Update, Nov. 30, 17:15 PM CET: Webedia, the media company that gave Northern Arena the rights to broadcast the LFL’s English stream, has issued a statement about Northern Arena. This has been added at the end of the article.
It is 7 PM CEST on Thursday, Aug. 11. The English broadcast for the Ligue Française de League of Legends (LFL) should have been live with its preshow already, but the channel is offline.
At 7:44 PM CEST, LFL English broadcaster Northern Arena tweets, “Due to a major power outage, our broadcast for today’s [LFL] playoffs match is postponed. We are on standby waiting for it to come back.”
A perfectly reasonable explanation at first glance. But Northern Arena’s Tweet didn’t tell the full truth. While the studio based in Canada was hit with a power outage a few hours into the LFL’s playoffs schedule, the broadcast’s initial delay was caused by something else entirely. Backstage, the production team and on-air talent were on strike. The reason: for months on end, Northern Arena had neglected to pay its contractors.
Following years of high viewership numbers for the French broadcast, Riot Games decided to expand the league’s reach even further. An English broadcast had to be added for the competition in 2022. Riot’s partner, media company Webedia, had to find a fitting broadcast partner. They chose Northern Arena. At surface level, the studio seemed like a good fit. Despite being based near Toronto and not in Europe, Northern Arena had plenty of experience running tournaments. Additionally, they were able to run broadcasts with talent on-site.
But Webedia either missed or ignored giant red flags surrounding Northern Arena. CEO Carl-Edwin Michel also founded the company and owns LFL team Mirage Elyandra. This alone created a massive conflict of interest. But Northern Arena also had a terrible history of paying its contractors late. Now directly endorsed by Webedia and, by extension, Riot Games to host one of the most popular tournaments in the scene, Northern Arena received an even bigger platform. A platform they used to boost their own portfolio while taking advantage of up-and-coming talent in the scene.
Em Dash spoke with nine people who worked with Northern Arena over the course of 2022. Most of them worked on the LFL, others also worked on different projects for the studio. All of them described the same issues when it came to being paid for their work. In order to keep this report from becoming cluttered, the statements of five affected people are quoted directly. The accounts given by the four others serve contextualizing purposes.
A great opportunity
“The project was really interesting. We were going to bring a brand new audience to the LFL,” one source, who worked for Northern Arena during the LFL Spring Split, told Em Dash. The source wished to remain anonymous and will be called “Alex” throughout this report.
Alex was well-aware of Northern Arena’s reputation regarding late payments, but the opportunity to cast a league as popular as the LFL was a unique one. “Plus, they made us promises,” Alex continued. “Brand new year, brand new Northern Arena. I decided to put my faith in them. They were endorsed by Riot, so I thought they had some backing behind them.”
The others echoed similar sentiments. Rumors about Northern Arena reached their ears but working with the LFL would give a massive boost in experience and reputation.
For Brandon Ly, a young broadcast producer with his own studio, working on the LFL would provide a chance to learn more about the craft. “At the time, I wasn’t super experienced with in-studio shows,” he said. “I got the opportunity to do full in-studio production for the first time.”
Even Mikkel “Guldborg” Guldborg, who had already cast Europe’s top-tier LEC competition and would later be part of the world championship broadcast, recognized that adding the LFL to his resume was a great opportunity. Guldborg acknowledged that he was in a privileged position, where he was one of the few people for whom late payments would not influence his livelihood quickly. He told Em Dash, “I went in there with expectations of not necessarily getting paid on time. But when I got into it, they were definitely a sketchy bunch to work with.”
Vague payment agreement
Northern Arena CEO Michel, a charismatic man by many of the accounts given, had a hands-on approach when it came to hiring broadcast members. He personally talked to the on-air talent and discussed the contracts with them.
Jake “DonJake” Morley joined the broadcast team for the Summer Split. Though he was aware that payments could be late from Northern Arena, his initial talk with Michel set off more alarm bells.
“You know how you can tell that some people are well-versed in lying? They will go down non-linear explanations that leave everything open-ended so that they’re not actually culpable,” he described, “It’s a sort of narcissistic filibustering.” DonJake added that his contract took unusually long to come through. It wasn’t until after the Summer Split had started that he finally signed the deal.
The contracts for on-air talent, which Em Dash received multiple copies of, were basic, four-page deals itself. Nothing stood out from the contract in particular, except for one phrase at the end.
“Usually in esports, you’re paid thirty days after the invoice is submitted,” another anonymous source, who will be named “Leslie” going forward, explained. “But this contract said that the invoice would be due thirty days after it was approved. That’s very vague. In hindsight, I think this was intentionally vague to avoid the legal battle.”
Leslie, who worked during the Spring Split, never received official approval for any of the invoices sent. None of the people Em Dash spoke with did. But initially, it appeared that just sending over the invoice would suffice.
“The first payment came on time. It helped assuage the concerns early on,” Leslie said. The payments for January came on time. Alex confirmed Leslie’s statement, adding, “We thought that everything would be cool. Things looked ok.”
Dodging, lies, and silence
The optimism evaporated quickly. Northern Arena missed every subsequent payment deadline of the people Em Dash spoke with.
Invoices sent at the end of February were due by the end of March. But by then, the LFL Spring Split had rounded up. The people working on the broadcast felt like they had no leverage over Northern Arena.
Instead of waiting for the money to eventually come through, the contracted workers reached out to Michel directly about the late payments via Discord. It became apparent that the CEO had a set routine to dodge the questions.
“Carl [Michel] would say something like, ‘It’s coming this week,’ or, ‘We had a lot of invoices this month, that’s why we’re a bit late,’ and things like that,” Alex said.
“I heard on multiple occasions that it was a holiday for him,” Donjake said. “Canada must have the most bank holidays in the world.”
Ly recalled a particularly odd interaction, where Michel replied to him during the weekend. “My accountant doesn’t work on weekends,” Michel told Ly, oblivious to the fact that Northern Arena had missed the payment deadline by two weeks already.
Often, Michel did not respond at all. One reminder wasn’t enough to get his attention. Two reminders, three reminders, and sometimes four reminders were necessary to get Michel to reply. Only to be met with yet another excuse.
Thousands of Canadian dollars floated around in unpaid invoices. No matter what the contract workers would tell Michel, the CEO pushed the date back. Some broadcast members explained that they had rent to pay, but it didn’t sway Michel one bit. The money never came through on the promised date. The cycle repeated itself. Michel gave a new excuse, a new date, and promised with a misplaced wink or “haha” that the money was on its way. Definitely, this time.
The Spring Split team resigns
Most of the contracted workers described a pleasant working relationship with Michel up until the late payments. While the late payments were a clear inconvenience that needed to be addressed, Michel did not come across as someone with malicious intent to the people he worked with. They initially thought of him as ‘just’ incompetent.
But Michel’s charismatic, enthusiastic, and understanding persona faded when the Spring Split talent team took a stand.
“Everyone is under the impression that we were all fired. That is horribly untrue.”— Anonymous source, who worked for Northern Arena during the Spring Split.
“All the on-air talent left for the same reason,” Leslie said, explaining that working on the LFL was not worth the ‘getting paid game’ anymore. Every single person who had appeared on camera during the LFL Spring Split for Northern Arena messaged the company’s management to inform them of the decision.
That was not the story Michel decided to tell, though.
“I didn’t realize this at first, but the narrative that was following us was that we were all fired,” Alex told Em Dash. “This is what I’ve heard from other colleagues in the League scene. Everyone is under the impression that we were all fired. That is horribly untrue.”
Em Dash confirmed through screenshots of private conversations between broadcast talent and Northern Arena that it was the talent’s decision to walk away from the project. Other sources Em Dash spoke with confirmed that Michel had not shared this side of the story. Some people heard that Northern Arena had opted for an online broadcast in the Summer Split to save costs. Others were told that Northern Arena sought European casters to fit the French competition. None of them had heard the real reason from Northern Arena why all the talent left.
“To be honest, this is the main reason I wanted to talk about it,” Leslie told Em Dash. “They’re saying that we all got fired. That’s not what happened and it reflects poorly on us.”
In fact, Northern Arena tried to retain some of the Spring Split talent with more promises. New broadcast partners and sponsors were coming for the Summer Split, Michel promised them. This would make it much easier for Northern Arena to pay its bills on time. But the broadcast talent stuck by their decision. Unsurprisingly to them, the supposed Summer Split sponsors did not arrive either.
Summer Split payment ultimatums
Though the studio had received a “fresh” start with new talent, the crew put its foot down from the start, knowing better than to trust the company’s management.
“They cleared all my invoices in time for the Summer Split. They had to run a show,” Ly explained. “But I told them I wanted to rework the payment structure so that we wouldn’t get screwed over.”
Ly had risen to be in charge of production. He decided to use his position to negotiate better deals for his crew in the Summer Split. The most important demand: being paid at the end of the month, for that month. Ly said, “They knew all the costs already. Everyone’s rates were flat. [Michel] could literally calculate the costs of the split from the very beginning.” Ly also brought new crew members on board but started every conversation with a warning about Northern Arena’s late payments.
In July, Ly still tried to chase down other invoices for people that had worked on a different project. Ly gave Michel an ultimatum: pay us before the next broadcast day, or we won’t go live. Suddenly, the money found its way to its rightful owners quickly.
At the end of July, tensions between broadcast talent and Northern Arena rose. The casters did not have the same agreement the crew did. Specifically, DonJake had the same thirty-day agreement that the Spring Split casters had in their contracts. He submitted his first invoice at the end of June. When July drew to a close, though, he still had not received his money. Michel pushed back the payment deadline multiple times, but the money did not come through.
The broadcast talent and members of production had grouped up in a Discord server together. When DonJake told them about the issues, he received more support than he anticipated. “Those absolute angels decided to strike with me.” On Aug. 10, Ly gave Michel an ultimatum on the group’s behalf. “I told them that I was not comfortable working the next day if the money hadn’t been paid,” he said.
Michel tried to move the money around quickly again on Aug. 10, but he had not accounted for the fact that international bank transfers take longer to process. The money did not arrive before the broadcast.
The strike of August 11th
On the morning of Aug. 11, the entire group of broadcast talent and crew refused to work. The true colors of the Northern Arena management were shown. Michel and his right-hand man, Zach “crackshot” McGinnis, frantically messaged members of the production crew and talent lineup.
“People started getting DMs from some of the higher-ups. Personal ones from Northern Arena. They were making remarks that were quite scummy of them,” Guldborg recalled. “I thought I had been very professional despite everything that was going on. It made me question the people behind it all.”
Unbeknownst to Michel and crackshot, the Discord group collectively shared the messages they were receiving, laughing at the futile attempts to break the chain of the union.
The private messages Michel and crackshot sent ranged from desperate to outright threatening. A few of them, verified by Em Dash, included:
- “I suggest you run the show as scheduled.” — Michel
- “Contractually, you are obligated to run the show. (…) Being one week late does not give you the right to stop the show.” — Michel, seemingly unaware that Northern Arena’s contract explicitly states: “Either Party may terminate this Agreement immediately in the event that either Party breaches this Agreement.”
- “It would be in everyone’s best interest to run the show.” — Michel
- “It is not too late to turn this around.” — Michel
- “I’m sorry to hear that you felt like that but man. I know it’s not ideal but going nuclear like that for a few days late is terrible. For EVERYONE” — Michel
- “Who isn’t wanting to do the show today? (…) So, it’s DonJake then? Level with me personally because I’m being told people want to work today.” — crackshot
As their desperation increased, the Northern Arena management tried to get the contractors to flip on DonJake. Michel asked other members of the broadcast if they could run the show. When they stood in solidarity with their peers, Michel asked, “I understand that sentiment, but will they pay you in the future? Will they give you a job somewhere else?”
crackshot also attacked Guldborg in his private messages to other broadcast members. “I do understand and respect what you’re doing in supporting other freelancers. I just do offer the piece of advice that DonJake and Guldborg are not guys who are worth going down with the ship for,” he said.
Michel spoke to DonJake directly, bringing up the hiring process. DonJake originally would cast the LFL Summer Split with Michael “Veteran” Archer. However, Webedia did not want to work with Veteran. On the day of the strike, Michel, said, “I made a lot of [sacrifices] to make sure we have that show running. (…) I protected you man and that’s true. Put my neck on the line for you.”
At this point, a point of contact at Webedia reached out to Ly to ask why the show had not gone live yet. Ly explained the situation and the Webedia employee said that they would look into it. It isn’t sure what was said between Webedia and Northern Arena. Michel told members of the broadcast that Riot asked him why the show hadn’t gone live yet and that they absolutely had to launch the stream. Whether that was actually the case or yet another lie from Michel is unknown.
The union did not waver. But roughly one hour after the stream was supposed to have started, Northern Arena got its bailout. A massive power outage hit the studio and the company had an excuse to hide its issues behind.
The end of a stressful road
Though DonJake’s payment came through the day after, the damage had been done for many.
“At first, it was just about striking and getting what was right for the others that had not received their money yet,” Guldborg explained. “But after their true colors started showing even more, the only thing I did was send a message. That I would like to be pulled from the finals to give it to some other caster instead. I didn’t want to work for them again.”
Ly continued working with Northern Arena for the final days of the LFL Summer Split playoffs. He could miss the money, but he was high up on the broadcast team and his absence would affect his colleagues’ opportunities to work. For some of his co-workers, the money made more impact—if it eventually came.
“At the end of the split, I was done working with them though,” he added. “I told [Michel] that I was fine being paid late as long as everyone else got their payment. I believe the entire crew got paid. But not in time.”
“I had to call my elderly grandparents for money, so I could pay my rent,” DonJake notes. Alex estimates that the LFL work amounted to roughly 40% of their income. Missing such a big chunk of his income made it vastly more difficult to take care of their family.
Until Nov. 28, Ly was still waiting on his payment for the month of August. Though he is still grateful for the lessons he learned while working for Northern Arena, it will always come with a big caveat. “It’s just a lot of headaches,” he said. “I have other things that are worth my time at the moment. Making more money with my time is just worth more than taking legal action for the money they owed me. It’s absolutely stupid that I had to make that trade-off.”
Victims call to end collaborations with Northern Arena
Leslie said that they did reach out to Riot during the Spring Split. “We explained the situation. This was in March or April, when we started that process. In some capacity, Riot is aware. I’m not sure what they could actually do about it that year, though. Northern Arena got the contract signed for 2022. I imagine any intervention from them will probably be a ‘going forward’ type of deal.”
One thing was clear to the people that spoke to Em Dash: Northern Arena was not worth it. Though they all said that their colleagues were fantastic to work with, the incompetence of the upper management hurt too much. Only direct leverage got the company to pay its bills and when pressure was applied, the upper management responded maliciously.
Northern Arena caused a lot of stress for many of its victims in 2022. Though many of them eventually got paid, they had to endure months and months of dodging, lying, and ignoring by those in charge of the studio. And this was only the LFL for 2022. Northern Arena has run many more tournaments in the past, adding numerous victims to its long, long list.
Guldborg concluded, “The average human being can only be so neglectful before it turns into unintended maliciousness instead. It doesn’t really matter, in the end, whether it was intended or not. I think they knew the entire time that they were hiding stuff. If you know that you’re lying, then it is malicious intent. So, if there is any talent, broadcaster, producer, or anything like that thinking about working with [Northern Arena], I would strongly suggest that you don’t.”
Statement from Webedia
After the publication of this article, Webedia gave Em Dash the following statement:
“We were made aware of payment issues regarding the players for their LFL team (Mirage Elyandra) through the players in April, which urgently led us to various meetings with NorthernArena urging them to pay their players as stated in their contract. The solution found by NorthernArena at that point was to transfer their team (Mirage Elyandra) to a new owner who would cover every payment that was due.
Then on August 11 we were made aware that the [English] broadcast for the LFL was offline and when we contacted the technical team on discord “brndnly” [Brandon Ly] explained to us that apparently some payments were very late. We contacted NorthernArena immediately (by call and email), urging them to fix this issue, which was apparently the case very quickly since the broadcast resumed the same day.
Those are the only cases we were made aware of regarding the LFL, and based on those experiences we informed NorthernArena that no matter the possibilities for 2023 we wouldn’t renew our agreement with them.
Speaking on the behalf of the LFL team at Webedia, we are always monitoring very closely payment issues that could rise in our ecosystem and our stance regarding those cases will always be very strict as we want to ensure a healthy environment for everyone involved in working in it.”
Em Dash reached out to Northern Arena and Riot Games for a statement. At the time of publishing, neither have replied.