Mental Health in eSports

Recently, on the second episode of First Blood with Richard Lewis, Ram Djemal and Nicolas Haddad (League of Legends’ Brokenshard and Gleeb respectively) commented on the ever-increasingly important issue of mental health, specifically within the confines of intense LCS living*. It really struck a chord with myself, a fellow sufferer of this incessantly vindictive disease, and has inspired this blog-post. I aim to talk about mental health as a collective, and my feelings on its relationship with League of Legends and the world of eSports thereafter.

As publicly stated during the show, Haddad has issues relating to anxiety. Whilst he was not specific with regards to the severity of these, we can assume that they are serious enough to warrant discussing. Djemal, also non-specifically, has differing medical problems. They were enough to cause a much-needed pause during an LCS game. Straight off the bat, the fact that two professionals in the scene have said such things is indicative of a problem that, whilst relative on a global scale, also demonstrates perhaps the potential dangers that mental health can pose for people under enormous pressures, and those without much of the everyday freedoms that we all can take for granted. These are players who actively have to massively engage with a single objective in order to maintain their skill levels, and possibly to improve. As Haddad says during the two hour vod-cast, when he came under pressure from the community and told that he might need to improve else relinquish his position in Team Solo Mid, he ended up working towards improvement for nigh on 16 hours a day. If we take that someone without immediate mental health issues might fall into a desperately vacuous pit working for that amount of time, then the exacerbation this would cause in someone already struggling is simply put, not something you’d wish on anyone.

If we know from factual evidence that almost 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health issue in the upcoming year, then we should make a basis for that figure relating to eSports. To clarify, this disease, in whatever form, should be treated equally regardless of profession. However, for the sake of wanting to see a progression in multiple facets of the eSports industry it’s important to bring it to light in a profession that is often inundated with extreme pressures from all sides. So, for example, if 25% of League of Legends players will experience these sorts of health issues in the next year then we have to really wonder whether in the long-term, playing in an enclosed space for hours and hours, and hours, upon end will result in a long-term positive? Yes, as fans we want to see our favourite team win, but I would hope not at the cost of physical and mental health.

To follow that generalisation, it could be apt to concentrate on how these players, specifically in North America, practice. I’ll make the case firstly that it will never serve the human-being playing the game to be so shut off, particularly in a digital environment like a MOBA or MMORG. They are such intensive situations that they can easily lead to something or someone snapping. Now, I’m not suggesting that the games themselves are bad. As someone who engages with them on a constant level, I would never take the unfortunate typical right-wing attitude towards any video-game, but when you have a mental health problem, you are dealing with biological and psychological complaints. When you have such an erratic volume of adrenaline, serotonin and dopamine swimming around your blood streams, playing a game that inflicts such emotional responses, simply put, cannot long-term be positive for any individual. If you have depression, or anxiety or psychosis, or anything remotely related to mental health then you have to have a healthy relationship with pretty much every aspect of your everyday life.

You can certainly have a healthy connection with intensive work though. You can almost certainly play a game at the highest level and maintain a healthy mental aptitude. However, there have to be stipulations. Firstly, the people running the organisations behind the players, including the managers, coaches and analysts have to be aware of this being a desperately unwelcome disease. You need to get on board with the idea that it can strike at any time. You need, and I emphasise the word, need, to mix up practice with a variety of things that allow the player/persons to disengage with the game. Going out for dinner is not enough. Plan basic activities to do during the day. This will not just alleviate stresses of being on a losing streak in Solo Queue but simultaneously aid in the prevention of fractured team dynamics. Furthermore, be aware that anxiety, and particularly depression can often be at their worst during specific periods in the day, when people enter these unenviable slumps. Acknowledge, and try and analyse these points of severity. To counter them, and this might seem simplistic but is often effective, have someone take off your headphones every half-hour to an hour and chat to you. It might be best to work alongside a player to really uncover his personality, which should dictate the way in which you chat to him.

There are two things though that trump everything else and they should really run side-by-side. Every team, at this point, and I congratulate Curse for taking this approach recently, should absolutely have a psychologist as a permanent member of staff. It’s perhaps the most important part of any sports team, particularly considering that League of Legends is often determined at high levels of competition by mental fortitude and dealing with strategic pressures from opposing teams. The second point that should be implemented into almost every single team is the inclusion of a regiment of physical exercise. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Balls from Cloud 9 or Napoleon Dynamite from Team Liger in Ranked 5s, you need physical exercise to maintain the hormone levels in your body. Every team should be enforcing this as part of their routine. And, to clarify once more, you don’t need to be lifting weights or going for a marathon, but any activity that encourages physical activity. This could be going to the gym as a team, or just going outside and playing Frisbee. There are so many options for different types of physical play that it’s simply not an excuse these days to say, “but I’m naturally not sporty“. You don’t need to be. It’s a matter of attempting to encourage neutrality and normality in the body to prevent the body from biologically reaching a point where it’s culpable to a mental health issue.

None of the points raised above should have an impact on performance. In fact, they could very well be beneficial. There is a common, and applicable theory, called Catastrophe Theory, which, put simply, shows that there is a point where your physiological arousal levels dictate your performance. In other words, if you have someone who, through an overly-excessive work regime is playing League of Legends, or doing anything excessively for that matter, far too much, then at some point their performance is going to suffer and they may enter that infamous, and horribly maligned area, colloquially entitled “tilting”. Teams need to acknowledge the massive entity that is mental health and better acclimatise their players to dealing with it.

Perhaps it’s because all of this might seem obvious, but I feel with the amount of money circulating professional teams, that it’s not an excuse anymore to ignore the aforementioned ways of dealing with players and any mental health problems they might have. I expect that in the future we’ll see a combination of ways to aid the player, but we simply can’t have a manager’s job being to help someone with ongoing mental health issues. They aren’t trained in this field and only a psychologist/psychiatrist can truly help, along with knowledge of how best to treat specific individuals. Don’t let them eventually wander down the rabbit hole and into that often disastrous cesspool that it feels like with a mental health affliction.

Given the extremes of professional and competitive eSports, mental health is an area that the whole scene should be striving to improve. Let’s hope that in the future a real, diligent infrastructure for doing so is put into action. After all, it’s for the sake of everyone involved.

*I don’t aim to put words in either of these players’ mouths. Everything with regards to Haddad and Djemal is related to First Blood: Episode 2.

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