a form of politics.

As was mentioned in part one of this series, the very first explicit mention of politics in the Olympic Charter was in its 1946 version and aimed to combat ‘the nationalization of sports for political aims’ by preventing ‘a national exultation of success achieved rather than the realization of the common and harmonious objective which is the essential Olympic law’ (emphasis added). This sentiment was further echoed some years later by Avery Brundage (IOC President (1952-1972)) when he declared: ‘The Games are not, and must not become, a contest between nations, which would be entirely contrary to the spirit of the Olympic Movement and would surely lead to disaster’.[3] Regardless of this vision to prevent sport nationalism engulfing the Games and its codification in the Olympic Charter, the current reality paints quite a different picture. One simply has to look at the mass obsession with medal tables during the Olympic Games and its amplification not only by the media but even by members of the Olympic Movement.[4] This is further exacerbated when the achievements of athletes are used for domestic political gain[5] or when they are used to glorify a nation’s prowess on the global stage or to stir nationalism within a populace[6]. Sport nationalism is politics. Arguably, even the worship of national imagery during the Games from the opening ceremony to the medal ceremonies cannot be depoliticized.[7] In many ways, the IOC has turned a blind eye to the politics rooted in these expressions of sport nationalism and instead has focused its energy to sterilize its Olympic spaces and stifle political expression from athletes. One of the ways the IOC has ignored sport nationalism is through its tacit acceptance of medal tables although they are expressly banned by the Olympic Charter.

At this point, the rules restricting athletes’ political protest and those concerning sport nationalism, particularly in terms of medal tables, will be scrutinized in order to highlight the enforcement gap between the two. More...


“Sport Sex” before the European Court of Human Rights - Caster Semenya v. Switzerland - By Michele Krech

Editor's note: Michele Krech is a JSD Candidate and SSHRC Doctoral Fellow at NYU School of Law. She was retained as a consultant by counsel for Caster Semenya in the proceedings before the Court of Arbitration for Sport discussed above. She also contributed to two reports mentioned in this blog post: the Report of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,  Intersection of race and gender discrimination in sport (June 2020); and the Human Rights Watch Report, “They’re Chasing Us Away from Sport”: Human Rights Violations in Sex Testing of Elite Women Athletes (December 2020).

This blog was first published by the Völkerrechtsblog and is republished here with authorization. Michele Krech will be joining our next Zoom In webinar on 31 March to discuss the next steps in the Caster Semenya case.



Sport is the field par excellence in which discrimination
against intersex people has been made most visible.

Commissioner for Human Rights, Council of Europe
Issue Paper: Human rights and intersex people (2015)


Olympic and world champion athlete Caster Semenya is asking the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to make sure all women athletes are “allowed to run free, for once and for all”. Semenya brings her application against Switzerland, which has allowed a private sport association and a private sport court to decide – with only the most minimal appellate review by a national judicial authority – what it takes for women, legally and socially identified as such all their lives, to count as women in the context of athletics. I consider how Semenya’s application might bring human rights, sex, and sport into conversation in ways not yet seen in a judicial forum. More...







New Event - Zoom In - Caster Semenya v. International Association of Athletics Federations - 31 March - 16.00-17.30 CET

On Wednesday 31 March 2021 from 16.00-17.30 CET, the Asser International Sports Law Centre, in collaboration with Dr Marjolaine Viret (University of Lausanne), is organising its fourth Zoom In webinar on the recent developments arising from the decision of the Swiss Federal Tribunal (SFT) in the case Caster Semenya v. International Association of Athletics Federations (now World Athletics), delivered on 25 August 2020.


Background
The participation of athletes with biological sex differences to international competitions is one of the most controversial issues in transnational sports law. In particular, since 2019, Caster Semenya, an Olympic champion from South-Africa has been challenging the World Athletics eligibility rules for Athletes with Differences of Sex Development (DSD Regulation), which would currently bar her from accessing international competitions (such as the Tokyo Olympics) unless she accepts to undergo medical treatment aimed at reducing her testosterone levels. In April 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected her challenge against the DSD Regulation in a lengthy award. In response, Caster Semenya and the South African Athletics Federation filed an application to set aside the award before the Swiss Federal Tribunal. In August 2020, the SFT released its decision rejecting Semenya’s challenge of the award (for an extensive commentary of the ruling see Marjolaine Viret’s article on the Asser International Sports Law Blog).

Recently, on 25 February 2021, Caster Semenya announced her decision to lodge an application at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) against Switzerland on the basis of this judgment. In this context, we thought it important to organise a Zoom In webinar around the decision of the SFT and the pending case before the ECtHR. Indeed, should the ECtHR accept the case, it will be in a position to provide a definitive assessment of the human rights compatibility of the DSD Regulation. Moreover, this decision could have important consequences on the role played by human rights in the review of the private regulations and decisions of international sports governing bodies.


Speakers


Participation is free, register HERE.

New Video! Zoom In on World Anti-Doping Agency v. Russian Anti-Doping Agency - 25 February

Dear readers,

If you missed it (or wish to re-watch it), the video of our third Zoom In webinar from 25 February on the CAS award in the World Anti-Doping Agency v. Russian Anti-Doping Agency case is available on the YouTube channel of the Asser Institute:



Stay tuned and watch this space, the announcement for the next Zoom In webinar, which will take place on 31 March, is coming soon!

A Reflection on Recent Human Rights Efforts of National Football Associations - By Daniela Heerdt (Tilburg University)

Editor's Note: Daniela Heerdt is a PhD researcher at Tilburg Law School in the Netherlands. Her PhD research deals with the establishment of responsibility and accountability for adverse human rights impacts of mega-sporting events, with a focus on FIFA World Cups and Olympic Games. She published a number of articles on mega-sporting events and human rights, in the International Sports Law Journal, Tilburg Law Review, and the Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights.

 

In the past couple of years, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) made remarkable steps towards embedding human rights into their practices and policies. These developments have been discussed at length and in detail in this blog and elsewhere, but a short overview at this point is necessary to set the scene. Arguably, most changes were sparked by John Ruggie’s report from 2016, in which he articulated a set of concrete recommendations for FIFA “on what it means for FIFA to embed respect for human rights across its global operations”, using the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) as authoritative standard.[i] As a result, in May 2017, FIFA published a human rights policy, in which it commits to respecting human rights in accordance with the UNGPs, identifies its salient human rights risks, and acknowledges the potential adverse impacts it can have on human rights in general and human rights of people belonging to specific groups. In October 2017, it adopted new bidding regulations requiring bidders to develop a human rights strategy and conduct an independent human rights risk assessment as part of their bid. In March 2017, FIFA also created a Human Rights Advisory Board, which regularly evaluated FIFA’s human rights progress and made recommendations on how FIFA should address human rights issues linked to its activities. The mandate of the Advisory Board expired at the end of last year and the future of this body is unknown at this point.

While some of these steps can be directly connected to the recommendations in the Ruggie report, other recommendations have largely been ignored. One example of the latter and focus of this blog post is the issue of embedding human rights at the level of national football associations. It outlines recent steps taken by the German football association “Deutscher Fussball-Bund” (DFB) and the Dutch football association “Koninklijke Nederlandse Voetbalbond” (KNVB) in relation to human rights, and explores to what extent these steps can be regarded as proactive moves by those associations or rather spillover effects from FIFA’s human rights efforts. More...

New Event! Zoom In on World Anti-Doping Agency v. Russian Anti-Doping Agency - 25 February - 16:00-17:30 CET

On Thursday 25 February 2021 from 16.00-17.30 CET, the Asser International Sports Law Centre, in collaboration with Dr Marjolaine Viret (University of Lausanne), organizes a Zoom In webinar on the recent award of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in the case World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) v. Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA), delivered on 17 December 2020.


Background
In its 186 pages decision the CAS concluded that RUSADA was non-compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code (WADC) in connection with its failure to procure the delivery of the authentic LIMS data (Laboratory Information Management System) and underlying analytical data of the former Moscow Laboratory to WADA. However, the CAS panel did not endorse the entire range of measures sought by WADA to sanction this non-compliance. It also reduced the time frame of their application from four to two years. The award has been subjected to a lot of public attention and criticisms, and some have expressed the view that Russia benefited from a lenient treatment.   

This edition of our Zoom in webinars will focus on assessing the impact of the award on the world anti-doping system. More specifically, we will touch upon the decision’s effect on the capacity of WADA to police institutionalized doping systems put in place by certain states, the ruling’s regard for the rights of athletes (Russian or not), and its effect on the credibility of the world anti-doping system in the eyes of the general public.


To discuss the case with us, we are very happy to welcome the following speakers:


Participation is free, register HERE.

Revisiting FIFA’s Training Compensation and Solidarity Mechanism - Part. 5: Rethinking Redistribution in Football - By Rhys Lenarduzzi

Editor’s note: Rhys Lenarduzzi recently completed a Bachelor of Law (LL.B) and Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.) at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, Australia. As a former professional athlete, then international sports agent and consultant, Rhys is interested in international sports law, policy and ethics. He is currently undertaking an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on Transnational Sports Law.

 

As one may have gathered from the series thus far, the question that comes out of this endeavour for me, is whether redistribution in football would be better divorced from the transfer system?

In my introductory blog I point towards historical, cultural, and of course the legal explanations as to why redistribution was established, and why it might be held onto despite obvious flaws. In my second blog, I point out how the training compensation and solidarity mechanisms work in practice through an African case study, as well as the hindrance caused and the Eurocentricity of the regulations. The key take-away from my third blog on the non-application of training compensation in women’s football might be that training compensation should apply to both men’s and women’s football, or neither. The sweeping generalisation that men’s and women’s football are different as justification for the non-application to the women’s game is not palatable, given inter alia the difference between the richest and poorest clubs in men’s football. Nor is it palatable that the training compensation mechanism is justified in men’s football to incentivise training, yet not in women’s football.

In the fourth blog of this series, I raise concerns that the establishment of the Clearing House prolongs the arrival of a preferable alternative system. The feature of this final blog is to consider alternatives to the current systems. This endeavour is manifestly two-fold; firstly, are there alternatives? Secondly, are they better?  More...


Revisiting FIFA’s Training Compensation and Solidarity Mechanism - Part. 4: The New FIFA Clearing House – An improvement to FIFA’s training compensation and solidarity mechanisms? - By Rhys Lenarduzzi

Editor’s note: Rhys Lenarduzzi recently completed a Bachelor of Law (LL.B) and a Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.) at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, Australia. As a former professional athlete, then international sports agent and consultant, Rhys is interested in international sports law, policy and ethics. He is currently undertaking an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on Transnational Sports Law.

In September 2018, the Football Stakeholders Committee endorsed the idea of a Clearing House that was subsequently approved in October of the same year by the FIFA Council. A tender process commenced in July 2019 for bidders to propose jurisdiction, operation and establishment. Whilst many questions go unanswered, it is clear that the Clearing House will be aimed at closing the significant gap between what is owed and what is actually paid, in respect to training compensation and solidarity payments. The Clearing House will have other functions, perhaps in regard to agents’ fees and other transfer related business, though those other operations are for another blog. It will hence act as an intermediary of sorts, receiving funds from a signing and therefore owing club (“new” club) and then moving that money on to training clubs. Whilst separate to FIFA, to what extent is unclear.

I have landed at the position of it being important to include a section in this blog series on the soon to commence Clearing House, given it appears to be FIFA’s (perhaps main) attempt to improve the training compensation and solidarity mechanisms. As will be expanded upon below, I fear it will create more issues than it will solve. Perhaps one should remain patient and optimistic until it is in operation, and one should be charitable in that there will undoubtedly be teething problems. However, it is of course not just the function of the Clearing House that is of interest, but also what moving forward with the project of the Clearing House represents and leaves unaddressed, namely, the issues I have identified in this blog series. More...

Asser International Sports Law Blog | Can a closed league in e-Sports survive EU competition law scrutiny? The case of LEC - By Thomas Terraz

Asser International Sports Law Blog

Our International Sports Law Diary
The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

Can a closed league in e-Sports survive EU competition law scrutiny? The case of LEC - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a third year LL.B. candidate at the International and European Law programme at The Hague University of Applied Sciences with a specialisation in European Law. Currently he is pursuing an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on International and European Sports Law.


1.     Introduction

The organizational structure of sports in Europe is distinguished by its pyramid structure which is marked by an open promotion and relegation system. A truly closed system, without promotion and relegation, is unknown to Europe, while it is the main structure found in North American professional sports leagues such as the NFL, NBA and the NHL. Recently, top European football clubs along with certain members of UEFA have been debating different possibilities of introducing a more closed league system to European football. Some football clubs have even wielded the threat of forming an elite closed breakaway league. Piercing through these intimidations and rumors, the question of whether a closed league system could even survive the scrutiny of EU competition law remains. It could be argued that an agreement between clubs to create a completely closed league stifles competition and would most likely trigger the application of Article 101 and 102 TFEU.[1] Interestingly, a completely closed league franchise system has already permeated the European continent. As outlined in my previous blog, the League of Legends European Championship (LEC) is a European e-sports competition that has recently rebranded and restructured this year from an open promotion and relegation system to a completely closed franchise league to model its sister competition from North America, the League Championship Series. This case is an enticing opportunity to test how EU competition law could apply to such a competition structure.

As a preliminary note, this blog does not aim to argue whether the LEC is a ‘real’ sport competition and makes the assumption that the LEC could be considered as a sports competition.[2]



2.     LEC’s Position in the League of Legends Competitive Structure

The LEC is the pinnacle of League of Legends (LoL) competition in Europe that is organized by its developer, Riot Games. Currently, the LEC is the only path to the League of Legends World Championship. Its previous name was the EU League Championship Series (EU LCS), and it featured a promotion and relegation system with the EU Challenger Series. The EU Challenger Series has been replaced with the European Masters, which is a tournament that places the top seed from European regional leagues against each other. It is important to highlight that the teams in the LEC do not compete on behalf of their region (although some of the organizations from the LEC have their second team competing in a regional leagues).

The franchise agreement between the LEC and the participant e-sport organizations required organizations to buy-in at 10.5 million euros into the LEC. The ensuing partnership lasts three years and ensures that the organization is guaranteed a spot in the LEC during this period, unless there are “consistent poor performance or disciplinary issues”. The agreement effectively prevents any other European organization/team from the regional leagues and the European Masters from accessing the highest LoL championship in Europe (the LEC) and completely cuts off any opportunity to reach the League of Legends World Championships for at least three years.

The previous system of relegation and promotion has helped foster talent and create new successful European e-sports organizations. Currently, the winners of Mid-Season Invitational 2019 (a mid-year world championship) is G2 Esports, which was able to rise to the EU LCS through the EU Challenger Series in late 2015. As a result, concerns have been expressed that by adopting the closed league model, the LEC will not be able to nurture new talent and competitive organizations. This worry goes to the heart of Article 165 TFEU’s aim to develop the ‘openness’ of sporting competitions and gives merit to analyzing the LEC under EU competition law rules.[3]

 

3.     EU Competition Law and its Application to Sports

Generally speaking, EU competition law seeks to ensure ‘effective’ competition between undertakings in Europe. Concerning the field of sports, the CJEU asserted that rules of sport governing bodies fall under the inspection of EU competition law even if they are purely sporting in nature.[4] However, the CJEU left room for sport governing bodies to defend their measures which fall within the scope of competition rules. Sporting rules can escape the prohibitions of EU competition law if it can be shown that the concerned measures are inherent to the objectives it seeks to achieve and that they are “proportionate to the legitimate genuine sporting interest pursued”.  In other words, the specificity of sport must be taken into account.[5] Additionally, the CJEU has recognized that the participation in sport competitions can constitute economic activity because of the exposure that participation may provide.[6] Thus, preventing other organizations and their athletes from taking part in a league competition and as a consequence, the world championships, can have detrimental economic impacts on that organization and its athletes.

For this reason, the organizational structure of sport competitions may have colossal economic ramifications and easily fall within the scope of the Treaties. Articles 101 and 102 TFEU are the two cornerstones of EU competition law that prima facie would be applicable to this case. Essentially, Article 101 TFEU prohibits agreements between undertakings that restrict competition, and Article 102 TFEU forbids an undertaking or group of undertakings (collective dominance) from abusing its dominant position on the relevant market. So when a group of undertakings hold a dominant position in the relevant market and make an agreement which abuses their dominant position, the CJEU has recognized that both Article 101 and 102 TFEU may be applied. Nevertheless, the following analysis will concentrate on Article 102 TFEU.

 

4.     Does LEC (and its participant organizations) have a Dominant Position?

4.1.Are the LEC (and its participant organizations) undertakings?

As a preliminary point, the European Commission and the CJEU has repeatedly qualified sport governing bodies as undertakings under EU competition law.[7] The key criteria to determine whether an entity is an undertaking under EU law is whether the entity is engaged in ‘economic activity’. In MOTOE, the CJEU ruled that ELPA, a body that was organizing motorcycling events, was engaged in economic activity because it entered into “sponsorship, advertising and insurance contracts designed to exploit those events commercially”.[8] In the present case, there is little doubt that the League European Championship Limited, which is a private company limited by shares incorporated in the Republic of Ireland controlled by Riot Games, could be considered an undertaking since it concludes sponsorships and advertises its events.

The organizations that have signed the franchise agreement with Riot Games are mainly private limited companies.[9] These organizations enter into sponsorship agreements, and as stated earlier, the CJEU found that the participation in a sport competition could constitute economic activity. It follows that these e-sport organizations would easily be considered as undertakings.

 

4.2.What is the relevant market?

The next issue is determining the relevant market, including the relevant product and geographic market, the LEC and its participant organizations occupy. To identify the relevant product market, EU competition law examines the substitutability of the product or service. For example, in defining the relevant product or service market, the CJEU in MOTOE quite readily found that ELPA was “engaged ... in the organisation of motorcycling events and … their exploitation by means of sponsorship, advertising and insurance contracts”.[10]

From the outset, it should be underlined that games considered as e-sports greatly differ from one another.[11] E-sports usually fall within different genres of games, such as Real-Time Strategy (RTS), First-Person Shooter (FPS), Fighting, and Sports games. LoL falls within the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre. Thus, one may argue the relevant market in this case is e-sports competitions in the MOBA market. One way to test this market definition would be examining the ability of e-sports players to move from one e-sport to another.

Unfortunately, there has not been a complete study on the maneuverability of e-sport professionals between games of the same genre or of a different genre. As a result, it is difficult to have a complete view on the issue. Nevertheless, while there have been cases where certain players from e-sports of a different genre were able to move to LoL successfully (Ggoong [e-sports players are known by their own made up player names]) and others who have moved from LoL to another e-sport (Gesture, Bischu), there have been others who have attempted such moves without success (Destiny). On the other hand, when examining ‘traditional’ sports there are also many examples of athletes who have moved from one sport to another. For example, Primož Roglič was a high-level ski jumper, and even won the Junior Ski World Championship in this discipline, who then moved into professional road cycling and most recently came third in the Giro d’Italia. Ski jumping and road cycling arguably have very little in common, and it would be highly doubtful that the Commission or the CJEU would include both in the same market. Such an extreme example demonstrates that focusing on the maneuverability of e-sports athletes between e-sports may not always be the best way to define an e-sport market, and perhaps a more suitable approach would be to examine the specific features of the e-sport.

In this sense, it should be borne in mind that e-sports in the same genre, while sharing many basic characteristics and many of the fine motor skills, still diverge in terms of gameplay and strategy. If this were not the case, a professional LoL player could become a professional DOTA 2 (another MOBA e-sport) player without any extra effort. In reality, to make a transition, the professional LoL player would have to learn the intricacies and nuances of DOTA 2 compared to LoL, e.g. the champions and their builds, the pace of play, meta (the best strategies to win the game) etc. All of these differences support the argument that perhaps defining the product or service market in this case to MOBA e-sport competitions may be too broad, and it could be more appropriate to narrow the definition to LoL e-sport competitions.

Lastly, the geographic market is much more straightforward to define since the LEC Regulations define the EU Competitive Region in its 2019 Season Official Rules.[12] Therefore, the relevant geographic market would most likely be the EU Competitive Region.

 

4.3.Does LEC (and its participating organizations) have a dominant position in this market?

The Commission provides the most relevant criteria to ascertain whether an undertaking or undertakings hold a dominant position on the relevant market in its Guidance on enforcement of Article 82 of the EC Treaty (now Article 102 TFEU). Pertinent benchmarks include the “position of the dominant undertaking and its competitors”, “expansion and entry” of actual or future competitors, and the “bargaining strength of the undertaking’s customers” (countervailing buyer power). Usually, market shares are used to give a preliminary indication whether an undertaking occupies a dominant position in the market. The minimum threshold market share for which an undertaking or undertakings may be found to hold a dominant position is around 40-50%.[13]

If the relevant market was defined as the e-sport competitions in the MOBA market in the EU Competitive Region, one would have to examine competitive LoL in comparison to other e-sport competitions in the MOBA genre in Europe. For the purposes of this blog, there is rather limited information on the market share of LoL competitions in comparison to other MOBA e-sports in Europe. However, to at least give an idea of the size and dominance of LoL in the general MOBA market, LoL was projected to have an estimated 66% market share in 2016. When one compares this share to the second place, DOTA 2 with 14 %, it is evident that LoL generally holds a powerful position in the MOBA market and this most likely extends to its e-sports competitions.

In contrast, if the relevant market is narrowed to LoL e-sport competitions in the EU Competitive Region only, there would be an even higher chance of the LEC and its participant organizations being found to hold a dominant position. It could be argued that the European Masters (although Riot Games is a co-organizer) and the LoL regional leagues could be seen as ‘competitors’. Once more, direct information on market shares is scant. However, if one observes the viewership numbers of the LEC versus the European Masters, the LEC completely dwarfs the European Masters. The LEC in its 2019 Spring Split had a peak viewership of over 475,000 viewers and an average concurrent viewership of over 200,000 viewers. By comparison, the European Masters Spring 2019 competition had a peak viewership of just over 60,000 viewers and an average concurrent viewership of 32,000 viewers. From these numbers, it is evident that the LEC is overwhelmingly more popular and as a corollary, it may indicate that the LEC’s market share is likely to also reflect this.

 

5.     Does LEC abuse its Dominant Position?

5.1.Is the dominant position being abused and can it be justified (sporting exceptions)?

The finding of a dominant position is not enough to constitute a breach of EU competition law. Article 102 TFEU also requires that the dominant undertaking or undertakings abuse its dominant position, and it allows the dominant undertaking(s) to demonstrate how the relevant measures may be justified and proportionate. Within the sport context, the sport governing body must explain how the conduct which restricts competition pursues a legitimate objective and the anti-competitive effects must be “inherent in the pursuit of those objectives … and are proportionate to them”.[14]  There are a variety of ways an undertaking may abuse its dominant position, but in the present case, the LEC and its participant organizations agreement to seal the LEC and the LoL World Championship from any other European competitors would most likely fall under a non-price based exclusionary abuse. More specifically, exclusionary conduct must constitute ‘anti-competitive foreclosure’ which according to the Commission’s Guidance Paper is “a situation where effective access of actual or potential competitors to supplies or markets is hampered or eliminated as a result of the conduct of the dominant undertaking whereby the dominant undertaking is likely to be in a position to profitably increase prices to the detriment of consumers” (emphasis added).[15] 

The foreclosure requirement in this case is quite evidently satisfied since the LEC and its participant organizations have effectively excluded other organizations in Europe from the highest European competition of LoL and as a result, the LoL World Championship. Actually assessing whether there has been an increase in price to the detriment of consumers is not necessary, and the CJEU has ruled that “Article 102 TFEU must be interpreted as referring not only to practices which may cause damage to consumers directly, but also to those which are detrimental to them through their impact on competition”.[16] Moreover, a dominant undertaking “has a special responsibility not to allow its conduct to impair genuine undistorted competition in the internal market” and “[Article 102 TFEU] is aimed not only at the practices which may cause prejudice to consumers directly, but also at those which are detrimental to them through their impact on the competition structure”.[17] Therefore, it is not necessary to show direct harm to consumers, but that the foreclosure effects damage competition to a sufficient degree to their disadvantage.

As discussed earlier, the former promotion and relegation system helped promote new talent and organizations that were able to develop new fanbases, giving the opportunity for the European LoL viewers to get behind up and coming organizations. By stifling the prospects of new organizations from emerging in the LEC or the Worlds stage, market development may be hindered in contravention with Article 102 (b) TFEU at the European LoL e-sport’s expense.

Nonetheless, the LEC hopes that the closed structure “provides teams with more security to make longer investments that will strengthen and support pros, and provide better experiences for fan (sic)”, to “unlock revenue sharing” and “to focus on shaping the long-term future”. Basically, the LEC and its members seek greater financial security for themselves in order to invest more in its players and fans. The question is then whether the restrictions of competition resulting from the closed league described above are inherent to the pursuit of the aforementioned objectives.[18] While “the ensuring of financial stability of sport clubs/teams” could be a legitimate objective,[19] it is possible to envisage less restrictive means to achieve financial stability without completely excluding other European organizations from competing for the final LEC title and the LoL World Championship. For example, perhaps the LEC play-offs could give the opportunity for teams number 5 and 6 from the regular season to first face off against the top two teams of the European Masters Tournament.[20] A similar play-in format could easily be introduced for the LoL World Championships. Despite these changes, new organizations would still be precluded from joining the LEC. Perhaps this would require the LEC to come up with new creative structures that allow new organizations to join the LEC after having proven their worth. An example of such a system can be found in the top European basketball competition, EuroLeague, which issues different license/partner tiers for its participating clubs in order to provide better financial security for itself and its participants but still provides the possibility for a better performing national team to participate in the EuroLeague.[21] Based on my analysis, it is probable that the anti-competitive effects of a completely closed league will not be found to be entirely ‘inherent’ in the pursuit of financial stability.

 

6.     Conclusion

Taken altogether, the issue with EU competition law does not solely materialize because the LEC aims to provide greater financial stability for itself and its partners. Instead, the problems arise when there are no or very limited avenues for new competitors, in this case European e-sport organizations and their cyberathletes, to progress to the highest levels of competitive LoL in Europe. The closed league structure of the LEC precludes any outside organizations from playing in the LEC Playoffs and Finals, and as a result, they also may never participate in the LoL World Championship. On the other hand, it is understandable that the LEC seeks to create further financial stability for itself, the organizations and ultimately the cyberathletes. However, this should not come at the detriment of new competitors who could help elevate the level of competition in the LEC.

By extending this analysis to the wider sports world, it would be advisable for sports governing bodies who wish to create a more closed competitive league to pay close attention to the anti-competitive effects such restructuring could produce. Moreover, these effects would have to be proportionate and in the sporting context, “inherent in the pursuit of those objectives”.[22] All things considered, it does seem rather difficult to reconcile a completely closed league, as the one found in the LEC, with EU competition law.



[1] Stephen Weatherill, Principles and Practice in EU Sports Law (1st edn, Oxford University Press 2017) 282-283.

[2] See my previous blog for an analysis of whether LoL and the LEC could be a sport.

[3] Weatherill (n 1) 283.

[4] Case C-519/04 David Meca-Medina and Igor Majcen v Commission of the European Communities [2006] ECR I-06991 para. 27; White Paper on Sport, COM (2007) 391, 11 July 2007, 13.

[5] White Paper on Sport ibid.

[6] Joined Cases C-51/96 and C-191/97 Christelle Deliège v Ligue francophone de judo et disciplines associées ASBL, Ligue belge de judo ASBL, Union européenne de judo [2000] ECR I-02549 para 57.

[7] Cases IV/33.384 and IV/33.378 FIFA-distribution of package tours during the 1990 World Cup [1992] European Commission, OJ L326/31; Meca-Medina (n 4); Case C-49/07 Motosykletistiki Omospondia Ellados NPID (MOTOE) v Elliniko Dimosio [2008] ECR I-04863.

[8] MOTOE (n 7) para 23.

[9] See for example: Fnatic (Private limited company), G2 Esports (GmbH) and Origen Esports (ApS).

[10] MOTOE (n 7) para 33.

[11] Cem Abanazir, ‘E-sport and the EU: the view from the English Bridge Union’ (2019) International Sports Law Journal 102.

[12] The LEC 2019 Season Official Rules Glossary defines the EU Competitive Region as: “Albania, Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kosovo, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom (UK), Vatican City (Holy See)”.

[13] Alison Jones and Brenda Sufrin, EU Competition Law: Text, Cases, and Materials (6th edn, Oxford University Press 2016) 325.

[14] Meca-Medina (n 4) para 42; also see Guidance on the Commission’s enforcement priorities in applying Article 82 of the EC Treaty to abusive exclusionary conduct by dominant undertakings [2009] OJ C45/02 para 28.

[15] Guidance on the Commission’s enforcement priorities in applying Article 82 (n 14) para 19.

[16] Case C-52/09 Konkurrensverket v TeliaSonera Sverige AB [2011] ECR I-00527 para 24.

[17] ibid; Case C-95/04 British Airways plc v Commission of the European Communities [2007] ECR I-02331 para 106.

[18] Meca-Medina (n 4) para 42; Commission Staff Working Document - The EU and Sport: Background and Context - Accompanying document to the White Paper on Sport (2007) COM 391 at 2.1.5.

[19] White Paper on Sport (n 4) 68.

[20] See here for the current format of the 2019 LEC Playoffs.

[21] See Chapter II and III of the EuroLeague Bylaws.

[22] Meca-Medina (n 4) para 42.

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