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Kate Upton's Million Dollar Video Game Payday

Machine Zone v. Kabam: Supermodel! Cocktail party! Lawsuit! Who said the game biz was boring?

Game of War: Fire Age via YouTube
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Remember that video game ad you saw during the Super Bowl, starring Kate Upton?

She got a million dollars for that.

So says the game CEO who hired her for the ad campaign — at least, according to another game executive he is suing.

Confused? Fair enough. First, the backstory:

The report about Upton’s payday comes out of a suit filed by Machine Zone, the company behind the megahit Game of War: Fire Age, against rival game company Kabam for “trade secret misappropriation.” In the suit, Machine Zone says Kabam “has obtained access to a document containing its highly confidential, valuable trade secret information”; Kabam says it has never seen the document.

The dispute appears to have stemmed from an argument at an industry cocktail party this month between Machine Zone CEO Gabriel Leydon and Daniel Wiggins, a Kabam biz dev exec. According to Wiggins, he ended up in a “very heated exchange” about the merits of the two companies with Leydon, and made a “false boast” to Leydon that he had seen Machine Zone’s financials.

“The fact is that I had had a few drinks, and was just angry that Mr. Leydon was being so unreasonably aggressive about Machine Zone and felt that someone should put him in his place,” Wiggins said in a statement filed with a California state court.

Fine. But what about Kate Upton?

Okay. That was part of the run-up to the dispute. As the two men were arguing, Wiggins says, Leydon attacked Kabam’s strategy of cutting licensing deals with big movie studios like Marvel, to create games like Contest of Champions. Instead, he said, Machine Zone develops its own characters and themes. And when it does pay talent, it gets it (comparatively) cheap.

Per Wiggins: “Mr. Leydon also bragged that unlike Kabam, [which] paid a considerable amount of money as an ongoing royalty for the talent and works that they license, Machine Zone had only paid about one million dollars to obtain the rights to use Kate Upton’s likeness. (Kate Upton, for the Court’s benefit, is a supermodel who may be best known for appearing in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue). In light of the relatively limited money Machine Zone had paid Ms. Upton, Mr. Leydon was bragging that the rights obtained from Kate Upton were hugely profitable for Machine Zone. He also emphasized that the limited relationship between Machine Zone and Ms. Upton did not require Machine Zone’s continued payment of royalties to Ms. Upton.”

Is any of that true? It seems quite believable, but Machine Zone isn’t commenting on their deal with Upton. It did offer this statement regarding its suit against Kabam: “Machine Zone is a quiet company that prefers to focus on our own business, but we are forced into this lawsuit because an executive at Kabam claimed directly to our CEO in front of several witnesses to have obtained Machine Zone’s confidential financial information and internal documents. Given that Kabam’s current defense is that their executive was lying, we are even more certain this action is necessary.”

And here’s Kabam’s response, via spokesman Steve Swasey:

“This entire situation is borne out of bad judgment by a mid-level Kabam employee and the ludicrous reaction by the CEO of a competitor, at a cocktail party with beverages in hand. The Kabam employee was baited and fabricated a tale about seeing a document to try to win an argument. That was stupid. But the CEO’s reaction is even more incredulous. In fact, neither the Kabam employee nor anyone at Kabam has seen the document as alleged. If such a document even exits. Forensic experts have searched the employee’s computers and phone and have found nothing.

The court has denied the competitor’s two temporary restraining orders (TROs). 0-for-2 on TROs shows there is no merit to this case. In fact, the case is preposterous.

This whole situation is like an episode of HBO’s brilliant satire “Silicon Valley,” in which a mid-level employee of one company tries to one-up the CEO of a competitor by fabricating a story. Immature Silicon Valley posturing, bragging and machismo at an industry cocktail party. HBO script writers couldn’t write it better. It would be hilarious if it weren’t true. Regrettably, it’s happening, and it’s embarrassing to all.”

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