Safeguarding in the e-sports arena

E-sports is the term used to describe competitive video gaming played for spectators, typically by professional gamers. Whilst many are familiar with more traditional video games, it seems that less than half the UK population are familiar with e-sports. 


Research conducted in 2020 showed a 10% growth in viewing figures, with over 439 million viewers watching e-sporting events. The industry has an estimated revenue of US$947 million which is expected to rise to around US$1.6 billion in the near future. It has also recently been announced that e-sports will be piloted in the Commonwealth Games.

For many, video gaming has been a way of connecting with others during COVID-19 lockdowns. Apart from tackling lockdown isolation, there are a number of positive benefits associated with video games, from encouraging teamwork to improving problem-solving skills. However, with a significant increase in interest in this area, it is important that regulations keep up to date to protect all those involved in e-sports.

Many businesses have already recognised the need to protect the interests of the public whilst online, and are taking steps to self-regulate.

However, as around 30% of gamers are under the age of 18, it is vital that risks relating to cyber-bullying, exploitation and harm are being adequately addressed and mitigated to ensure the integrity of the sector is maintained to a high standard.

This also gives clarity and reassurance to the public at large in addition to stakeholders seeking to operate responsibly in this area.

This article considers a number of the risk areas that have been identified and the steps that are being taken to mitigate those risks:

  • Regulation of platforms – there are risks created in the absence of oversight of content that is being uploaded and this may be increased in relation to games that don’t require verification of users. At present, there are no regulations which require platforms to actively safeguard users from harmful content.
  • E-sport coaches – online gaming platforms are not required by law to complete due diligence on e-sports coaches despite their access to children and young people.
  • Training camps and competitions – there appears to be a lack of clarity in relation to the standard of care afforded to players at some events.
  • Unexpected costs – gamers can be encouraged to purchase loot boxes containing items (such as weapons) for use within particular games.
  • Gambling - bookmakers offer betting odds on the outcome of e-sport events.

The risks outlined above are being widely considered to ensure that appropriate risk management strategies are identified and implemented in this rapidly developing area.

Information Commissioner’s Office: Children’s Code

In response to data risks, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has implemented a Children’s Code (the Code) which came into force on 2 September 2021. Its purpose is to ensure that organisations prove that the best interests of children are the primary concern. The Code contains 15 standards that online services are required to follow which apply to companies in the UK and located in any other jurisdiction to the extent that they process the personal data of UK children.

The Code offers clarity as to how organisations can use a child’s data, requiring organisations to commit to protecting children through the development of design and services and reporting to the ICO how they have indeed complied. 

Online Safety Bill

In May 2021, the UK Government published the draft Online Safety Bill (the Bill) which aims to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online. The main focus of the Bill relates to harmful online content with specific emphasis on social media companies rather than gaming companies. The extent to which the proposed new legislation will impact the gaming industry and e-sports remains to be seen.   

A Joint Committee provided a report in response to the Bill on 10 December 2021 with a number of recommendations including:

  • Key known risks of harm to children to be set out on the face of the Bill.
  • The government should develop a bespoke route of appeal in the courts to allow users to bring actions for failure of service providers to meet their obligations under the Act.

The government has, however, noted that the regulation of loot boxes and the classification of online games would require amendments to The Gambling Act 2005 and The Video Recordings Act 1984.

Regulation of online safety

It is proposed in the draft Online Safety Bill that Ofcom will be the regulator for online safety. It will have the power to impose substantial fines and assist authorities with criminal prosecutions.

The Joint Committee recommends that Ofcom develop a mandatory Code of Practice for complying with the safety duties in respect of children. It is envisaged that the ICO and Ofcom will issue a joint statement as to how the two regulatory systems will interact once the Online Safety Bill is introduced.

If an organisation is considered to have breached the Code, the ICO can issue warnings, reprimands, stop-now orders and fines.

This is not focussed on the issue of online gaming and there are wider concerns, as detailed above, arising from the growing interest in e-sports. Against this background, many members of the gaming community have taken steps to self-regulate, for example, the United Kingdom Interactive Association has been working to devise a set of broad principles of engagement in e-sports.

Many gaming companies and e-sport teams take safeguarding responsibilities seriously and they are establishing their own policies to manage the risks. However, clarity in respect of expectations will serve to benefit all involved in this arena and will ultimately reduce the risk to users, which is the primary aim.

Whilst we do not know what the future holds, where there is risk, there is also the potential for claims. In that regard, the risk to gaming companies of claims in the future will be reduced with well thought out safeguarding policies and procedures. Further clarity around expectations and best practice will no doubt be welcomed by the industry.  

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