Team Liquid announced the signing of North American rising talent Kenneth “koosta” Suen two weeks ago, as first reported on Breitbart, to cement their position as the most talented squad in North American Counter-Strike. The move had seemingly come from left-field, with Suen having reportedly turned down multiple approaches from other squads to remain with the NME organisation. However, Breitbart has learned that Team Liquid reportedly first approached Suen in December and that this approach was initially made without NME’s knowledge.
Sources close to the deal informed Breitbart that not only did Team Liquid initially contact the player without NME’s knowledge but that an agreement was made at this point. NME contended that this was a breach of Suen’s existing contract, as any approaches from other teams afforded them a right of first refusal. The incident prompted legal counsel to be consulted by the NME organisation and by Suen. In order to protect themselves from potentially losing the player for nothing, they issued Suen a short term improved contract with a higher salary and, crucially, a higher buyout.
After that, despite this new contract being issued, Team Liquid had the player sign a contract in February, despite there being an existing agreement in place. Team Liquid then rendered this contract void after it was clear that NME sought legal consultation.
These facts are of particular interest as it was Team Liquid co-owner Steve Arhancet that publicly lambasted fellow LCS team owner Chris Badawi over his alleged poaching attempts in an interview with former Gamespot Journalist Travis Gafford. In it, he said of Badawi’s poaching, “His dishonest, full intention of breaking the rules to serve his own personal self-interest of building a team is not healthy. And it’s not someone that deserves to be involved in our industry. And I find his behavior just dishonest and really self-serving and selfish.” Badawi was banned from owning a Riot-acknowledged League of Legends team until the end of 2016.
That interview was widely derided by the community due to the relationship between Arhancet and Gafford, most notably that Gafford accepted a free holiday to Maui at Team Liquid’s expense in exchange for creating video content for the organisation. The Daily Dot journalist Sam Lingle would later run a report debunking many of the claims made in the interview, which included admissions that other team owners had lied to ensure Badawi was punished.
Counter-Strike, and indeed the whole of eSports, has no regulatory body as such, and the game’s developer, Valve, is very much hands off when it comes to dictating how multi-gaming organisations operate. Disputes such as these are often resolved behind closed doors with specialist lawyers being an expense most organisations would rather avoid. However, an organisation’s reputation can be crucial when it comes to conducting business in what has always proven to be a very fragile ecosystem.
The hypocrisy of Team Liquid’s actions weren’t lost on one source at NME. That individual, who requested anonymity, told Breitbart that while the organisation was fine with how the Suen situation was resolved, they added, “It’s very similar [behaviour] to what they crucified Badawi for.”
Another source at NME added, “In my eyes it was tampering with a player’s relationship with the organisation.”
The story didn’t have a particularly happy ending for the NME organisation. Despite having paid their former player the improved salary agreed in the contract, they never received a signed copy from the player. Rather than enter into a legal battle over the move, NME chose to allow the player to move on to his new team after reportedly accepting an amount of an eighth of the buy-out fee they would have had. Some sources at NME suspect that Team Liquid counselled the player not to sign the improved contract issued by NME to facilitate the move at a later date.
Bryce Blum, an attorney who represents both organisations, provided a statement about the December activity. Both Team Liquid and NME waived attorney client privilege in order to enable him to speak to Breitbart:
Koosta’s contract was expiring, but he had verbally agreed to re-sign with NME. At this point Koosta was approached by a member of the TL organisation who was led to believe that he was not under contract with NME. I explained to the organisations as I represent both I couldn’t be involved in resolving this dispute. The result of this were some amicable conversations and Team Liquid backed off from the deal.
Team Liquid acknowledged that someone had reached out to the player directly without approaching NME first, but to my knowledge Steve [Arhancet] was not involved in any of those calls. As soon as NME said they had a verbal agreement in place, Team Liquid withdrew their approach and apologized for the misunderstanding. As far as I’m concerned, this was a rare example of best practices in a potentially sticky situation.
The NME organisation provided Breitbart with an official statement on the story:
This whole thing has been a very frustrating situation, but at the end of the day what we need to do as an org is what is in the player’s best interest. I’m just glad Kenny will have a chance to elevate his game and compete at majors now.
We contacted Team Liquid who provided the following statement:
Based on conversations between the owners of Team Liquid (Victor and Steve), NME management (Dan, Frank and Robert) and attorneys from both sides, negotiations and inquiries were handled professionally. There were business issues during the process, notably a right of first refusal Team Liquid was not aware of, a voided contract once we were made aware. We continue to condemn poaching and tampering and continue to work with player agents, attorneys, team owners and management when signing new players. We are of the belief NME’s management share our thoughts on this matter.