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.
By Veronika Rodriguez and Noam Radcliffe
Perhaps nobody in professional League of Legends endured a more volatile two years than Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett.
Dardoch turned heads in 2016 when he began playing for Team Liquid in the League of Legends Championship Series, the professional circuit in North America. He was named the top rookie of the spring season for his performance with Team Liquid, and the team finished in fourth place -- its best to that point.
Dardoch was then suspended in between seasons for behavioral problems and insubordination, as then-coach Yoonsup “Locodoco” Choi called it. And yet, Dardoch returned to the lineup after the first week of the summer season. During the regional finals in August, Dardoch was once again replaced and was seemingly traded to Echo Fox in a move that ended up being rejected by Riot Games, the LCS operator (and League of Legends publisher).
He joined Immortals in December 2016 on a three year contract, which is considered long in esports. Yet it wouldn’t even be half a year before Dardoch was traded to Counter Logic Gaming. Immortals CEO Noah Whinston said at the time it proved to be difficult for Immortals to act as a cohesive, single minded team, sentiments Dardoch echoed. His time with CLG lasted three months before he was released from the team for being unwilling to “adhere to the set of standards expected of every member of the team.”
Dardoch played well no matter which team he joined, but his expertise at the game wasn’t enough for teams to want to keep him for long.
The mercurial player’s behavior was infamously brought to light in a Team Liquid documentary called “Breaking Point,” in which a camera crew followed the team through the ups and downs of the spring 2016 season. Every complaint about Dardoch’s stubbornness, insubordination and poor attitude was captured in the documentary.
Dardoch’s failure to mesh well with his teams was caused in part by the environment in which he lived. In the LCS, all the players on each team lived together in the same house, which many have also used for practice. Gaming houses, also known as team houses, are seen as an important part of esports but can have a negative impact on the players who inhabit them.
A Brief History of Team Houses
Esports, as known today, is professional video gaming, an industry that has become increasingly popular in the last few years but started long before that. Gaming houses can be traced back as far as the early 2000s in the StarCraft: Brood War scene. The world’s best players were South Korean, and at the time, players mostly congregated near South Korea’s urban hubs, such as Seoul. Housing was expensive, which created an outsized financial burden on players trying to compete in an undeveloped industry.
Two players, Lim “BoxeR” Yo-Hwan and Hong "YellOw" Jin-Ho, decided to live together to offset costs. The arrangement quickly revealed itself to be more than economical, as living with another top player provided round-the-clock opportunities to practice against world class competition. BoxeR in particular shot to Brood War dominance. He became the game’s first bonjwa, a title denoting widespread dominance in StarCraft. Only four other players have since received the title.
Seeing BoxeR’s success, South Korean esports organizations began to follow his cue and establish houses for their players. It’s easy to see why the prospect was so alluring. Instead of paying for each player’s individual apartment, it was far cheaper to buy one house for all of them.
“Economically it made sense for esports as it was growing” said Dr. Doug Gardner, former director of player performance for esports organization Immortals, “because it was the most affordable way to pay for the ability to have players live somewhere and practice somewhere.”
Quantity and quality of practice would theoretically improve by simply bringing players together. Besides that, having players live together would force them to build relationships more quickly. In team games such as League of Legends, out-of-game synergy can be nearly as valuable as in-game cohesion.
As money remained short in the industry’s infancy, space in team houses was at a premium. In at least one instance, up to 10 players slept in a single room, lying shoulder to shoulder, for the luxury of constant practice.
Teams outside of South Korea were slow to adopt the team house, but years of South Korean rule in just about every esport fueled change. Team SoloMid was likely the first North American organization to establish a team house, but today, nearly every major esports organization has adhered to the trend — from South Korea to Europe to the United States.
Today’s team houses are much larger than their predecessors. Organizations film videos of their players touring the houses, showing off their luxurious living spaces. The tours, depicting private pools and glittering gaming setups, serve both to glamorize and normalize the practice, burying it deeper and deeper into esports’ DNA.
But it isn’t always as glamorous as it appears.
A Perilous Rise
Brian "TheOddOne" Wyllie joined TSM’s League of Legends squad in 2011 and eventually moved to the team house. For some of the young men in the team, it was the first time they were able to live on their own and unsupervised. There was no supervision, no parents monitoring their diet, no one to tell them what to do. The lack of structure proved to be a major problem for TheOddOne.
His diet almost exclusively consisted of microwavable food, Arizona Iced Tea, and various sodas. TheOddOne eventually developed a health condition that caused his skin to peel and gave him horrible fevers and pain. Even standing was difficult. A post on Team SoloMid’s forum described his health problems, which many people believed sounded like a case of scurvy, though no diagnosis was ever confirmed.
Team houses continued to expand across North America and Europe, however, and it became apparent that a lack of structure existed in more than just player diets.
Players were in constant contact with their teammates. They lived under the same roof, practiced under the same roof, and ate under the same roof. Team houses existed to create unity between players, but a forced 24/7 interaction between everyone could just as easily tear down the synergy organizations hoped to strengthen.
Even as the process developed -- an instance like TheOddone's would be far less likely today -- the team house life has still caused problems. Dardoch’s time with his first three LCS teams were spent in a team house. The industry had developed between the days of TSM’s foray into team houses and Dardoch's arrival on the pro scene in 2016, as organizations now had the resources to bring in personal chefs for their players and other much-needed accommodations. But Dardoch continuously ran into problems.
Every organization’s statement on Dardoch’s release boiled down to: Dardoch was a bad teammate. Those exact words were not used, but language like “personality clashes” and “behavioral issues” painted enough of an image for fans. Dardoch admitted to his own toxicity, agreeing he came off as an “ignorant, stubborn piece of trash” and a bad person two years after the airing of the Breaking Point documentary on Team Liquid.
For Dardoch, living with teammates did more harm than good. Having an argument with teammates “at work” did not stay “at work.” He would be forced to walk on eggshells at home around his teammates, and let the anger continue to boil inside of him at dinner as he sat across from the same people causing him problems. There was no opportunity for him to comfortably clear his head.
Gardner, who was not with Immortals during Dardoch’s tenure in 2017, stressed the importance of not keeping players around each other 24/7. The careers of professional esports players begin typically around 18 years old, with some players’ careers — including Dardoch's — starting earlier. Those years are crucial in the player’s social development and readiness for a life after esports, Gardner said.
Taylor Johnson, former director of player development Infinite Esports (parent company of OpTic Gaming), shared a similar belief that team houses lack the separation players need to be successful outside of esports.
“If the players are spending so much time together, they’re missing out on their personal life and being able to experience and learn valuable life skills out on their own,” Johnson said. “I think that having team houses in place, in some ways, I believe it could hold them back developmentally from being out on their own.”
But the healthy structure Gardner and Johnson mentioned of not living where players work undermines the practice culture ingrained into esports organizations: all-day practice.
“I’m currently working with high performance athletes, Olympic athletes and all that,” said Dr. Camilo Sáenz-Moncaleano, a sports psychologist who has worked with esports organizations Fnatic and Misfits. “And gamers train more than even Olympic athletes.”
Practice for esports professionals consists of hours of scrimmages, and players do not take the proper breaks important for their mental health, Sáenz-Moncaleano said. He also explained when players do get breaks, they often remain at their computer to play video games, either the one they just finished practicing or a different one for fun. Because team houses often have all of a player’s necessities in one area, they don’t leave often; players are disincentivized from leaving their home.
The lack of separation between a work and home life can hurt players in team houses. Esports athletes work where they are meant to relax and vice versa.
“It’s like [if] Stephen Curry eats, sleeps, entertains next to the basketball court 24/7,” Sáenz-Moncaleano said, “which is insane.”
Carl Daubert, a former mental performance coach for Immortals and the Los Angeles Gladiators, experienced the downsides himself.
“I always kinda felt like I was at work,” Daubert said. “Where I'd come down from my room and I'd just wanna go get a snack and one of the players would come up to me and be like, ‘Hey can I talk to you?’ and I'd have to be like, ‘All right well now I gotta switch back on to being coach even though it's 8 a.m. and I just want to get some breakfast.’ There's definitely, not just from the player perspective, the feeling of always needing to be performing, and that's really, really intense.”
The simple act of being able to commute to and from a job makes a huge difference for the body and for one’s mental health as a whole. There is no “getting ready for work” when it comes to a team house. A player is always “at work.”
Without a proper separation, players can experience a severe motivation loss.
“[You] go down the stairs, and plop yourself into a chair and now you’re at practice,” Gardner said. “You haven’t gotten dressed, necessarily. You haven’t done anything to get yourself ready to go to work.”
Gardner’s approach to mental health teaches his players the importance of personal accountability so players understand the importance of a healthy diet, working out and getting the proper amount of sleep.
“And if you can learn that work-life separation and you understand to get up in the morning and get dressed and get out of the house and go to work, then those are acts of intrinsic motivation and decision making of 'I have to get my butt up and go do something,” Gardner said.
Major Differences Among Games
League of Legends is the largest esport in the world. According to developer and publisher Riot Games, an average of 81 million people played each month in 2017. The 2018 League of Legends World Championship was viewed by 99 million unique viewers. Riot Games’ owner Tencent reported $21.9 billion in revenue in 2016. All those figures give a sense of how massive League of Legends esports is.
The Overwatch League is younger than League of Legends by several years, but it also sports massive numbers. Its owner, Activision Blizzard, posted $7.02 billion in revenue for 2017. Franchise slots were sold for $20 million well before the league launched.
Organizations operating in top-level esports such as League of Legends and Overwatch benefit from plentiful corporate funding, major sponsorship deals and a much safer bottom line now bolstered by revenue sharing.
Beneath that top tier, however, are dozens of titles with bustling esports ecosystems operating with significantly fewer resources. Among those titles are fighting games such as Street Fighter and Super Smash Bros. These games are generally less popular — and thus less lucrative — than their cousins on the world stage. As a result, where League of Legends organizations might see a gaming house as a given, those sponsoring players in Smash might see it as a backbreaking expense. They face a challenge similar to that of early esports organizations, but without the benefit of ignorance.
Owners such as Dr. Alan Bunney, CEO and co-founder of Panda Global, know the dangers of team houses, but because of their limited funds can hardly hope to create the kind of compounds Immortals and 100 Thieves use.
“Having a team house in general is an expense that oftentimes is not worth it,” Bunney says, “and has gone and made many organizations go out of business because they had to do it, and it’s so expensive that they did it and the players didn’t win so they couldn’t afford to keep the team house. Those orgs are a dime a dozen.”
Bunney says it’s difficult to press the responsibility of building team houses on smaller organizations like his, while the companies publishing games rely on those organizations to keep their esports alive. Those publishers rake in massive amounts of money, far more than any individual organization sponsoring a fighting game player, and to Bunney that means publishers need to take an active role in keeping players healthy.
“If you don’t have a rev share system and it is a very costly thing for players to compete in your competitive environment that you’ve created, I personally think that onus should be on the publishers to allow these players to have their quality of living.”
Still, Bunney recognizes that isn’t always possible. “It’s also really difficult to enact that as a publisher because, all of a sudden, just by saying this, I’ve jacked up their cost to running esports to an astronomical amount that they can’t justify.”
Questions of sustainability haunt both sides of the equation, leaving players caught in the middle. There lies the rub within esports as a whole: although team houses can be problematic, some orgs see it as a luxury they can't even afford.
Growing Toward a Better Future
Dardoch finally found a more stable home on Echo Fox for the 2018 season. League of Legends fans expected another flame out, but Echo Fox had a plan to deal with the volatile young star. Rather than bring Dardoch into its existing team house, Echo Fox worked to find him his own apartment. He commuted from there to join the team for practice.
Echo Fox’s gamble paid off. After stumbling through its first two years in League of Legends, Echo Fox found its footing when Dardoch helped it to a second place finish in the spring season, and the team narrowly missed qualifying for last year's League of Legends World Championship. Despite falling short of worlds, Dardoch led the team to its best success in League of Legends before departing in December for OpTic Gaming.
Dardoch’s move away from a team house might have been the single most important change in his career. It helped change him from an insubordinate, maybe even toxic star held back by an incompatible living environment to another League of Legends success story with world championship potential.
“I spoke with my coaching staff and my teammates before the season started,” Dardoch told DBLTAP in February 2018, “and I said ‘I’m a lot more comfortable living in my apartment instead of living in the house, and commuting to scrims every day.’
“They let me do it, and yeah. I’m in an a lot better spot.”
Esports organizations at large continue to lag behind Dardoch’s arc, as many remain in integrated living and working team houses. But change is coming, and Gardner says organizations like Immortals are at the front of that change.
“Immortals has a fundamental belief that [they] are trying to — [they] have successfully — separated work and living space, so [they] purposefully have players living in situations that are housing, whether it’s in an apartment, or a house, but they do not practice or play from those houses,” Gardner said.
By separating work from play at its compound in Culver City, California, Immortals has taken steps to avoid many of the potential problems caused by team houses. The line between work and relaxation is clearly determined, and players are able to build the intrinsic motivation Gardner sees as so crucial to their long-term success. He also sees that success changing the public perception of esports.
“To me, it’s a tremendous step forward in legitimizing esports and having it mirror some of the best practices of traditional sport and corporate culture,” Gardner said. “You live where you live, and you get up every morning and you go to work, and you leave work, and you go home.”
Team Liquid opened its Alienware training Facility in March 2018, a massive building that also serves as the organization's headquarters. It has scrimmage rooms for TL's League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive teams, meaning they don't have to practice at home. Other organizations might have also followed suit, too, but these are the most prominent examples.
100 Thieves, another LCS team, has created a compound that separates work environments from ones for normal living and relaxation. Ismael Pedraza, the former performance coach for Misfits, says change is coming to European League of Legends, too.
“I think all the teams in EU are planning to get their own working spaces or facilities,” he says. “That’s an aim for every esport team, I’d say.”
Dardoch left Echo Fox in 2018 to join OpTic Gaming’s League of Legends lineup. It was the first time he’d made the decision to leave a team completely on his own, and Echo Fox’s flexibility in housing likely deserves much of the credit for that progress. It’s a small step but an important one in the history of gaming houses.
Nathan Fusco contributed to this report