TCM-Gaming vs SoulKey; Round two, the final bell
The esports industry is very much still in its infancy. For all the bravado and exposure that comes with the millions of dollars invested into events and players, and for all the millions of fans around the world, there are still so many ways that this budding industry can be improved. It’s easy for hardcore fans to forget that fact at times, but reminders are often just around the corner.
One of the biggest indicators of this infancy is when we hear about a team or a team owner stealing or withholding money from players. Unfortunately, StarCraft megastar Kim Min Chul (otherwise known as Soulkey) is the latest to fall victim to such a story.
Soulkey joined the British esports organization TCM-Gaming on December 14, 2014. TCM’s SC2 roster was already established when Soulkey joined, featuring the Korean players First and YoDa, as well as caster and longtime community member Pughy as team manager.
TCM-Gaming was established in 2005, and for a period of time was known as ‘Team Cooler Master,’ partnering with the popular peripheral brand Cooler Master. TCM and its owners, Jim ‘Xman’ Maguire and Craig ‘Wakah’ Walker, had a presence in many esports communities, with rosters for SC2, LoL, Heroes, and CoD (among others).
TCM continued to expand into SC2 after signing Soulkey, picking up Myungsik on September 23 2015, and replacing the British-based Pughy with Hee-Seok ‘PoohSik’ Jeong - a Korean player manager. Soulkey even renewed his contract with the team in November of 2015.
At some point though, things fell apart. With no word of warning, TCM simply vanished in 2016. After filing all of the appropriate paperwork needed in the UK to close a corporation (which can be seen publicly online), they closed their doors without notifying their fans, and more importantly, without notifying their players and staff. Having filed their paperwork in July, TCM-Gaming Ltdwas officially dissolved on September 27, 2016.
TCM’s official paperwork and government filings, as seen on companieshouse.gov.uk
This brings us to the current situation. After months of silence and hope, Soulkey appeared on ZerO’s stream (ZerO is a former professional Broodwar player) and spoke about being owed months of salary from his former team. Not only that, but Soulkey claimed that TCM demanded a fee if he was to transfer to another team.
Spread by an article on the Korean news site Naver, these revelations sparked much discussion and debate within the SC2 community, with many fans blaming WCS for the situation and others saying that Soulkey may have unintentionally violated a clause in his contract, making TCM justified in withholding his payment.
When this story broke, I reached out to former TCM staff and players to see if I could clear some of the fog of war surrounding the story.
First I spoke to Pughy, who told me that even during his association with TCM during 2014, there were often issues with payment. Pughy alleges that Walker and Maguire were late to deliver payment to their players, First and Yoda, and to himself as well.
I was then put into contact with Myungsik, the player who joined TCM most recently, having been signed in September of 2015. Myungsik told me that he was not owed money, but he was very eager to put me in touch with PoohSik, TCM’s SC2 player manager.
(TCM’s former player manager PoohSik with Soulkey. Photo credit to THX Replica)
PoohSik was a wealth of information and thankfully spoke some English. He was able to answer some of my questions and helped to clear up some of the misconceptions surrounding the dispute held by the community.
PoohSik told me that Soulkey’s salary was always delivered weeks later than it was due, except for the first month that he was signed.
PoohSik also told me that he worked pro bono.
"Actually, there is no salary on my contract. I just wanted to help him to prevent something like this happening… No payment isn't problem for me. But TCM never have said 'thank' to me."
I asked PoohSik if Soulkey possibly misunderstood his contract, or if he didn’t read it well enough, and violated a clause or term that would cause his salary to become void. He told me that he personally made certain that SoulKey understood his contract, acting as SoulKey’s personal agent with two years of experience in Korean esports. Though it may sound like a conflict of interest for the team’s player manager to be explaining the terms of a contract to the players, PoohSik gave me a strong impression that he saw himself as a player advocate more than TCM management. He clearly cares deeply about the injustice that SoulKey is facing, so I believe him entirely when he says that SoulKey understood the terms of his contract perfectly.
There is one part of their contract that PoohSik and Soulkey are particularly aware of, and that’s the nondisclosure agreement. Many fans were curious as to why it took so long for this information to come into the public light. PoohSik was worried about the NDA, but now he feels that the delay in payment is an obvious breach of contract on TCM’s part. They ‘gave the team an ultimatum with (a) concrete date’ to see the situation resolved. When that date came and went without any response, PoohSik considers TCM to be in breach of contract and feels secure in talking about the issue.
He also told me that SoulKey became disillusioned with both SC2, and with his situation. “He didn’t want to do anything for a while,” PoohSik told me, “I respected his thoughts.”
The player manager also told me that he and the players have been trying to get this issue resolved for months, with the owners telling them to wait before disappearing. The last contact that PoohSik had with Maguire and Walker was in March, while TCM was officially dissolved as a corporation in July. One has to wonder why Maguire and Walker denied their staff the common courtesy of announcing TCM’s dissolution.
In fact, it’s not only SoulKey who is owed money (or PoohSik a thank you) from TCM. Several of their former Call of Duty players are allegedly owed thousands in prize money and salary. Perhaps the most unfortunate part of this story is that because of the formal dissolution of the TCM-Gaming, these players will probably have to abandon hope for receiving the money that they’re owed. When asked whether or not SoulKey would pursue legal action, PoohSik told me ‘Maybe. Sometime later, not now’. Even if SoulKey DID decide to take the dispute to court, TCM-Gaming no longer exists and the Korean pro would probably need to invest more money than he’s owed in legal fees.
I reached out to Maguire and Walker several times through social media, but their twitter accounts seem mostly abandoned. Their last tweets are from March 26 and September 28 respectively.
It’s a horrible ‘rock and a hard place’ situation that’s left SoulKey feeling disillusioned and abandoned. In the original broadcast where he made this issue public, SoulKey said that he was done with pro SC2. PoohSik told me that he expects SoulKey to play whatever he wants until it’s time for his military service. It’s a depressing end to the otherwise storied career of one of the greatest names in Korean StarCraft.
It’s a genuinely depressing reminder that esports scams often go unpunished. For Jim Maquire and Craig Walker, there will likely be no repercussions or fallout from this scandal beyond a stigma attached to their former team and perhaps a less-than-favorable Google result when their names are searched. Even then, they aren’t necessarily completely done within esports. Aldaris, a former StarCraft 2 team owner infamous for his inscrutable morals, was shunned from the scene and mocked by almost every hardcore SC2 fan. With a name change to ‘MarathonMan’ and a few years put between him and the scandal though, Aldaris is back in business. He’s now the owner of Glacial Gaming, a team with a measurable degree of prominence in the Smash Bros scene.
It’s discouraging to see star players lose the money that allows them to play professionally. It’s discouraging to see crooked team owners like Jim Maguire and Craig Walker walk away with nothing negative beyond having to open a new twitter account. The SC2 scene has had many scandals, with Quantic, with LYGF, with Aldaris’s Alloy Esports, and now with TCM-Gaming.
The sad reality of these scandals though, is that there is no final resolution. It ends without a KO, or decision.
For a deeper look into the Starcraft scene, consider following the author at @CyanEsports.