Over the last few days, the video game world has been rocked by a controversy involving a top Fortnite player and an influential lifestyle brand, FaZe Clan. While on the surface the debacle seems like a fight over one player’s contract, the quarrel has huge implications for video game influencers and esports as a whole.
Turner “Tfue” Tenney is a 21-year-old video game athlete who is widely considered one of the best Fornite players around. Not only has Tenney won many Fortnite tournaments and accrued hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money, he is currently also the most-watched Fortnite streamer on Twitch. Recent Fortnite World Cup qualifier broadcasts have Tenney reaching over 230,000 viewers, beating out stars like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins. Turner’s YouTube channel, meanwhile, garners millions of views with each upload. Tfue may be the most famous video game player on the planet right now.
FaZe Clan, meanwhile, is an organization that represents various esports players across multiple video game franchises, though in many ways, FaZe represents much more than competitive video games. Players brought onto FaZe Clan function personalities in addition to athletes, and much of FaZe’s presence and impact in video games can be seen on YouTube vlogs, not just well as high-level gameplay. This wrinkle in FaZe’s approach to esports is exactly what underpins the problems going on with Turner Tenney right now.
Tenney signed a contract with FaZe Clan in 2018, and subsequently blew up — not just as a competitive player, but as a brand. In 2019, it seems that Tenney has outgrown an organization like FaZe Clan, as he is by far the most famous person on the roster. The problem, however, is that Tenney signed a three-year deal with FaZe Clan, only to later realize that he had signed a terrible deal. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Turner can only keep 20 percent of revenue from branded videos, and 50 percent of his touring and appearance fees. FaZe Clan can also claim up to 80 percent of a finder’s fee for deals it brings to the table, and can keep Tenney from pursuing promotions that are deemed a conflict of interest with the brand. This, Tenney’s lawyer claims, makes for an “oppressive” contract that breaks the law. As FaZe Clan is not licensed through the California Labor Commissioner, it cannot dictate employment opportunities for an artist.
Tenney is therefore pursuing a lawsuit — which is notable, because we don’t typically think of esports athletes as “artists.” But given that Tenney livestreams and vlogs his life, much of his brand is tied up in entertainment, not competition. To wit, Tenney has even stated that he may not continue participating in tournaments after the Fornite World Cup this summer. More importantly, however, this lawsuit could set precedent for many other influencers who are not currently protected under the Talent Agency Act, allowing organizations to exploit them under unfair and unlawful conditions.
As this news broke out, the situation between Turner and FaZe got messy. Ricky Banks, who owns FaZe Clan, took to Twitter and YouTube to dispute Tenney’s allegations. Banks maintains that FaZe Clan has only collected $60,000 in earnings from Tenney, despite the stipulations that say that the organization could collect more. The implication was that while the contract says one thing, the friendship between Banks and Tenney ensured that FaZe Clan wouldn’t profiteer off of Tenney. The problem, of course, is that someone’s word can only go so far when a contract has been signed. And with a $30 million Fortnite tournament around the corner, which Tenney has qualified for, there’s no telling if or when Faze Clan might decide to take the percentage of earnings that it is owed.
Banks, for his part, has taken the lawsuit extremely personally, and in a YouTube vlog, took twenty minutes to explain how much he had personally done to invest time and energy into making Tenney into a star. He says that he discovered Turner when he was only getting 100 viewers on Twitch, and nonetheless pushed for him to get high-profile opportunities with parties who were skeptical of his talent. He also took issue with the lawsuit’s initial description of how FaZe Clan allegedly pressured Tenney into drinking and gambling, which he notes are attempts to “destroy my brand.”
As Banks tells it, Turner owes him for all he did, stating on Twitter that “I [fucking] helped him blow up and changed that kid’s entire life. The very least I could ask for in return is he stay loyal to me and the brand that gave him his first real shot.” Regardless of those tensions, Banks and the lawsuit both say that FaZe Clan and Turner attempted to renegotiate the contract. On Twitter, Banks said Turner was offered $1 million per year, “with 0% splits across the board. The only deliverable [for Turner] was to represent FaZe Clan.” No agreement was reached, however, hence the lawsuit.
Tenney’s response to the blow-up came two days later, in a short video where he explains that he signed the contract when he didn’t know any better. “This contract basically allows FaZe at any point in three years, to just fucking take all my hard earnings, all my hard work, and just strip it.” Tenney says that in a way, his lawsuit isn’t just about him, but also about standing up for other players who may be in similar situations. Much of esports involves young kids who don’t always have the means or knowledge to know when organizations are taking advantage of them. One of the most common news headlines in this space involves esports organizations not paying their players, or competitors under extreme contracts.
“What I’m trying to do here is just serve justice to the esports community, the esports industry,” Tenney says. “These kids are getting ripped off, they’re getting taken advantage of … there’s tons of people in contracts this bad, just like me. And I’m the first person to stand up and say this is not okay.”
Tenney urged FaZe Clan to release the contract that he’s under, so that fans can see what’s at stake. So began the hashtag #releasethecontract, which has been trending on social media platforms, where even NFL stars are taking up the cause. Bank’s response was to say that FaZe did indeed plan on showing the contract to onlookers, as he has “nothing to hide” and is now admitting that the original document was “trash.” Before Banks could do so, however, a contract has started circulating on social media that allegedly shows the revenue splits. This document, while unverified, seems to align with the percentages stated by Tenney in the first place.
Right now, the two parties still seem to be at a standstill. Turner seems to want out of the contract regardless of revenue split, and FaZe Clan seems adamant about keeping Turner at all costs. Banks is still urging Turner to sit down with him and talk things through, but if screenshots shared by YouTube reporter Keemstar are legitimate, then it appears that Turner wants to start his own organization. If that’s the case, then there’s nothing that FaZe Clan could offer Turner that would be an adequate compromise.
Wherever this lawsuit ends up, it will be a landmark case for gaming as a whole. While esports continues to grow and become mainstream, the infrastructure that makes it possible has not progressed to accommodate the fact it is now a multimillion dollar business. Bank’s attitude in this context makes sense — a lot of the the industry operates under the guise of good faith and friendships which supposedly override the ugly reality of business. But, at its worst, this attitude acts as a veneer, and masks the fact that players are vulnerable when all they have to defend themselves is someone’s else’s word.