The letter behind the law of Gfinity’s 18+ CoD tournament ruling

The letter behind the law of Gfinity’s 18+ CoD tournament ruling
Chris Higgins

Gfinity’s 2015 Call of Duty Open announcement last Thursday was met with mixed reactions from fans and players alike, after it was revealed to be for over-18s only.

The age restriction, a result of Gfinity’s policy to uphold the game’s PEGI rating, has caused some anger among younger members of the community who were eager to watch, or enter the competition themselves. But to what extent does the law apply in a tournament scenario?

Speaking on Twitter about the concerns, Gfinity’s Head of Partner Relations, Martin Wyatt, said: “I understand the disappointment. We have to follow the 18+ PEGI rating of the game. If the game was 16+, so would be the restriction.”

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s 18+ Pan European Game Information rating is a legally enforceable restriction in the UK. Since the enactment of the Video Recordings (Labelling) Regulations in July 2012, the PEGI rating superseded the existing BBFC and became a legal obligation rather than purchasing advice. Selling an 18+, 15- or 12-rated game to an underaged customer carries a £5,000 maximum fine and a possible six-month jail term for any retailer.

The key word here is “retailer”. The law governs specifically the transaction, in a similar way to how tobacco and alcohol laws are enforced. It is not explicitly illegal for a child to play an 18+ game, nor is it illegal for a parent to give their child one. So what, then, does this law mean for the ever-grey area of eSports and spectator gaming?

“The PEGI, ESEA, and other video game rating requirements govern how ratings are determined and advertised,” says Bryce Blum, a Seattle-based lawyer with a practice in gaming and eSports. “To the extent these laws actually have enforcement mechanisms – and many don’t – they typically involve penalties for selling the game to someone who is underage or the insufficient advertising of the rating. Spectating or playing the game is unlikely to be implicated.”

Gfinity’s eSports Director, Paul Kent, partially agrees with this assessment, but also understands the importance of due process in such a novel arena. “This seems to be a grey area at the moment and is something we are urgently seeking clarification on, however until we do get that, we must err on the side of caution,” Kent said. “We want as many people to get access to everything we do, but we also must respect the regulations that have been put in place. As although these can be frustrating we must not forget that these safeguards have been put in place for a reason.”

Safeguards are an important aspect when it comes to involving minors in litigious events, like tournaments. On the player side of things, large sums of money are changing hands that are complicated by guardians and other legal statuses. On the spectator side, the mere presence of children introduces new aspects of planning, from alcohol availability to insurance premiums. According the Blum, this alone is enough to warrant restrictions.

“I don’t think these [consumer protection] laws are what are causing tournament organisers to implement age restrictions on their events,” Blum said. “Having a minor participate can create a wide array of liability and enforceability issues. Whether or not those risks outweigh the value of opening the field is determined on a case-by-case basis, which is why age restrictions vary by event.”

However, Kent is resolved not to allow ‘the easy road’ to determine who can and can not enjoy Gfinity’s events. Speaking to eSports Pro from a visit to the imminently complete Gfinity Arena, at the Vue cinema complex in Fulham Broadway, he explains how it will aid future events in the space. “This is one of the great aspects of our partnership with the Vue,” he said. “They have years and years of experience dealing with all the extra details that go hand in hand in catering for all age groups. What we spend a lot of time on is making sure the minors don’t feel excluded even if certain age barriers get in the way some time.”

But what about when those barriers reduce the quality of the entertainment? It’s no secret that under-18s are playing Call of Duty, and it’s also no secret that the age range of eSports is positively skewed towards pre-adolescence. Do these restrictions harm those most active in the community?

“Yes and no,” Kent says. “If you take [Martin “Rekkles” Larsson] from LoL, he was playing for other teams before he reached the correct age limit and that just added to his reputation and aura.”

Larsson’s competitive career began in 2012, at the age of 15. He has since played on SK Gaming and Fnatic, though was prevented from competing in the 2013 EU LCS for Fnatic due to being under 17. Riot’s VP of eSports and Merchandise, Dustin Beck, explained the reasons for their self-imposed restrictions, rather than being limited by age ratings like CoD.

“The Championship Series is a true pro sports league and its players will be training and competing for most of the year,” Beck wrote in a Reddit IAMA in 2013. “They won’t just be attending a few weekend tournaments, scattered throughout the calendar. Championship Series pro players will be living with their teams, traveling extensively and making an adult commitment to eSports. They will need to be able to make decisions and sacrifices which require a high degree of maturity. Our pros will have full-time jobs and we believe that 17 is the appropriate minimum age for a player to operate at this level.”

For now, Gfinity’s rules will stand, more as a precaution than a cast-iron limit. There is certainly scope for it to change, once precedent has been established. However, there are also compelling reasons to ensure everyone involved is capable and well-equipped to make the life-changing decisions eSports can bring about.

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