Mental Health and Gaming
How Video Games can be a double-edged sword in our mental health struggles.
Mental health and gaming are a topic that goes back to the beginning of our industry. Whether it be legitimate addiction concerns or unfounded scaremongering about games inciting violence in children, we’ve seen heated debates about gaming’s place in modern society over the past few years.
Gaming has since largely become rehabilitated through research. Psychologists have found that certain games can improve wellbeing, while challenging games like Dark Souls can be very helpful in combating depression when combined with traditional therapy.
The gaming space has also created several initiatives that help people cope with mental illness like Healthy Gamer ran by Harvard alum Dr. Alok Kanojia, who not only helps gamers and their families treat video game addiction, but also raises awareness about mental health issues in the gaming space by talking about mental health with various streamers and YouTubers.
In general, a not-too-large dose of fun gaming can be extremely beneficial to mental health. But what happens when gaming becomes more than a hobby? What happens when it turns into your job?
Esports is a bit of an Undiscovered Country when it comes to a lot of things. Long-term physical and mental health impacts are one of them, however, recent research does point to certain factors that may negatively impact gamers.
More Than a Game
Esports have oftentimes been mocked by traditional sports journalists like Colin Cowherd for being childish and silly. Not real sports. After all, where’s the athleticism? Where’s the jaw-dropping effort? Where’s all the pressure?
Research seems to show that Cowherd is very, very wrong on the last point. University of Chichester researchers found that the psychological challenges faced by esports athletes share 51 different stress factors that mirror those faced by traditional sports stars.
After all, esports has gone a long way from a bunch of competitive kids doing LAN Parties in arena basements. Millions, if not billions of dollars invested, largely into teams made up of a mix of high-schoolers and college students is a recipe for a psychological disaster, especially with how new the esports disciplines are to the world.
After all, traditional sports took decades to embrace sports psychology. It’s only recently that mental health has even been talked about in the context of athletes, who have been expected to personify unbridled machismo throughout most of history. Nowadays, more and more athletes speak up about their personal mental health struggles, yet the pressure to perform in the face of adversity still remains.
Esports is new, disjointed, and disorganized in terms of player representation. Some player associations exist, yet legislation and collective bargaining lags behind what we’ll see in traditional sports. This doesn’t help when it comes to introducing new players to the pro scene, either. Rookies don’t get extensive mentorship programs that help them prepare for a rumbly experience.
Contracts are uncertain in esports. Prize-winnings are uncertain. Rosters change at a breakneck pace as investors want to see their money turn into wins and brand recognition. This puts incredible pressure on players as young as 16 to perform and combine with hectic, 10-hour-plus training days can drive young players into addiction and very notably, depression and burnout.
This summer has Counter-Strike powerhouse Astralis make the unprecedented move to sign two additional players to their roster. At first, thought to be a power move to weaken other rising Danish squads, rumours soon swirled around that two of their players, In-game leader Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander and Andreas “Xyp9x” Højsleth were taking a step back from the game.
Soon enough, it was confirmed. Both of them have admitted to suffering from burnout and stress, likely caused by a hectic schedule they had to hold throughout their incredibly dominant 2-year run of total Counter-Strike dominance.
Soon afterwards, a report from Dexerto’s Richard Lewis uncovered that it was through advice from Counter-Strike Pro Players Association and former Danish Football Players Association member Mads Øland who suggested that gla1ve and Xyp9x use Danish law to their advantage, and demand leave on medical terms, rather than the extremely-limited contractual terms.
However, this wasn’t a systemic solution. Astralis is lucky enough to be governed by Danish law, where employees’ medical rights are strongly protected and that protection is extended to esports competitors. That’s not necessarily the case all around the world. Many countries will offer far fewer protections for players, forcing them to tough it out in the name of team success, oftentimes feeling the weight of their entire team on their shoulders. With the recent collapse of the North American CS:GO scene, every mid-tier game becomes a fight for the survival of your entire team.
This kind of stress and pressure is one of the main contributing factors to why esports competitors retire at an average age of 25. While there are some exceptions to the rule, it’s oftentimes that a player’s prime is over by the time most people barely start adult life. Traditional sports usually start transition plans for their pros the second they step foot in their fold, preparing them for the fact that their career might be short-lived, especially if they’re not superstars, later helping them transition into a post-esports career.
Esports leaves players in the dust. While we haven’t seen any cases of post-playing careers quite as bad as those from traditional sports in years past, most of the currently retired players aren’t people who’ve lived esports all their life. With a new generation of talent starting their careers as early as fourteen, it’s only a matter of time before we find examples of talent stranded by stress, unable to imagine a career outside the game they once loved.
Changes Are Needed
Esports are still new, and we’re still in the growing pains period of a rapidly growing, competitive industry. Legislation and solutions are still lagging behind that growth, which is why changes are needed. Collective bargaining, extending player rights, and protecting them from burnout.
Mental health issues in esports won’t go away, of course, they’re a natural consequence of a competitive environment. However, providing the proper support system and allowing ample opportunity to rest and recover, might help alleviate some of that pressure and help players transition into their post-playing days without a myriad of mental and physical issues marring them for a while after.
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We’ve recently partnered up with GRID Esports, The Esports Bible, Wide GG and Xtrfy to organize The Fight Before Christmas, a charity tournament raising money for Rethink Mental Illness. We’re extremely proud to have been a part of a fundraising effort that managed to net Rethink 2600 EUR for their efforts to destigmatize mental illness and help people in the UK with their mental health challenges.