LeBron James is a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. Jack Nicholson is not. Seems obvious, no? When it comes to esports organizations, the distinction is not always so clear.

On March 9, the esports organization FaZe Clan said it had cut ties with Meyers Leonard after the NBA player used an anti-Semitic slur during a Twitch stream. In its announcement, FaZe specified that Leonard was not a “member” of FaZe Clan.

Observers could be forgiven for any confusion. On June 5, 2019, Leonard tweeted a photo of himself in a FaZe Clan jersey saying he was “joining” FaZe, and would be a “part of the premier organization.” The jersey he wore was emblazoned with his gamer tag “Hammer” with “FaZe” propended, a mark of affiliation. (Casual gamers are known to do this as well: In one recent Call of Duty match I came across a player named “FaZe Bill Clinton.” The former president is not affiliated with the team.)

FaZe Clan CEO Lee Trink clarified the organization’s stance on the relationship via email through a spokesperson. Trink said FaZe has ended its “public association” with Leonard, though Leonard continues to be an investor. Regarding closing out Leonard’s position, Trink responded, “We discussed this option and it’s not legally permissible.”

The picture now, after the statement, looks much like it did before the incident: Leonard remains an investor despite FaZe cutting ties with him. His status as a member — he isn’t one — hasn’t changed. And should he choose, he can still wear FaZe apparel or utilize FaZe in his gamer tag just as any fan of the organization could.

Ambiguities surround “membership” in an esports organization. Unlike traditional sports teams, where players are clearly defined, esports organizations field teams with set rosters for specific games, as well as influencers and content creators. Some celebrities associate with a team even if they are not a member, simply by streaming on Twitch while wearing team apparel or otherwise publicly identifying themselves with the organization.

But risks can arise from this approach to brand building, as FaZe likely discovered while drafting its statement disavowing the use of an antisemitic slur by someone they took pains to point out was not a member of their organization.

FaZe Clan and other esports organizations have relied on celebrity investments and endorsements to reach nine figure valuations. They have also benefited from association with “members” of the team as well as “nonmembers.” While NBA player Ben Simmons is both a member and investor, Leonard is only an investor. The rapper Offset is a member and investor, while rapper Lil Yachty is just a member. NBA players Jamal Murray and Josh Hart, and the performer Pitbull are investors, according to an email from a FaZe Clan representative.

Payment is not a defining factor. When LeBron James’s son joined FaZe Clan as a member last September, the team made clear he would not be paid.

Asked why Leonard used the “FaZe” tag ahead of his name if he was not a member, Trink wrote that “We have fans and investors alike who want to represent their love of FaZe, and we’re not going to come down on them. It’s not in our nature to come down on an everyday fan for their aspirations to associate with us.”

In the wake of the incident, the NBA fined Leonard $50,000 and suspended him from team facilities and activities for one week. He also lost sponsorship deals with Origin PC and Scuf Gaming. His Twitch account, followed by some 69,000 people, was also suspended. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)

Asked how Faze members are distinguished, Trink said, “FaZe Clan announces a new member when there’s a new FaZe member, not other people. We announce it, typically in an exciting way. We like to make a big deal about it for our fans. No one other than FaZe Clan can announce a new member of FaZe Clan.”

But according to celebrity branding expert Jeetendr Sehdev, the organization’s distinctions might be lost on fans, audiences and brands.

“Regardless of whether these people are officially signed up by FaZe Clan or are just ambassadors of the brand, they have a functional relationship to the brand, so as a result, the brand needs to take responsibility for their ambassadors,” Sehdev said. “This is especially true today when audiences are very value-centric.”

But as with any relationship, “There’s an element of this which is beyond their control, too,” Sehdev said. “Endorsements are often brands playing Russian roulette: They’re not sure what a celebrity might do. The stakes are even higher in the esports world, which has a much younger, much savvier audience compared to traditional media. So, it has to be that much more authentic and that much more credible.”

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