Skill-based real-money gaming is a growing industry worldwide. Previously, I wrote about the legality of playing casual games like Solitaire and bingo derivatives for real money. But what about console or PC games like FIFA ‘21, NHL ‘21, Madden ‘21, NBA2K21, and PGA2K21? Shooters like Call of Duty, CS:GO, and Fortnite? Strategy card games like Magic the Gathering? Can those be played for real money as well?
We are not talking the official in-game cash cups or periodic tournament that a few games offer. Rather, head-to-head real money competition that makes any game a chance to win (or lose) cash. There is no shortage of websites and apps offering players this very service. The chance to wager real money on head-to-head video game contests or play in cash-prize leagues and tournaments is certainly attractive. But whenever there is any sort of betting or wagering, legal issues may come up. As a player, you want to make sure you are not breaking the law by wagering $5 on a Sunday Madden round robin. As an entrepreneur and app developer, you need to know what you can and cannot offer to your audience or how to plan for and resolve potential legal issues.
There are two distinct problems areas in the real-money gaming sector. First, is playing video games for real money considered illegal gambling?
You may have heard that if a game’s outcome depends on skill rather than chance, then it is not “gambling” and therefore allowed. This is false. Each of the 50 states have their own regulatory scheme for gambling and gaming, and while some states only regulate games where chance is the dominant factor (in other words, casino-style gambling), not all have the same laws. Certain states define gambling independent of whether chance or skill determines the outcome. They simply make it illegal to wager money in exchange for the possibility of winning money. Other states expressly regulate “games of skill,” either independently or as part of recent internet gambling legislation.
Note that even if a state allows participants to wager real money on a game of skill for a chance to win cash prizes, wagering on the gameplay of others is prohibited. Wagering on the play of others is akin to a sportsbook, which are tightly regulated as gambling across the board.
The gambling vs. game of skill analysis also depends on the particular game at issue. Some games are pure skill with no element of chance – such a game that pits two identical soccer squads against each other. Others have some element of chance, but the skill predominates over the outcome. For example, Fortnite has an element of chance (even presuming you are matched with players of equal skill) because the loot is randomized and the bus approaches the map from different directions, giving an element of luck at least at the start. Then there are games like Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone or any other game that features cards and a random shuffle mechanism. While better players will certainly win over time, the randomness of the shuffle does affect the outcome. Thus, the specific nature of the game played also determines the legality of the wager on a state-by-state basis. Note that official in-game tournaments always have a “void where prohibited” disclaimer and generally do not require a real-money entry fee to participate to avoid legal issues.
The second problem is intellectual property rights – specifically the game copyrights and trademarks owned by studios like EA and Epic.
Many third-party wagering sites use the logos or cover art from the games that they support, but not many have the license or permission to do so. From a trademark perspective, the game studios could have a brand confusion claim, as players may assume that the game makers themselves endorse these wagering sites. The fine print (that nobody reads) disclaiming any endorsement is unlikely to prevent a trademark infringement action. Game developers spend millions of dollars on cultivating their image and will not hesitate to file a lawsuit to protect the integrity of their brand.
The game studios also own the copyright to their games, which means they get to control how their products are used, distributed, and portrayed. At least one studio, Epic Games, has publicly stated that any website or app that facilitates wagering on any of its games (including Fortnite) is violating Epic’s IP rights. Video game publishers – especially those that market to the under-18 crowd – do not want to be associated with anything that could be viewed as gambling (even if it is not gambling under the law). It is likely that there are lawsuits coming to protect the games’ “family-friendly” image and reassure parents that video games are a safe and wholesome hobby. It is also unlikely that any game studio – at least any major game studio – will enter into a licensing deal with a wagering website to specifically support real-money wagering on gameplay.
Plus, some studios themselves offer cash and prize competitions. For example, Fortnite hosts its own real money prize events. Call of Duty has league play. Magic: The Gathering periodically does an Arena tournament that awards a cash prize to the top players. “Official” competitions let the studios control their own IP and not have to share revenue and player base with any third parties. Further, most official competitions do not require a real-money buy-in to participate, making them more “family-friendly.”
There is no doubt that real-money skill gaming is a big draw worldwide, especially with the ubiquity of smartphones and fast cellular connections. Potential legal issues are there as well, and the wrong approach will attract the attention of local law enforcement and civil intellectual property lawyers. To add to the uncertainty, the United States is a dual-sovereign system, with regulations both on the federal level (that mainly affect the banking aspect of wagering) and the state level (that are constantly changing). Tread carefully and hire a lawyer.
Disclaimer: This guide is for general informational and promotional purposes only. Nothing herein constitutes legal, investment, or tax advice. Every situation is different and faces its own unique set of challenges. Do not take any action or sign any contract until you have obtained specific guidance from a qualified professional.
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