Child Protection and Esports

July 5, 2017

Sport in the UK has recently been under the spotlight in
relation to allegations of child abuse, in particular in the context of
allegations of historical abuse. This has rightly served to highlight the
critical importance of sports bodies now having sufficiently robust child
protection and safeguarding policies and procedures in place in order to seek
to prevent abuse from happening in the first place and to respond effectively
when concerns do arise.[1]

Esports are of course no different in this respect, and
there are a number of reasons why esports may present something of a risk area
in terms of child protection, including:

  • a significant proportion of esports participants
    and the esports audience are children and young persons (ie those under the age
    of 18);
  • the regulation of the industry – both in terms
    of self-regulation and government regulation – remains at an early stage of
    development (although it is clear that the industry has caught the eye of
  • the industry is somewhat fragmented, with no
    obvious entity that could (yet at least) take a firm lead in relation to child
    protection and safeguarding matters (for example, as a governing body would do
    in sports with a more traditional or settled structure), so each esports
    organisation needs to grasp the issue itself.

The key question that an esports organisation should ask
itself in the first instance is where there are foreseeable risks to under-18s
arising from its activities. In doing so, such abuse should not be thought of
as limited to sexual abuse, but also to include physical abuse, emotional abuse,
neglect, bullying,[3] and
any other behaviour that may be harmful to children.

Most obviously, risks arise – both online and offline –
where individuals have direct and unsupervised access to under-18s (including
where under-18s have direct and unsupervised access to other under-18s). In an esports
context, that could include (by way of examples only) online ‘grooming’ and
bullying where websites include features such as voice communication, instant
messaging, forums etc, and the coaching of under 18s to play esports.

Once any risk areas are identified, the next step is to
determine how those risks are best managed. Typically, this can be achieved
through the introduction of robust policies, procedures and guidance that seek
to prevent abuse and to ensure that any allegations can be appropriately dealt
with. For example, competition organisers would be well advised to have online
and offline abuse reporting procedures and clear rules enabling them to
restrict the participation of individuals who present a foreseeable risk to
children from participating in any activities organised by the competition
organiser, as well as the ability to share information with third parties in
order to protect children (for example with relevant law enforcement agencies
and other esports organisations).

Age restrictions

Responsible esports organisations will also be keen to
ensure that any content that is not suitable for children of certain ages will
not be directed towards them and, indeed, that there are measures in place to
seek to ensure that such material is not readily viewable by such children.
That will be the case, for example, in relation to any gambling content (the
Gambling Commission recently making
it plain
that taking action against anyone offering facilities for gambling
to children and young people is a high priority).

Currently however, in the UK at least, the position in
relation to age restrictions and esports is not entirely straightforward.

Online video games and

In the UK, age ratings for most video games are governed by
the Video Recordings Act 1984 (VRA 1984) and the Pan-European Game Information
(PEGI) standard, with age ratings being judged against content such as drugs,
sex, violence and gambling.

Under the VRA 1984, it is an offence to supply an age-rated
game to an underage child. However, those provisions only apply to physical,
boxed games, and they do not therefore apply to games that are only supplied
online, on mobile platforms or for download only.

It therefore appears to be the case that there is no
statutory restriction to enabling underage children to view age restricted
videogames online. So, for example, allowing (or not preventing) children to
view an 18+ game such as Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare would not result in the
commission of a statutory offence.

That being said, responsible esports organisations may take
the view that, as a matter of best practice, a PEGI rating should nonetheless
guide who they enable to spectate and introduce age restricting mechanisms
accordingly (eg requiring users to enter their date of birth).

Real world events

Under the Licensing Act 2003, licences are required from
local authorities for the staging of (amongst other things) (i) the ‘exhibition
of a film’ and (ii) ‘indoor sporting events’.

The ‘exhibition of a film’ means ‘any exhibition of moving
pictures’ and, in this context, ‘sport’ is stated as ‘includ[ing] (a) any game
in which physical skill is the predominant factor, and (b) any form of physical
recreation which is also engaged in for purposes of competition or display.’

So, whilst there might be some scope for argument as to
whether any given esports event meets those definitions, the far safer view is
that the physical staging of an esports event would require the obtaining of a
licence from the relevant local authority under one or both of the above

In the broadly analogous context of cinemas and age-restricted
movies, cinemas are subject to licensing conditions that require admission of
children to any film to be restricted in accordance with the relevant age
rating. Whilst local authorities have reasonable latitude in regard to
licensing, it is to be expected that a similar approach might be adopted in
relation to any esports events.

Concluding remarks

The prevention of harm to children is, of course,
exceptionally important for a whole host of reasons (primarily of course for
its own sake, but also to reduce legal and reputational risks that may arise
from inadequate protection). The risks in relation to child abuse can typically
be mitigated to a significant degree, and esports organisations would therefore
be wise to review their approach in this area to ensure a safe environment for
children and young adults engaged in esports.

Richard Bush is an Associate at Bird & Bird. This
article first appeared on

[1] Many sports organisations do currently have such robust
policies and procedures in place, in significant part due to the work of the
Child Protection in Sport Unit (a partnership between the NSPCC and public
sports bodies). See .