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Why esports must adopt a child-first culture to protect participants and the industry

Posted on 22 September 2021. Source: LawInSport

This article was written for and first published by LawInSport. The original is available to view here

One-on-one coaching, rigorous training and high levels of competition already present dangers when it comes to keeping children and adults at risk safe in sports but throwing electronic devices into the mix is largely uncharted territory.  In this article, we explore the safeguarding lessons the esports sector can learn from the experience of a traditional sport like football while also highlighting the ways in which esports environments present unique challenges.

What Is Safeguarding And Why Is It Important?

In brief, safeguarding is the action taken to protect children and adults potentially at risk to provide safe and effective care. It includes all procedures in place to prevent harm which can range from sexual abuse and grooming (online or in person) to bullying (including cyber bullying).

Proper safeguarding practices serve organisations in myriad ways beyond the crucial protection of children and adults at risk. Safeguarding failures can have serious knock-on effects for sports organisations, damaging reputation, goodwill and sponsorship revenue.  A serious safeguarding crisis can prove existential to any sports organisation.

Oliver Dowden, the UK Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, has recognised the essential importance of safeguarding in esports, noting that "[s]afeguarding will be a key area of consideration as the government builds on the roundtable, developing plans over the next few months to support the growth of a safe and inclusive esports sector in the UK". Esports organisations should turn their attention to this now.

The recent publication of the Sheldon Report sheds light on historic child sexual abuse in football from 1970-2005 and has served as a stark reminder of safeguarding's crucial importance in the sporting arena. Current Football Association chief executive, Mark Bullingham, described the report's publication as “a dark day for the beautiful game”.

Similarly, in many traditional sports, for example tennis and gymnastics, it took safeguarding crises, (in these cases, multiple allegations of abuse and inadequate handling of complaints which culminated in investigations being launched), to prompt action and recognise the work to be done to protect athletes.

There are far more areas of overlap between the safeguarding risks in traditional sports and esports than may be initially appreciated and the Sheldon Report serves as a salutary lesson for esports teams and associations.  Esports organisations should use the report, and the experience of other sports, as a roadmap to anticipate pitfalls and measures to be introduced.  Using the experience of others, esports can also identify risk factors which may be unique to the sector.

The Sheldon Report – A Cautionary Tale

The Sheldon Report was an independent review commissioned by the Football Association and led by Clive Sheldon QC which explored non-recent child sex abuse in football between 1970 and 2005. The report was commissioned after abuse survivor Andy Woodward waived his anonymity and spoke out publically about the extent of the abuse perpetrated by his coach, Barry Bennell, which prompted a barrage of further complaints.

The report found that the FA acted "far too slowly" in implementing child protection measures between October 1995 and May 2000 which were identified as "significant institutional failings". Failures to deal appropriately and report allegations of abuse were also identified at several well-known football clubs, including Chelsea, Aston Villa, Manchester City and Southampton. A number of the clubs involved commissioned their own independent reviews which identified significant failures.

There are significant similarities between esports and football during the period reviewed in the Sheldon report. Both are hugely popular and growing industries, with a significant child fan base and potentially lucrative rewards for sporting success. Like football in the decades before 2005, the growing popularity of esports is outpacing the safety structures in place.

The following key points from the Sheldon report should have particular resonance with those working in esports:

  1. Abusers used the cloak of respectability and credibility that came through their association with professional teams to gain access to children and lull those children and their parents into a sense of security.
  2. Abusers used elaborate grooming tactics to avoid others witnessing the abuse and frequently worked without supervision or oversight, while having the opportunity to spend time alone with young players.
  3. Many survivors felt that abusers had considerable leverage over them because they were desperate to progress in the professional game and were persuaded that the abuser held the key to that future.
  4. For much of the period considered by the Sheldon review, there was no guidance provided to those working within football on children protection matters; a situation that continues to be the case in large parts of the professional esports world.

While the Sheldon report focused primarily on the relationship between players, clubs and the Football Association, there are further ways in which the esports environment has similar safeguarding risks to other, more traditional, sports.  Like many sports, the need for child safeguarding extends beyond child players to fans of the sport who are children. This is a heightened issue in esports because the age profile of fans is so young.  Individuals working for, or representing, esports organisations often have direct exposure and access to children both in person and online. Like traditional sports, this includes one-on-one coaching. The aspirational factor in traditional sports applies equally to esports with fans idolising their favourite players and content creators. The same applies for child players who want coaches and scouts to see them as a rising talent, creating an automatic power imbalance.

In some key ways, however, esports have their own unique safeguarding environment that is sometimes different, and often the risk is more heightened, than in traditional sport:

  1. By its very nature, much of the esports participation takes place online rather than in person. While this will often limit the opportunities for direct physical abuse, it presents new and different opportunities for grooming and challenges for adequate supervision of contact.
  2. The extensive market for content creation and influencing in esports. Children are frequently involved in content creation and, even more commonly, consume user generated esports content. Unlike traditional sports, where the product itself (the sport) has a more specific form, esports content can be highly varied and adapted by creators, leading to heightened risks of children viewing and participating in content that is not age appropriate. Some games do have age ratings, for example, the game Fortnite has a PEGI age rating of 12 but this does not prevent under-12s from playing and, given many children play these games in their homes, parent visibility on their children's activities is important. Engaging with and educating parents is therefore a key consideration.
  3. Esports, and its talent pool of amateur players, is global in its nature compared to traditional sports which are more traditionally more centre around physical communities (the local team or club). Safeguarding regulation, practice and safe recruitment can vary considerably around the world but the global nature of esports can expose children and adults at risk to potential abusers from any location.  The global reach of esports is a powerful asset and contributes to the huge growth of the industry. However, it also means that organisations need to acknowledge the pressures and risks this can create and consideration must be afforded to maintaining sufficiently high safeguarding standards, and recruitment practices, across jurisdictions.

An Evolving Industry

The Sheldon Report made 13 recommendations which Clive Sheldon QC describes as being thematically split into: "(i) training at all levels, (ii) a child-first culture, and (iii) transparency and accountability". These three limbs are crucial when considering safeguarding practices and policies to implement and should be used to stress test current or planned safeguarding practices and procedures.

The most forward thinking esports teams are already taking steps to improve practices and make sure they are following best practice to keep children and adults at risk safe while enjoying the sports. London-based esports team, Fnatic, has recently implemented a comprehensive safeguarding policy and partnered with UNICEF to tackle issues such as cyber-bullying and online toxicity. Meanwhile, the British Esports Association is setting up a new membership platform and has consulted with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to "ensure there are strong and consistent safeguarding procedures in the association".

Measures For esports Organisations To Consider Implementing

Drawing on recurrent themes from the experience of other sports, we can identify key measures for esports associations and teams to consider implementing.

These include:

  1. Working with safeguarding experts to ensure up to date safeguarding policies and practices, which are regularly reviewed and updated.
  2. Safeguarding training at all levels, including young players and their parents.
  3. Introducing compulsory criminal record checks for any individuals who will be working with access to children or adults at risk, such as the UK's Disclosure and Barring Service checking system. For those teams and organisations with a global footprint, identify countries where criminal record checks might not be reliable and consider what safety measures could be put in place to mitigate for a potential lack of evidence for safe recruitment.
  4. Ensuring there is somebody within the organisation who takes responsibility for safeguarding and is suitably experienced and trained.
  5. Ensuring appropriate supervising and monitoring children when they are involved in esports.
  6. Preparing, and regularly updating, a crisis plan in the event of a serious safeguarding issue, to include appropriate reporting, legal support and reputation management.

Ultimately, good safeguarding practices benefit organisations and sports by creating a safer environment, where athletes and fans are able to enjoy the sport and flourish. Many traditional sports have had to develop good safeguarding practices the hard way – by responding to failures and having to face up to the significant damage caused. The still young esports industry has the opportunity to build better, learn from the mistakes of the traditional sports and create a community in which players and fans can safely enjoy the sports.


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