The following is part of a three-piece series looking at mental health in esports. The series, reported by Veronika Rodriguez and Noam Radcliffe, includes in-depth interviews with professionals in esports and psychology and explores the wide-ranging effects of various mental health issues among the competitors in different esports. You can view the other parts of the series here and here.
Dongjian "MG" Wu joined the Shanghai Dragons’ Overwatch League team in October 2017 at the age of 18. The move represented his chance to break into Tier 1 professional video gaming, called esports, and to be a part of the industry's first global, franchised league as a member of its only Chinese team.
The Overwatch League is an unprecedented experiment in esports, an attempt to emulate traditional sports leagues such as MLB or the NFL by giving teams home cities, revenue sharing and (presumably) massive visibility. Revenues are expected to be massive, too; franchise slots in the Overwatch League sold for $20 million each. MG snagged a spot on the ground floor of the most anticipated esports league in the world.
For MG, the rose quickly lost its bloom once the games started. He struggled from the beginning, losing game after game, week after week. Try as they might, the Dragons could not find their footing. A winless start to the season sparked a change in the team’s practice schedule.
The Dragons’ coaching staff instituted a brutal regimen, forcing players to work 12 hours per day in a desperate attempt to stop losing. That practice came to naught, as the Dragons remained winless. Even after MG was effectively benched from the roster, he continued to push himself to earn back a starting position to help the team claim its first win. Finally, in June, after six months of all-consuming practice and loss after loss after loss, MG couldn’t take it anymore.
“I felt lost and depressed,” he wrote on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform. “I am not satisfied with a life with high salary but only playing ranked all day. This is not what I came [to the] US for.”
MG had symptoms of burnout. The Shanghai Dragons announced his departure June 5, with less than two weeks left in the Overwatch League’s inaugural season. The Dragons ended the season 0-40, and MG returned to China, perhaps worse off than when he left.
Burnout’s Effects in Esports
MG’s story is hardly unique in esports, and his time with the Dragons demonstrates just how packed with pitfalls professional video gaming can be. Perhaps chief among those dangers is burnout, a state of exhaustion that can end a player’s career.
Burnout is defined as a physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress. The topic haas become a conversation point in recent years in sports at all levels, and esports is no different in players feeling the effects.
Blake Panasiewicz, former performance coach for the Los Angeles Gladiators of Overwatch League and owner of Healing to Wellness Counseling, compares burnout to physical exhaustion.
“If you think about it at the gym,” he said, “you work out too much, you can burn out your muscles and you can no longer have the same amount of output that you had maybe lifting weights or anything like that. It’s the same thing with mental health, where eventually you reach a point where your brain cannot output the amount with the pressure that it’s under.”
Crucially, Panasiewicz said the exhaustion runs so deep that players’ minds are unable to recover before they’re forced to start working again. That can result in depression-like symptoms. Players experiencing burnout can begin to lose sleep. They might start overeating or under-eating. They cut down on socializing, avoiding teammates and family alike. Their motivation to play or their interest in activities outside of gaming can start to disintegrate. The symptoms of burnout can also metastasize into anxiety or depression.
“If you look at stress disorders,” Panasiewicz said, “that’s probably a lot of what you would end up seeing as far as symptoms and stuff like that. Because that’s a lot of what burnout is: an overwhelming amount of stress that people just can’t handle.”
That stress begins with pressure on players to succeed. Much of it is internal, imposed on the players by their own expectations. They know that every win -- and even more so every loss -- can mean the difference between staying on a team and losing their job. Poor performance carries the weight of unemployment. Any loss can mean disappointing not only the people in your immediate surroundings — teammates, coaches, owners, family members — but also thousands of fans and viewers all over the world.
Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev plays Counter-Strike: Global Offensive for the Ukrainian organization Natus Vincere. Most consider him the best player in the world, and he’s more than familiar with the pressures of competition. He feels it every time he takes the stage.
“So you hear all this crowd, [and] you know that they cheer — I mean, all these people cheer for you. And you can — you need to win for them,” s1mple told DBLTAP at an event last year.
MG had those same pressures upon him, and perhaps even more. As a member of the first -- and at the time only -- Chinese Overwatch League team, he had a nation of 1 billion on his shoulders. That weight likely grew heavier with each loss the team suffered.
Why This Happens
It’s easy to see why teams like the Dragons might resort to a 70-hour weekly practice schedule. Teams across esports have followed the same model: putting players in front of computers for as many hours as possible each day, taking minimal breaks, and providing next to no days off. Dr. Camilo Sáenz-Moncaleano, a sports psychologist who previously consulted for organizations competing in the League of Legends European Championship, looks back on his time in esports with something close to shock.
“There are a lot of things [in esports] that from a traditional sports view are crazy, but that’s how they work,” Sáenz-Moncaleano said. “Like times they train, they’re awake until 3 or 4 in the morning, which is perfectly OK [from their view]. They can be sitting in front of the computers for 12, 14 hours a day, and that’s perfectly OK and actually it’s accepted and encouraged in a sense.”
That kind of rigor can be damaging in its own right and have far-reaching implications. Players are largely prevented from seeing friends or family, or socializing at all, simply by virtue of their practice volume. That can lead to isolation, even alienation, among players.
In the Overwatch League’s first season, the league scheduled three mid-season breaks, each about 10 days long. Those breaks might have been intended to give teams a chance to recuperate between the stages of competition, but they were rarely used as such.
Blizzard, the publisher of Overwatch and operator of Overwatch League, would often introduce updates to the game during breaks. The scope of the updates ranged wildly and often changed fundamental aspects of how Overwatch was played. New characters and mechanics would be introduced, or the game’s environments would be redesigned, and teams would have to scramble to relearn major pieces of the game. "Muscle memory" had to be torn down and rebuilt, strategies scrapped and refactored.
That forced an arms race among teams, Panasiewicz said. Anyone who rested during breaks risked going into the next stage of the league at a significant experience disadvantage. To make matters worse, the correlation between rest and performance is far trickier to track than that between practice and performance. Any coach could look at their team’s win and attribute it to extensive practice, rather than to just the right amount of rest.
That kind of thinking has long been encouraged by organizations working for short term benefit in esports. Carl Daubert worked as a mindfulness and performance coach with esports organization Immortals, and he sees lucidly the cost-benefit analysis many organizations perform when it comes to player wellness.
“It’s really easy for esports organizations to look at an 18-year-old player and run them to the ground with [scrimmages] for one championship run,” he said, “because there’s millions of other players they know they can choose from after and swap them out.”
Sáenz-Moncaleano said when players do find time away from practice, they tend to stay on their computers. They might browse the internet, listen to music, or play more video games. Often, they don’t even avoid the game in which they compete. Esports pros are as likely to disconnect from competition on off days as they are to jump into their game’s competitive ladder and grind away for another eight hours.
That tendency to continue playing games even when not mandated by coaches comes from an esports culture deeply entrenched in practice. Like MG, most players start competing at an incredibly young age. Their lives have been filled with video games and school, so why wouldn't they game in their free time?
The dedication and time necessary to join the elite level of competitors in any esport precludes most socialization at exactly the age when that social life is most important. As a result, players’ main form of relaxation comes from video games. Of course, as soon as these kids become professional players, those video games become the font from which all their stress flows, turning what was once leisure into another kind of work. Having never developed other interests, players can struggle to relax.
Smaller Profile, Similar Problems
Not all of professional esports has the same glam factor as the Overwatch League or the League of Legends Championship Series. Those esports enjoy the support of massive publishers who own the game in which pros compete. Overwatch is backed by Activision-Blizzard, which recorded $7 billion in revenue in 2017. Riot Games is owned by Tencent, the $21.9 billion behemoth conglomerate. These companies bolster the esports around their games.
Smaller esports such as Street Fighter V and Super Smash Bros are forced to make do with much less. Known as fighting games, these esports rely on relatively minor publisher support or on solely grassroots organizing. Players travel all over the country and the world, week after week, to compete at events. According to Dr. Alan Bunney, a physician and co-founder and CEO of fighting games organization Panda Global, that much travel can run them ragged even after a warning.
“I tell them ‘Look, you are going to have an opportunity to go to every tournament you’ve always wanted to go to. You shouldn’t do that,’” Bunney said. “‘I will send you to them if that’s what you want, but you will burn out. We’ve seen it. We know it will happen. You have to balance your health with your desire to travel.
“And it never works, and they always travel to every event, and they always say ‘Man, I’m burnt out.’”
Being on the road so often isolates players, potentially making them lonely and homesick. Those feelings contribute to rapidly increasing burnout. Adam “Armada” Lindgren, widely considered the best Super Smash Bros Melee player of all time, left the game last year rather than continue the grind with utterly depleted motivation.
Since retiring, Armada has turned to streaming, which many fighting game pros do to supplement their income. That work eats into their down time and forces them always to be on, to be brands and personalities in addition to world class competitors.
In Counter-Strike, which falls somewhere between fighting games and League of Legends/Overwatch in the scale of development, constant travel is a problem for players. Any given year of Counter-Strike includes 20-30 major tournaments a year that players attend in person (Counter-Strike resembles a Tennis or Golf sort of touring structure, compared to organized leagues Overwatch and League of Legends). Events require about two weeks of solid preparation before each tournament, plus one to three days of travel, and ideally a week of recovery. If a team plans to attend every major tournament in the year, often the first thing it will cut is recovery time, leading to players stumbling from event to event with minimal time in between for recuperation.
Counter-Strike’s packed event calendar has led to discussions about the game becoming oversaturated. The debate first surfaced in 2014, and has reappeared periodically ever since. That oversaturation has led top teams to cut down on the number of events they attend. Even Astralis, the undisputed best team in the world, has trimmed events from its schedule. It attended 20 major tournaments in 2018, skipping out on several to maintain its edge.
For one reason or another, many teams aren’t able to take those tournaments off. S1mple recalls feeling burnt out after three or four tournaments in a row, and he’s not alone. Fighting game players face that prospect on the regular.
Different From Traditional Sports
All of these factors — unfathomable pressure to succeed, never-ending practice, constant travel — are compounded by the sheer length of most esport seasons.
The NBA plays from October to June, while the NFL goes from September to February. By contrast, the North American League of Legends season can run January all the way through November, leaving just a single month for players to recover. Overwatch League's inaugural season, which ran from January to July, was shorter, but it still took a massive toll on players. Dr. Doug Gardner, a sports psychology consultant, was the director of player performance for Immortals, which owns the Los Angeles Valiant of Overwatch League. He saw the damage firsthand every day at Blizzard’s studios in Burbank.
“The one thing I noticed last year was that [with] a lot teams, you could just feel the burnout in the arena,” Gardner said.
Less than three quarters of the way through the season, he said, “you started sensing that burnout. People were tired. People were fatigued.”
From a traditional sports perspective, it's hard to fathom pushing practice for as long and as hard as esports players do. Ismael Pedraza, a performance coach who worked with the European League of Legends team Misfits, says it is only possible because the pressure lies on the mind rather than the body.
“At the cognitive level, we have more endurance to practice,” Pedraza said. “That’s why players can practice hours and hours. To play football, you can’t practice more than a certain amount of hours before the physical fatigue will come out and force you to stop. In esports, the mental fatigue is at a higher level.”
But the crash will come, Pedraza says. At the rate esports teams work, burnout seems inevitable.
For years, organizations knew next to nothing about the effects their practice policies wreaked on players. Sáenz-Moncaleano chalks much of that ignorance up to inexperience.
“Let’s say in League of Legends we had players from 16-20 years old, and the coach is 24 years old, and the manager is 25 years old, and the CEO of the company is 26 years old,” Sáenz-Moncaleano. “[Organizations] probably don’t take care that much of [burnout] because they don’t know to, or try to, see it.”
Today, however, things have begun to change. Esports organizations and the publishers behind the esports are taking steps to improve mental health outcomes in their field. Immortals, for example, hired Gardner to spearhead efforts to improve players’ mental health, to educate them on more balanced living and to see that balance implemented in their lives.
Publishers, too, have started implementing changes. When Blizzard announced the schedule for the Overwatch League’s second season, which started in Fabruary, it featured a substantial decrease in the total number of games and more time off for players.
The new schedule also moves the All-Star game to the middle of the season, creating a longer offseason break and giving players more time to rest. A Blizzard spokesperson emphasized that, having added more teams to the league for Season 2, the Overwatch League will air more matches per week even as it increases the amount of time players have off between games.
Of course, there is always more that can be done. Dr. Bunney, for one, would prefer a longer offseason for players to recharge between competitions. And some changes have yet to take.
Before the 2017 League of Legends season, Sáenz-Moncaleano said Riot Games required players to attend seminars about the importance of balanced living. Players learned about the benefits of proper nutrition, of sufficient sleep, of regular exercise, even of healthy psychology. But according to Sáenz-Moncaleano, many players didn’t take it seriously. They joked about not paying attention, and about falling asleep during the seminars. (Attempts to reach Riot Games for confirmation of the seminars were unsuccessful)
That attitude lies firmly in esports’ culture around practice. By and large, players and coaches — many of whom are ex-players themselves — tend to believe improvement takes place solely in front of a computer. As a generation of autodidact professionals, they only know the path to success they used. Daubert laments this culture, but sees progress occurring slowly.
“It’s something esports is slowly getting away from,” he said, “but it’s something that needs to continue being brought to the forefront for longer careers of these esports players.”
For players like MG, the sooner that change comes, the better.
Max Mallow contributed to this report
Photo illustration by Kevin Gomez/Minute Media