I’m Betting That Overwatch Loot Boxes Aren’t Gambling (under 31 USC 5362)

Disclaimer: As with all of my posts, this is NOT LEGAL ADVICE. This is academic analysis on a subject of law – and I don’t even have a good tool set (WestLaw, Lexis, etc) for that.

1- Introduction: Micro Transactions and Loot Boxes

The business model for free to play games is to include micro-transactions for aesthetic, trivial add-ons. For Counter Strike: Global Offensive, this manifests as the opportunity to pay a few dollars to buy a key to unlock boxes which are randomly distributed during play. Paying to unlock a box gives a play a random chance to receive aesthetic enhancements for a weapon (a “skin”). The rarity of the skins varies widely. Some of the most rare and prized ones are occasionally sold on eBay (or other 3rd party sites) for over $1,000.*

The question is: Are Loot box systems gambling? What about cereal boxes, TCG booster packs, or other things that allow children to participate in contests involving chance?

Some internet-folk grew a discussion thread to eight pages on the Overwatch forums discussing this topic, and not a single one of them reached for a legal definition of the subject at hand. People just talked about how they felt about the subject. Apparently, it takes a law degree to find the first search result on Google. Law has some flexibility – and that makes these questions difficult-, but there are rules, people!

2- What is the Definition of Gambling?

(For simplicity, I removed references to Insurance, Commodities, and Securities.)

31 U.S. Code § 5362 – Definitions

(1)Bet or wager.—The term “bet or wager”—

(A) means the staking or risking by any person of something of value upon the outcome of a contest of others, a sporting event, or a game subject to chance, upon an agreement or understanding that the person or another person will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome;

[Lotteries and gambling administration]

(E) does not include—

[Insurance, Commodities or Securities]

(viii) participation in any game or contest in which participants do not stake or risk anything of value other than—

(I) personal efforts of the participants in playing the game or contest or obtaining access to the Internet; or

(II) points or credits that the sponsor of the game or contest provides to participants free of charge and that can be used or redeemed only for participation in games or contests offered by the sponsor; or [Fantasy Sports]

3- Analysis: Winning the Gamble Must be Distinct from Winning the Prize

The real key is in part (1)(A): “upon the outcome of a contest of others, a sporting event, or a game subject to chance, upon an agreement or understanding that the person … will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome.”

Let’s take three examples that are not legally considered gambling: buying TCG booster packs, putting random prizes in cereal boxes, and… *sigh* there are a lot of reasons I don’t want to mention a certain online service that sends subscribers monthly boxes containing a random assortment of goodies… but imagine that such a thing exists.

My best guess** is that the law requires the “certain outcome” and the prize (“receive something of value”) to be two different and distinct things. In the case of cereal boxes and booster packs, the “certain outcome” is the prize. There is a chance of getting a Holographic Charzard, but winning only means getting the Holographic Charzard. You cannot “win” the card without, at the very same time, having the card: winning the prize always already entails having the prize.

In contrast, consider some examples that are legally considered gambling: slot machines, lottery tickets, and blackjack. In each of these cases, the outcome entitles the player to a prize: the slot machine dispenses quarters (“makes it hail”) as a result of the outcome. For a slot machine, the outcome itself is only a sequence of matched cherries or bars; for a TCG booster pack, the outcome of opening a pack is having a stack of cards.

This distinction may seem pedantic or petty, but it allows people to play games of chance without involving money. It allows people to play poker among friends for no money, or to made idle wagers for fun. It allows Disney to sell boxes of figurines with one shrouded “mystery” figurine included and it allows schoolteachers to play “Science Bingo” in class. It’s a tiny distinction that allows a lot of innocent behavior.

4- Application To Loot Boxes

However, there is still an interesting metaphysical investigation required to conclude this legal analysis: is the opening of a loot box like the opening of a booster pack, or is it like playing a slot machine? Is it actually two different events, or only one? Does the computer run the RNG when it is unlocked, and then determine the prize based on the outcome of the RNG? Or does the loot box already “contain” the prize before the opening?

Blizzard already told players not to bother hoarding loot boxes in the hope of getting future skins, because the contents of the box are already determined when the box is given to the player. If this is true (and if my guesswork-analysis is correct) then there is good reason to think that loot boxes are not legally considered gambling under 31 USC 5362.

I don’t know if a judge would actually go to this level of technical granularity, but there has been a long-standing debate about whether electricity should be legally classified as a “good” or as a “service” – and the distinction relies on a scientific understanding of whether you are being given electrons at your home, or just having your electrons vibrated. It seems like the order of operations carried out by a computer program is somewhat of a macro-level question than the movement of sub-atomic particles.

 

*A tiny cottage industry grew out of this: 3rd party websites that allowed people to wager their digital property from Valve’s game. Several of these sites were recently issued cease-and-desist letters after one of them was revealed to be promoting itself under false and misleading pretenses on YouTube.

** I looked around, and was surprised that I didn’t find a case, law review article, or law that dove into this issue with more specificity. I suspect that there has been a case about this, or at least an article – I just don’t have access to a law library right now.

Watching Over Copyrights and Brands, Part II

You can protect a brand in a lot of ways. You can wave the law around like a sword, or hide behind it like a shield. Or you can not worry about using the law to your advantage and just make a product that others can’t top. One of the most fun things about law school was learning about all of the ways around the law – not breaking or circumventing it, but bridging over the gaps and cracks. Gaps and cracks happen most when the law hasn’t kept up with culture or technology, which is where I think the law is most exciting and interesting.

One of the most genius aspects of the overwhelming media hype-package of Overwatch is the way it manages concerns for copyright and trademark infringement. Blizzard achieved a level of branding and promotion that reduces their concerns for infringement. Overwatch is inimitable. That doesn’t make it invulnerable, but it might be the next best thing.

I. “Junk” from “Rats” Can’t Hurt the Bastion of the Marketplace

Even before I ever visited New York City, I knew that people sold cheap, counterfeit Rolexes on the streets. Having this explained to me as a child is also how I heard about Rolex, incidentally – and learned that it was different from Rolo. I always thought it was interesting that everyone knew about this black market for counterfeit goods, but no one seemed extremely worried. I think one reason for the lack of concern is that Rolex knows they won’t go out of business because of cheap knock-offs.

The best games, from the biggest studios­, have less to worry about when their IP is infringed or “heavily borrowed.” Dominating the games market is less about legal force than it is about marketing and loyalty. For one thing, Activision can’t claim copyright over the concept of a military-shooter and force other studios to not make games that compete with Call of Duty. So Activision makes Call of Duty a brand, because brands command loyalty. A given Call of Duty game may be worse in every respect to a competitor’s game, but fans will still choose the inferior product because of its franchise. (This is one of two reasons anyone rooted for the Cubs from 1945- 2015.) Blizzard created something powerful: a genuinely superior product that commands tremendous brand loyalty.

II. Just Palette-Swap For A New Game! Sounds Pharah- don’t you McRee?

Of course, just because no one can succeed in really ripping off Overwatch doesn’t mean people won’t try. League of Legends had this experience, also. Generally, game knockoffs like these are about as much of a concern as e-mails from dispossessed millionaire Nigerian princes. It’s a reprehensible practice that creates clutter and will accidentally trick some people, but they aren’t going to displace the original.

Companies can compete with Overwatch, but they can’t replace it. The entire experience is too complete and interconnected. No parasitic effort can trick a gamer into thinking they have the real deal, no one can deliver a superior version of the same experience, and no one pull more brand loyalty in online gaming.

III. Leaving your Trace[r] Mei Show that You’ve been a [Road]Hog, and You’ll Get No Mercy

Although Blizzard won’t feel the financial impact of the feeble efforts of clones, there are things that can still undermine the game. For example, a company could make an add-on that allows players to cheat at the game. Of course, a company called Bossland did exactly that. Rather than simply ban the players who use this add-on (per violations of EULA and ToS agreements), Blizzard has gone after the makers of the program – who are super proud of what they do.

I am a little bit surprised that they cite copyright infringement in their claim. This is interesting because it seems well outside the scope of traditional copyright law, but copyright law has been slowly evolving in the last decade. I think the technical details of how Bossland’s program interacts with Blizzard’s game could be essential to determining if applying copyright law is appropriate. After the recent ruling in Google v. Oracle, courts are more likely to find infringement just from making two programs talk. (The fair use defense that saved Google is not going to help Bossland.) In this case, it seems extremely likely that Bossland had to access and take (or manipulate) some of Blizzard’s code, which may be enough for infringement. But the ways that 3rd parties can interact with programs is still an interesting question for copyright law to resolve.

Regardless of the copyright claim, I think the other claims made by Blizzard are plenty strong enough to win, so I don’t think a court will end up going into detail about it.

Watching Over Media and Brands, Part I

More than any game I’ve ever seen, Overwatch is a multi-media, total brand experience. The trailers for the game could compete with Pixar shorts in every respect. The game is supplemented with comics, toys, and a professional eSports scene. It sets new industry standards in showmanship, advertising, and storyline. This is a lot more than just a video game. This is the new model for integrating a concept across every medium and platform to reach every possible audience in every way. This isn’t just the new benchmark in video games. This is the blueprint for every successful future entertainment product. Blizzard understands “today’s media landscape” as more than a business-boardroom buzzword. Other industries also have successful examples of dominating multiple platforms, though none quite on this scale.

Today’s musicians can’t get away with merely releasing music. They need to tweet and vlog, and most crucially, they need to do live performances. Katy Perry recently set the record as the most followed person on Twitter, even though publishing 140-character quips was never in the job description of a musician or a pop star. Similarly, writers can’t just write books anymore- they need to write about their writing, and then talk about writing about their writing with other writers who want to talk about talking about writing. John Green aspired to be a writer when he took a job doing data entry at a publishing company. At the time, he didn’t hope to become a transmediaplatformleader-we-don’t-have-a-word-for-this-thing. However, his understanding and use of YouTube and Twitter allowed him to promote his young adult fiction beyond what a traditional book publisher would imagine. His new media fed his career in the old media, and vice-versa. (And compared to Twitter and YouTube, video games are old media.*)

Movies won’t succeed just by creating more epic battle scenes in 3D to justify the expense of going to the theater. They need to change the experience in more fundamental ways- they probably need a smooth integration of social media, but they also need some interaction the viewers can’t get outside the theater. They need to learn what Prince knew: you can’t get the live-show experience sitting alone in your home. One way movies could adapt to the 21st century is to turn an evening at the movies into a kind of social event, akin to a concert, sports game, or convention. Another way is to make it an even more technologically-driven experience, with augmented reality or virtual reality – a kind of entertainment-themed, futuristic, individualized experience like a museum or library. That is a lot more expensive, though, and all of the theaters near me just spent a lot of money upgrading their seats.

The media channels of the 21st century aren’t just more avenues for information – they are layers of information interacting with the other layers. Television programs and movies also have to adapt to the way consumers use the newest technology. Adaptation looks like spreading out- growing to cover a larger area – but it’s also about moving to new places entirely. Entertainment has to infiltrate and flow through multiple channels. It also still relies heavily on sponsorship in many cases, which means advertising also has to be integrated across these media.**

There are other ways of adapting, such as just adding alcohol to a bookstore.  Don’t rule anything out, I guess. Especially if you don’t think anyone under 21 even knows about your store or your product, anyway.

 

 

*Not that video games are mainstream yet. My Facebook newsfeed recently informed me that Torbjorn was set to be “‘nerfed’ for consoles in future update.” The word “nerfed” was in quotations, which tells me that mainstream journalists don’t know what it means and don’t think it’s a word. (Or they’re very conscious about not genericizing Hasbro’s trademark, even though that trademark is, strictly speaking, in all-caps.)

**The alternative to advertising is some form of upfront pay-to-play, which is what Overwatch did.