The scenic routes of Burbank, California lead to breathtaking sights, such as the bustling crowds who show up to support their favorite players every week. The Overwatch League arena provides some of the most riveting entertainment in esports, but the players on stage deal with a surprising amount of mental stress. While these professionals are not as limited by standard physical limitations that traditional athletes face, the pressure they face is very similar to anyone in the profession of chasing mastery. These facts have never been more important in the light of recent events.
Shortly before the second stage, longtime DPS ace for the Dallas Fuel Hwang “EFFECT” Hyeon retired from professional play citing ongoing struggles with the game and deteriorating mental health. Known for his world-class Tracer play and incredibly wide hero pool, many fans were heartbroken to hear that one of the Fuel’s best players would be hanging up the mouse and keyboard for good.
Toronto Defiant’s DPS player, Lee “Stellar” Do-hyung, retired shortly after the end of the 2019 Overwatch League’s first stage citing personal stress issues tied to the professional gaming lifestyle.
And last but certainly not least, fan favorite and ace player for the Atlanta Reign, Daniel “dafran” Francesca, stepped away from playing professionally and moved into an influencer role within the team with his hyper-popular stream.
However, this is not the first time player fatigue and burnout has been in the Overwatch League news cycle.
Touting one of the most grueling schedules during the Overwatch League’s inaugural season, the Shanghai Dragons were on the record claiming they practiced six days a week for up to 13 hours a day. The Dragon’s would then continue to struggle and end their season winless with a record of 0-40.
Players are not the only ones affected. Those who work behind the scene often suffer these same problems as well.
Assistant general manager for the Washington Justice, Kate Mitchell, revealed recently that she would be stepping away from her duties at Washington Esports Ventures on May 13th. “[...] I saw myself, like many in this league, facing frequent panic attacks and needing to see a therapist for anxiety for the first time in five years,” Kate wrote. “It’s not pretty, but most mornings before our matches I’d throw up from the stress.”
In a feature on Heroes Never Die, CEO and team owner of the Dallas Fuel, Mike “Hastr0” Rufail gives a succinct take on the situation last season. “The Overwatch League is a good example of the scale of competition and public visibility taking such a huge leap forward in a short amount of time – going from playing tournaments to playing 40 matches in a weekly format over a 6-plus month-long season. That pressure to perform plus the growing microscope the team is under from growth in fan bases and viewership can be major contributors to stress for players or coaches who are trying to perform at the highest level each and every day.”
With how many players were exiting the game within the last few weeks and how frequently we seem to have to tackle the subject, it was time to consult a professional on the matter. Former Los Angeles Gladiators performance coach, Blake Panasiewicz, walked me through how exactly he and the Gladiators handled mental skills coaching in the Overwatch League.
“We would set time for a player to meet with me each week on a one-on-one capacity,” he said.
Blake explained that these sessions would include problems the team had, the individual had, how the individual’s stress levels are looking like, and how he could best provide assistance, among other things. “A lot of it is maintaining an open relationship,” Blake said. “So when things go wrong you know significantly earlier than when things are going to blow up. Then it’s discussed with management and the team what they want to do and to make recommendations.”
Blake shared some insight into how players can better manage the many stressors they face on a daily basis, but the answer was not a simple one. “This is highly individualized and depends on the person,” he said. “The first thing I would start off by are some basics. You should start off organizing your schedule this takes away some stress in your life and give [it] structure. We like to know what’s happening and structure is good for that. Next would be to look at your life and write down stressors versus relaxation and see how much time of your week you are spending on things.”
He explained that your brain is, indeed a muscle, one that you need to take care of. Too little effort and it atrophies. Too much effort and you experience serious emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion or what is more commonly known as “burnout.” But different professionals are needed for different tasks or problems.
“If a lot of your burnout and fatigue is coming from mental issues [or] if they are based on a perspective issue that might be something a performance coach could handle,” Blake said. “If they delve more into therapy aspects that’s when you would go seek out a therapist. Probably the number one thing you could do is honestly make sure to ask for help. Burnout is a slow build which means you can do many things to combat it to a point it doesn’t break you. Trying to handle things on your own is a surefire way to be stuck behind your own perspective and unable to get past it.”
With an increasing amount of players retiring, I asked Blake if he believed that burnout and player fatigue was the primary motivator for the rising number or if there was another circumstance causing players to vacate the game.
“To be honest, I don’t know,” Blake said. “I was always taught correlation doesn’t equal causation. I think there is a correlation between how much burnout there is in Overwatch and how many people leave the game. The game itself is fairly intense along with a lot of patch changes in between stages which change the game significantly.”
“I think burnout is probably a factor; but is it the only one? I also think it could be some other factors more individualized that we may never know. You have to understand that a lot of Overwatch players are individuals who are young and haven’t had a lot of life experience outside of the game. So, there could be a plethora of reasons why they don’t want to stay in [the game].”
When asked if teams should have a mandated mental health professional on staff, Blake gave some surprising insight into the professional world of a mental skills trainer. “No, generally I don’t think it should be mandated,” he said. “I think teams should want to do it because it could be beneficial to their players. We really need to clear up though what mental health professionals you are talking about.”
“If you are talking about a form of therapist (psychologist, social worker, counselor, etc.) there is a very specific way they need to be implemented in order to not have a breach of confidentiality and it requires a lot of trust onto the players, through contracted services.”
“So, for example, a basic issue; a therapist has the responsibility of confidentiality to their clients where they cannot disclose who they are working with including past clients. Let’s say a player decides he isn’t going to go to the therapist or goes once and stops. A therapist can neither confirm or deny any of this information to a team without breaking confidentiality issues. That is an issue for a team who is expecting this therapist to work and fix all the issues the players have. There are obviously ways to solve these issues but it is more complicated than ‘just get a psychologist’.”
“The real problem is no matter what scenario you look at, players need to want to help themselves and ask for help, and put in the work; teams need to trust players are doing and provide appropriate resources and support necessary. I think it is good to have someone on staff who can help push them towards this, understands mental health, can help teach them how to fix other non-therapy issues in their life, help manage stressors, recommend things to counter burnout, teach them things they might not know about related towards life, and who knows when things need to be recommended to a therapist.”
After such serious departures from some of the biggest teams in the game, I asked Blake if he believed that these retirements would push team owners into taking the mental health of their players more seriously, and his response was slightly disconcerting.
“I don’t know,” he sighed. “We don’t know what goes on behind the scenes. I think if a team is recommending players to get therapy, helping them find one, providing insurance, letting them having time — considering they work six days a week — then they are doing a fairly good job. I think if they have someone who can recognize issues before they are major problems and can recommend them early, they are doing an even better job.”
“You have to remember mental health is a whole field on its own with a ton of intricacies and issues. I always worry they will take the mass thinking of ‘just get a psychologist’ when in fact the issue might not be needing therapy but some other issue structural, organizational, etc., which will only give a bad name for individuals involved in the field. The approach we should be taking is looking at what are all the problems in mental health, not just one of them.”