Contract law may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about esports, in fact, I’d hazard a guess that it wouldn’t come close to the top ten. But contracts are a vital part of any formal arrangement between two parties (particularly where money is involved) and, just because we’re talking about video games, this is no different in the world of esports.
The esports industry has exploded over the last few years, with league prize pools in the tens of millions up for grabs for players and some of the world’s biggest organisations investing in platforms, teams and sponsorship deals. What makes esports somewhat unique as an industry is that many of the best players globally are children. This article explores the enforceability of contracts with minors in the UK, whether that’s player contracts or representation, sponsorship or broadcasting deals.
First and foremost, the age of ‘capacity’ to enter into a contract in UK law is 18. This doesn’t mean that under-18s can’t enter into contracts, but there are some key points that organisations need to take into account when considering contracting with minors.
Are contracts binding on minors?
This depends on the type of contract – some contracts can be binding on minors in largely the same way as any other contracts, namely:
- Contracts for necessities (such as food, drink, clothing, lodging and medicine); and
- Contracts for apprenticeships, education or services (provided the contract is beneficial to the minor).
For a young player, a contract which enables the player to make a living out of gaming, such as an employment contract with a professional team, may fall into the second category above and be binding such that the minor cannot repudiate it at will even if they have given up certain rights that they might otherwise have had at law – provided the contract is, overall, beneficial to them.
However, just because a contract facilitates a minor’s career, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be binding. This was shown back in 2006 in a case involving an agency representation contract that 15-year old Wayne Rooney had with a company called Proform – the courts held that it was Rooney’s contract with the club that provided his employment and training and, whilst the representation contract may have added value to his career, it was voidable at Rooney’s option.
Contracts that don’t fall into these categories, as indicated by the Rooney case, are generally voidable at the minor’s option. In other words, they are binding on the other party (the adult or organisation entering into the contract with the minor) but they are not binding on the minor themselves. That being said, a minor is unlikely to be able to enforce a voidable contract against the other party if they have not held up their end of the deal.
For these contracts, a minor is free to void the contract whilst they are still a minor and, if the contract involves continuing obligations, within a reasonable time after they turn 18.
What if a parent/guardian signs the contract instead?
Despite a common assumption that parents are responsible for all of their child’s actions, a parent or guardian is not generally liable for a child’s contracts or debts unless they entered into a contract as the child’s agent or on their own behalf. However, a contract with a minor would be enforceable against a parent or guardian (or any other adult) who agreed to be a guarantor against an agreement made by the child.
A parent or guardian also does not have a general power to enter into a contract on their child’s behalf, but it may be possible for a child to grant a power of attorney to the parent for this purpose. Even if this is the case, the limitations on the child’s capacity to enter into a contract are not affected and the contract made by the attorney would only bind the minor if it would have done so had the minor entered into the contract personally.
What about player (employment) contracts?
Top young gamers may be keen to join professional esports teams, and those teams will be keen to sign up the best players they can find, regardless of their age. However, a player contract in this context is still an employment contract, and the employment of children is a highly regulated area with a patchwork of legislation, regulations and local bye-laws aimed at ensuring the health, well-being, safety and education of children.
For example, children under 14 generally cannot be employed (although local bye-laws often permit the employment of 13-year-olds provided this can be achieved in accordance with other laws), and children of compulsory school age can only be employed to do “light work” which is unlikely to be harmful to the child's safety, health or development or to affect their school attendance or participation in work experience.
In addition, there are a number of restrictions on the hours that children can work, for example, children cannot be employed:
- on a school day, before the end of the school day;
- before 07:00 or after 19:00 on any day;
- for more than 12 hours in any school term week;
- for more than 2 hours on a school day or a Sunday; or
- for more than four hours in any day without a rest break of one hour.
These restrictions are rightfully in place to ensure that children are safeguarded, but this shouldn’t deter organisations from working with the best young talent in esports in an appropriate way. Our specialist esports team includes expert employment and commercial lawyers who can provide advice and support to any organisation seeking to contract with young players – check out our esports page for more information.