It's still not clear where the trouble with Griffin started.
It certainly began before coach Kim "cvMax" Dae-ho was removed by the team weeks before the 2019 League of Legends World Championship. What went on during the League Champions Korea season, and perhaps even before then, what treatment players received during those times, is still unclear. It's also uncertain if the contract pressures that were placed on Griffin substitute jungler Seo "Kanavi" Jin-hyeok were the norm in the organization or an anomaly.
What is clear, though, is that Griffin and parent company Still8 are embroiled in a controversy that will have legal and political implications in South Korea and has brought esports contracts to the front of people's minds throughout the country.
Here's how Griffin, a team that reached the LCK just a year and a half ago, became the center of one of the largest scandals in League of Legends history.
Sep. 26, 2019: Griffin part with cvMax
Griffin announce on the team's social media channel that they had parted ways with cvMax. The coach had led Griffin since July 2017 and had previously been contracted with Griffin until the end of 2021.
The departure of cvMax is announced less than a week before the League of Legends World Championship began. Griffin, the No. 2 seed out of South Korea, is slated to begin play during the group stage in Berlin.
Later the same day, cvMax appears on a livestream on Afreeca TV to discuss his own viewpoint on the situation. cvMax claims he was terminated from Griffin on Sept. 25 on the basis of lack of tournament results as well as because of in-house disagreements with Griffin director Cho Gyu-nam. CvMax says he will continue supporting the remaining players in Griffin and might start looking for a new team as a free agent.
Oct. 14-16, 2019: cvMax alleges team mishandled transfer of Kanavi to JD Gaming
In a series of livestreams on Afreeca TV from Oct. 14-15, cvMax discusses the team environment at Griffin and his relationship with upper management.
Most of the allegations stemmed from disagreements between cvMax and Griffin director Cho, who was attending the League of Legends World Championship with the team in Berlin at the time. After a first set of allegations made by cvMax about team and management, several Griffin players -- including AD carry Park "Viper" Do-hyeon and top laner Choi "Sword" Sung-won -- say in interviews with South Korean media attending worlds in Berlin that cvMax is lying about what he had said on stream.
In an interview with South Korean newspaper Kukmin Ilbo on Oct. 16, cvMax alleges that Cho mishandled the contract transfer of and threatened substitute jungler Kanavi, who at 18 years old was a minor in South Korea at the time. Kanavi was first loaned to Chinese League of Legends Pro League team JD Gaming on May 22. Griffin and Cho received 600 million Korean won ($503,975) for the transfer, and Kanavi's annual salary -- originally 200 million Korean won ($167,989) -- was lowered for the first four months of the loan, according to cvMax.
Several months after he was loaned out to JD Gaming, Kanavi was approached by JD Gaming management, who wanted the jungler to sign a five-year contract with the team and transfer fully from Griffin to JD Gaming. As a result of JD Gaming approaching Kanavi directly, Cho accused Kanavi of tampering and threatened to end his playing career if he did not comply with what Cho wanted, cvMax tells Kukmin Ilbo. Kanavi then signed a five-year deal with JD Gaming that entitled Griffin and Cho to 1 billion Korean won ($839,941) while giving Kanavi the league-minimum salary.
Oct. 17, 2019: Riot begins investigation; Griffin parent company Still8 launches internal investigation into Cho
Following cvMax's allegations on his livestreams and in the interview with Kukmin Ilbo, Riot Games' South Korean and Chinese branches, along with the Korean eSports Association (KeSPA), form a committee to investigate.
"Riot Games Korea have launched an investigation on the allegations made by CvMax, former coach of Griffin," a Riot Games spokesperson tells ESPN in a statement. "We are also cooperating with Riot Games China on this matter. We will announce the result of this investigation when possible."
That day, Still8 CEO Seo Kyung-jong issues an apology to cvMax and Griffin's players and says the company will open an internal investigation into Cho's handling of the transfer of Kanavi. Seo also says his team would comply with Riot and KeSPA.
"Coach cvMax is a coach who contributed greatly to elevating Griffin to its current position," Seo says in a statement issued on Still8's website and translated by ESPN. "Also, as the CEO of Still8, I deeply feel the gravity of the current situation."
In addition, Riot Korea gives Still8 an ultimatum, asking the operational management, including Seo, to step down from managing Griffin.
"We believe Still8's operational management is responsible for [the recent controversy]," Riot Korea says in a statement translated by ESPN. "All stakes the management has on Still8 and Griffin must be settled by the day before 2020 LCK summer promotions, which is held after 2020 LCK spring split. ... If Griffin cannot complete the above conditions by the given date, Griffin will be forfeited from participating in the LCK or Challengers Korea."
Oct. 21, 2019: Lawmakers submit esports player contract bill to National Assembly
South Korea National Assembly members Ha Tae-kyung and Lee Dong-seop, of the Bareunmirae Party, call for government action regarding Kanavi and the Griffin dispute.
On Oct. 21, Ha submits a proposal to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to investigate the dispute. That proposal is denied by the ministry, which says it could not investigate tournaments hosted by private companies such as Riot. In a Facebook post, Ha takes aim at Riot Games, alleging that the game developer would not fairly conduct an investigation as an unbiased party.
Additionally, Lee introduces a bill in the National Assembly that, if approved, would see the ministry work with the South Korea Fair Trade Commission to provide guidelines and regulations around esports player contracts.
Oct. 29, 2019: Riot and KeSPA release interim report; Ha responds
After several weeks of investigation, Riot and KeSPA's committee release an interim report that outlines some of their findings based on individual testimonies, chat logs and documents they gathered from involved parties. The committee initially rules that Kanavi and JD Gaming did not violate tampering rules but that Griffin did violate the rule outlining the maximum number of players loaned out to other teams. The team broke Riot regulations by having Kanavi's contract exceed the maximum contract length of three years.
Assembly member Ha responds in another Facebook post after the interim report, stating that if he felt Riot's final report was unfair, he would lobby for Riot itself to be investigated.
"Riot Games has released their interim report on the investigation on the 'Kanavi Incident,'" Ha says in a statement translated by ESPN. "I'll describe it in one sentence -- 'They are watching out for each other's backs.' A few days ago, I said that the investigation will not have satisfactory results because Riot is also a party of interest in this incident. I believe this has indeed been the case. No, it's even worse than I had thought.
"I'm leaving it with a warning because this is an interim report. However, when the final report comes and there is even one difference between the investigation and what I have confirmed, you must brace yourself. The youth [of South Korea] are following this with their eyes open. Please remember -- if you do not make a proper investigation, Riot Korea may become a subject to the investigations themselves."
Nov. 4, 2019: DragonX hire cvMax
League Champions Korea team DragonX announce the team is hiring cvMax as coach for the 2020 season. CvMax is tasked with helping rebuild the team that signed AD carry Kim "Deft" Hyuk-kyu to a contract extension but parted ways with its other players in November.
Nov. 12, 2019: Griffin director Cho resigns
As the Riot and KeSPA investigation continues, Griffin director Cho resigns from his post but disputes a number of allegations previously made by cvMax. In an interview with Sports Chosun on Nov. 12, Cho alleges that cvMax was abusive toward Griffin's players and says he intended to sue both cvMax and Kanavi.
Nov. 20, 2019: Riot and KeSPA ban Cho and cvMax indefinitely, fine Griffin
Riot and KeSPA's committee publish an investigation summary and ban former Griffin director Cho and former coach cvMax from the LCK indefinitely while fining Griffin 100 million Korean won ($85,000).
In their summary, Riot and KeSPA say they found evidence that Cho unfairly pressured Kanavi into a contractual agreement while he was a minor. Riot and KeSPA allege that Cho also inserted a clause in Kanavi's contract when he was loaned out to JD Gaming so Kanavi's time away with JD Gaming would not affect his contract term with Griffin.
Riot and KeSPA also say they heard testimony from players and staff who claimed cvMax was both verbally and physically abusive toward members of the team. Later that day, three Griffin players -- Sword, Lee "Tarzan" Seung-yong and Shin "Rather" Hyeong-seop -- and coach Byun "Chaos" Young-sub speak on the record with Inven Global, stating that they were subjected to or witnessed verbal or physical abuse by cvMax. CvMax later denied those allegations in a livestream.
Griffin are fined by Riot for negligence for overlooking behavior exhibited by both Cho and cvMax. Riot says it will continue to monitor Griffin in the coming months and that if Riot found other allegations of misconduct, Griffin's LCK spot would be in jeopardy. Griffin parent Still8 said it too would take legal action against cvMax for claims Still8 said were libelous.
Following the disciplinary action, Assembly member Ha says Riot unfairly punished cvMax, who Ha argued should be protected under a South Korean whistleblower protection act.
"The results have been shocking," Ha says in a reaction to the Riot ruling translated by ESPN. "Not only Cho, but also cvMax, the person who exposed this corruption and absurdity, is also getting indefinitely suspended. This a clear act of revenge toward the whistleblower. Riot, by taking an action of revenge against a whistleblower, may be punished.
"If it wasn't for cvMax's courageous act, the case of Kanavi going through slave contract and threats would have gone under the carpet. He is a brave whistleblower. CvMax is someone who should be protected and rewarded, not be punished and be revenged upon."
Nov. 21, 2019: Kanavi's contract released publicly
Kukmin Ilbo releases a copy of the contract between Kanavi and Griffin. The contract contains multiple clauses that are unusual by industry standards.
One stipulation says the team can terminate the contract if the player has been admitted to the hospital or is experiencing a serious health issue, and that if the contract is terminated in this way, the player may not contract to another team for a year. Another clause states that if the players falls out of contact with the team for an extended period of time, the player must pay a fine of 5 million Korean won ($42,900) and return all the salary that has been paid to the player up to that point.
Additionally, Kukmin Ilbo publicly releases the contract of an anonymous member of the main roster of Griffin. The contract is identical to Kanavi's except for the salary.
Nov. 25, 2019: Griffin gives option for players to become free agents; Chovy, Doran and Lehends leave
Following disciplinary action against Griffin, the team's parent company, Still8, gives its players the option to leave the team and enter free agency, even if they had ongoing contracts with Griffin. Three players -- mid laner Jeong "Chovy" Ji-hoon, top laner Choi "Doran" Hyeon-joon and support Son "Lehends" Si-woo -- leave that day, with Griffin announcing their departure on social media.
📍Farewell Lehends-Chovy-Doran— Team Griffin LoL (@TeamGriffinLoL) November 25, 2019
We are here to convey a piece of upsetting news. Our contract with Lehends, Doran and Chovy was ended after mutual consent. Sincerely thank you for bringing precious memories and spectacular games to Griffin and Ourfin. Best wishes. Thank you. pic.twitter.com/wi1bxu7tKk
"We are here to convey a piece of upsetting news," the team tweets. "Our contract with Lehends, Doran and Chovy was ended after mutual consent. Sincerely thank you for bringing precious memories and spectacular games to Griffin and Ourfin. Best Wishes. Thank you."
Nov. 27, 2019: Riot postpones cvMax suspension; Kanavi becomes a free agent
An online petition addressed to the office of South Korean president Moon Jae-in garners more than 200,000 signatures and asks for the government to get involved in the Griffin dispute.
The public outcry prompts an update from Riot on Nov. 27, in which the company says it will hire a third-party organization to reinvestigate allegations of verbal and physical abuse by cvMax toward Griffin players and staff. In the meantime, Riot postpones cvMax's suspension, allowing him to continue his duties as coach of DragonX.
"The committee accepts that it has not earned the trust of the players on the fairness of the penalty that was applied to [cvMax]," Riot says in a statement translated by ESPN. "Hence, we have decided to postpone the penalty that was previously issued on cvMax. Also, the committee will commission a new investigation to a trustworthy external party including law enforcement."
Sometime prior to the update, Riot reveals, Kanavi was released from his Griffin contract.
Nov. 28, 2019: Kanavi signs one-year deal with JD Gaming
After being released from his contract with Griffin, Kanavi signs a one-year deal with JD Gaming that has him return to the team for the 2020 season.
"When I first heard about the contract that would transfer me to China's JDG for four years, five years, I felt stuck," Kanavi tells Kukmin Ilbo. "I wondered if I could try hard for four, five years. Now, I've become a FA, then made a new contract with JDG. It's a single-year contract and the package I'm satisfied with. I'm relieved.
"I hope the players who are having a difficult time due to unfair contracts get their situation resolved. I would like the government, or if that is hard, the game company, to really create some rules or provide more support. ... The young professional gamers, around the age of 18, can't judge for certain whether they are placed in an unfair situation. I really hope there is a way players can get some advice on unfair contracts."
Dec. 4, 2019: Fair Trade Commission scrutinizes KeSPA's 'standard contract'; Chovy and Doran join cvMax on DragonX
Kukmin Ilbo releases a copy of a standard contract used by KeSPA as a reference for LCK teams, which draws ire because of several unfair measures within it. One clause in the template contract states that all profits generated by a player appearing in events or advertisements will go to the player's team. Another gives the team the right to transfer the player's contract to another team and includes language to make sure the player cannot renegotiate their contract with the new team.
Law experts point out that the KeSPA standard contract reserved many rights for the team but very few for the player.
"There are serious issues around the unfair contracts in esports that lately became a public concern," a representative of South Korea's Fair Trade Commission tells Kukmin Ilbo. "We plan to initiate a direct investigation into this."
The FTC investigation begins with the KeSPA contract but eventually expands to include other esports.
On the same day, DragonX announces that two former Griffin players, Chovy and Doran, have joined the team for 2020 season.
"I was approached by many teams, which I really appreciate, but I didn't deliberate too long," Chovy says in a roster-announcement video. "DragonX has players that I am close with, and it has cvMax, who's like a teacher to me. The team atmosphere is good; I was certain I would be enjoying my time and delivering good results [at DragonX]."
Dec. 9, 2019: Riot Korea and KeSPA reveal further plans
South Korea National Assembly members Ha and Lee and representatives of KeSPA and Riot Korea host a panel to discuss the Griffin investigation and in particular the Kanavi contract dispute. Each party describes the work it is doing to help prevent another player from being exploited by a team contract.
Riot Korea gives a presentation on the organization's plans to implement new regulations, including reviewing all existing contracts across the league, introducing a standard format for all LCK contracts, reviewing the current minimum LCK annual salary of 2 million Korean won ($17,200) and creating a process for a player to report unfair treatment and creating a database of underage players in the league.
KeSPA also promises to introduce additional measures, such as making player registration with KeSPA mandatory and creating a fair-trade committee within KeSPA.
"We admit that we were very deficient in protecting the rights of the players," KeSPA secretary general Kim Cheol-hak says. "We will accept the recent incident as a lesson and spend all our efforts in preventing a similar incident happening."
Dec. 16, 2019: Sword files case against cvMax for alleged physical and verbal abuse
A Korean news outlet, News1, reports that Sword has filed an official complaint with the South Korean police over cvMax's alleged abuse. Sword's father, in the interview with News1, said cvMax verbally abused Sword on numerous occasions and also hit Sword on the shoulder.
"The hurt has extended to not only the player, [Sword], but also to the family members, and we are currently going through mental treatment," Sword's father told News1. "We will prosecute [cvMax] to the police for his recent violence and put him on the court of justice."
Dec. 26, 2019: Griffin appoints a new CEO; Riot Korea confirms prosecution case against cvMax
Still8 dismisses the key members of the company's executive management, and Kim Kaeul is appointed as the new CEO of Griffin.
안녕하세요. 팀 그리핀 입니다.
그리핀에 새로운 수장으로 김가을 대표가 함께하게 되었습니다. 오늘을 기점으로 그리핀은 건강한 구단으로 새롭게 다시 태어날 것임을 팬분들께 약속드립니다.
새롭게 시작하는 그리핀 선수단에게 따듯한 응원과 격려 부탁드립니다. 감사합니다. pic.twitter.com/s27NPVYqPp
- Team Griffin LoL (@TeamGriffinLoL) December 27, 2019
Riot Korea confirms the company has filed a prosecution case against cvMax.