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Nerfs and esports

A nerf weakens a character or an item in a video game,[1] e.g. by reducing the damage that can be inflicted on an opponent with a weapon. The nerf is carried out as part of an update[2] and for the purpose of balancing[3]. It is the counterpart to a ‘buff’, which strengthens a character or an item in the game.[4] Since a nerf inevitably affects the game dynamics, it has always a certain impact on esports unlike mere audio-visual changes.

The technical process of an update, e.g. if it serves the implementation of a nerf, in a video game depends on the system structure. Online games that use a client-server architecture are still predominant today. In a client-server structure the players access the resources of central game servers as clients. At the same time, complementary processes take place at the client’s device using client software. The client creates an interface that allows experiencing the game. Clients and server are dependent on each other for the game to function. Hence, an update can potentially concern both: the server software and the client software. If the client software is affected, the players must first download the update programme to their end device and run it, unlike updates on the server.

Esports is particularly sensitive to nerfs because of their impact on competition. One of the things that distinguishes esports from casual gaming is the increased importance of competition. Updates are therefore particularly relevant for esports if they have an impact on the integrity or fairness of the competition.[5] Accordingly, favouring or disadvantaging individual participants from the outset may be detrimental.

Legal implications

A nerf represents a change to the game software, the use of which is in the subject of numerous contracts with the players of the video game and, if applicable, licence agreements with third-party organisers or contracts on the participation in competitions with esports players or esports organisations. The publisher’s ability to contractually reserve the right to modify the game software and to actually do so is subject to legal limits. Since a nerf is always accompanied by a reduction in the value of a certain element of the video game, limits may especially apply if the affected elements were previously acquired by players for a fee in addition to the video game itself. Nerfing that is carried out in a dishonest manner and that intentionally distorts an esports competition can also potentially fall under national tort law. For further details see the article on ‘update‘.

[1] See Qi Wang et al., ‘Research on the influence of balance patch on players’ character preference’ (2020) 30 Internet Research 995, at p. 996.; Artian Kica et al., ‚’Nerfs, Buffs and Bugs – Analysis of the Impact of Patching on League of Legends‘ (Proceedings of the 2016 International Conference on Collaboration Technologies and Systems), at p. 131; Timothy Burke, ‘Rubicite Breastplate Priced to Move, Cheap: How Virtual Economies Become Real Simulations’ (2002), at p. 1 et seq., available at:


[2] Also see the article on ‘update’.

[3] Also see the article on ‘balancing’.

[4] Also see the article on ‘buff’.

[5] In detail Valentin Horst, Was schützt den E-Sport vor dem Publisher? (Nomos Verlag 2022), at pp. 46 et seq.


  • Valentin Horst

    Valentin Horst works as an associate lawyer in IT, media, and sports law at FREY Rechtsanwälte in Cologne, Germany. He wrote his doctoral thesis about the influence of video game publishers on the esports economy and holds a Master of Laws in IP and the Digital Economy from the University of Glasgow. He teaches esports law at the University of Applied Management.

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