A Glimpse into Mental Health Issues in Esports: Part One – The Pressure to Win

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A Glimpse into Mental Health Issues in Esports:  Part One – The Pressure to Win

As time moves forward, we seem to be leaving some of our most important esports competitors behind. The reason? We just don't seem to care, but we should.

There is a particular comic strip from the famous webcomic Penny Arcade which to this day continues to apply to some who spend much of their time on the internet. Even I often catch myself referring back to it over and over again, simply because it is a singularly perfect encapsulation of how and why people act the way they do on the internet. The specific comic is titled “Green Blackboards (And Other Anomalies),” and it presents a fairly simple, but “oh so true” concept: many internet users often seem to forget how they actually present themselves online. All too often, ordinary people, when given the power of both complete anonymity and an attentive audience, often turn into horrible versions of themselves.

It's A GENUINE RECIPE for Disaster a Mental Health Disaster

While online toxicity is not a new problem, it’s important to mention because it engenders severe hostility towards those that are actually suffering from a mental health problem. In our insular, video game world, mental health in the esports space is seldom discussed. Players will hear many things from “suck it up,”  and much worse when exposed to today's toxicity and online negativity.  Much like gamers themselves, both players and workers alike in the esports industry are told to “suck it up” because their hobby is “only a game.”

Riot Games, for example, reentered the headlines last year, not because of the enormous success of their League of Legends MOBA, but because their senior staff was treating their office more like a frat house than a multi-million dollar company. It doesn’t just stop there, either.

Players are put in difficult situations every day, and esports are rife with stories about substance use issues ranging from alcohol to Adderall and beyond. These addictions rear their heads when professional gamers, career video-game developers and others in the esports community have difficulty coping with the pressures and stresses that the esports and gaming industries so often place on them.

As much as many would like to, these aren’t issues that we as a community can just sweep under a rug. This will be the first of a multi-part series focusing on the mental health crisis that pervades both esports and the video game industry. Over the next few weeks, ESTNN will take a look at professional esports players, coaches, and support staff in an attempt to bring some of these under-reported stories to light. We will take a deep look at some of the key issues surrounding mental health as it pertains to those employed in the esports ecosystem.

In today's Part 1, we’ll take a look at one of the most obvious mental health issues that plague esports; putting extreme pressure on players to win, regardless of the cost to their bodies, their minds, or their well being.  Look no further than the Overwatch League to see that they have already experienced such consequences, and it’s up to everyone to make sure mental health issues are properly addressed in esports.

How Much is Too Much? Practice and the Pressure to Win

Harvard-trained addiction psychiatrist Alok Kanojia defined a gaming addict as “Someone crosses the line into becoming an addict when gaming is the only tool that works to fulfill a basic need.”  While this definition doesn’t immediately apply to professional gamers, competing, winning, and even losing can push those hormones into overdrive and leave both the brain and the player wanting even more of that hit.

Esports Players are Retiring En Masse

Beyond the obvious application of gaming addictions as they pertain to lootboxes, the pressure to win in esports has the ability to push professional players to mainline their game of choice (or the game they are paid to play) to addictive levels. This isn’t just a theory, either. In 2018, professional Overwatch player Alberto “neptuNo” González withdrew from the Overwatch World Cup citing an exhausting schedule, deteriorating health, and a simple desire to do something else.

In an interview with Ivenglobal, González said that, “after so many months of non-stop scrims, [about] thinking about the game, [about] what can we improve as a team, [about] what can I improve, how [could] I be a better teammate, [and] going into [each] stage and [giving my] everything every single time… [I had] kidney stone [for] 45 days, tonsilitis[sic], stomach acid problems, [and] sleep problems. I've decided that the best [thing] for me as a person and player is to not participate in the World Cup. I want some free time and focus on having fun in the game I love and stop being tilted, annoyed [and] stressed for a while.”

In fact, González hasn't been the only Overwatch League player to hang up his hat, either. The aforementioned Invenglobal article went on to document how some teams even attempted to force their players to practice and prepare for matches at the expense of having something resembling a normal life. Ex-Florida Mayhem coach Vytis “Mineral” Lasaitis told Dot Esports that “[it can be so hard] to find a balance between a healthy amount of rest and optimal preparation, and it’s a dilemma pretty much every team wrestles with.”

The esports industry and its fans have paid lip service to this issue ever since the original article was published, and there has been little movement on true solutions for both the mental and physical hardships that these athletes endure in the name of their sport.

The Exploitation of Our Heroes

Take the recent Apex Legends Preseason Invitational finals, for example. Competitors endured a grueling, six-plus hour competition on the day of the Grand Finals. Six hours may not sound like much when it’s a Friday night and you’re having fun during a casual session of Counter-Strike with your buddies, but imagine concentrating as hard and unflinchingly as you can for six hours with something potentially life-changing on the line. That something could be money. It could even be a spot on team, rosters, or organization at stake.

As a fan base, we have you ask ourselves whether this is the type of Is this the stress we, as viewers and team owners, want to put upon our young players?  When you’re in a competitive setting, six hours is a lifetime. There is a reason why most Counter-Strike tournament organizers shy away from best-of-five Grand Finals. No matter what, even the best players will tire out and lose steam. Next goes those levels of play,  and suddenly what was a fun, festive affair turns into an embarrassing slog.

According to the players that attended the Apex Preseason Invitational, while the tournament system was quite good at determining a fair winner, it took an enormous toll on most of the players in attendance. Most were simply unprepared for that length of time. That's not a knock on the players that were unable “to hang,” however. The maximum amount of time an Apex Legends game can last is just over 31 minutes, and the vast majority of casual games end well before that. Professional games do, however, often last till the last circle. But unfortunately for the competitors,  a team had to amass a certain number of points AND win an individual game in order to be crowned. Due to the way the system worked, no team was ever truly eliminated and therefore was never truly able to rest until the tournament was over.

Jordan “Huskers” Thomas, an Apex Legends player for Rogue that attended the Preseason Invitational Finals under the Team Solo Mid banner, shared his final thoughts on the tournament during an interview with the Washington Post:

“They need[ed] to incorporate some way to make a cutoff after, like, seven or eight games, because it can’t go that long.”

This example is only the tip of the iceberg, and the stress and difficulty our athletes go through doesn't stop with Apex Legends. Activation Blizzard’s Overwatch League geolocation strategy has recently become a huge cause of consternation among players.

For the uninitiated, Blizzard’s Overwatch League has a total of five franchised teams across the Asian region, thirteen in the United States and Canada, and one team in both the United Kingdom and France. Per the new league rules for 2020, teams are required to adhere to a full home and away schedule for the upcoming season. In a league where players are already retiring at an alarming rate due to the pressures and travels in the name of Blizzard's league, this doesn’t only seem unfeasible – it seems torturous. Activation Blizzard has doubled down, however, and has since announced a brand new geolocated league for Call of Duty in early 2020.

It’s not just the occasional long playtime that can negatively impact the future well-being of the next wave of esports athletes. These types of marathon, high-pressure sessions, stages and seasons don’t just affect professional players mentally but can have serious long-term effects on a player’s physical health as well.

It's not Just Mental, Bodies Are Deteriorating as Well

Just like any other athletes, professional video game players encounter in the form of repetitive motion injuries. Believe it or not, there are more than a few injuries that an esports player can suffer while competing, including fairly painful ones such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, tennis elbow, stenosing tenosynovitis (a.k.a. trigger finger), and many more that become  increasingly common in those who play video games at a competitive level.

Dr. Levi Harrison, an Orthopedic Surgeon that has worked on the liked of Counter-Strike great Jordan “n0thing” Gilbert, and who specializes in sports injuries, has warned that “if [players] don't rest, the body doesn't have a chance to heal itself, to go into a homeostatic state and say,  “okay, now I can repair myself.”

We can hear the naysayers now. “Seriously? Does anyone actually care if these kids hurt their wrists and can’t play video games anymore! There are tons of normal jobs out there for them anyway. They need to grow up.” That line of thinking is short-sighted and naive, especially as esports continues to grow into a multi-billion dollar industry. Would you tell a Division 1 football player to give up on their dreams because they injure their MCL? No. You’d coach them to fight through it, and you’d support them throughout the process. We, as members of a community that is made up of an extremely young generation, grizzled veterans, teenagers, brand-new players, and experienced professionals alike have to all learn to advocate for players and stand up against those who would take advantage of them. Additionally, we, the viewers and fans, have to support those players, coaches and support staff that make our hobby possible.

One way esports organizations can help with the problem of game addiction and excessive amounts of play are by respecting the fact that, like every other athlete, esports players need breaks too. Even though esports isn’t as physical as traditional sports, the human mind needs to take breaks from the game in order to come back to it healthy and recharged. Yes, raw playtime is important for players to be good at a game, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Letting players take time away from a game is essential to both achieve optimal performance and safeguard players’ mental health.

Image VIA: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment, Graphics by Nicholas Johnson

Phillip Miner
Phillip has been a freelance writer covering video games for over a decade. He's had video game articles published in places from local newspapers to The Escapist. Call of Duty has been a passion of his since the first Black Ops. You can learn more about Phillip on our About page.