Pro Video Gamers Facing Burnout Get Support Like Footballers Do

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Doug Gardner spent two decades helping athletes at the Boston Red Sox, the NFL Players Association, and various university teams cope with their inner demons and overcome the mental blocks that impede peak performance. Then in 2017, he shifted from football fields and baseball diamonds to an emerging and less understood competitive arena: the ergonomic chairs and big-screen monitors of e-sports, in which teams wield video game controllers to zap rivals into oblivion.

Gardner and a growing cohort of athletic trainers say e-sports can be every bit as taxing as more physical endeavors such as basketball, baseball, or boxing. While e-sports squads typically lack the resources of big-league pro teams,they’re catching up fast. Top squads are hiring dietitians and chefs, personal trainers, sleep specialists, and psychologists to support players. And they’re building training facilities with gym equipment and wellness rooms alongside the gaming computers. “These players are getting paid to perform,” Gardner says. They need “the discipline that’s required of an athlete.”

E-sports have become big business, with prizes worth millions of dollars and scores of teams competing in global tournaments of games such as Fortnite, League of Legends, Dota 2, and Counter-Strike. The biggest matches are played in arenas with 50,000 or more spectators and streamed around the world. Pro gamers will generatemore than $1 billion in revenue this year, according to researcher Newzoo. In some tournaments, about 100 players fight it out until there’s only one contestant or team left standing. Others pit two groups of five battling their way through a virtual world in matches lasting anywhere from a few minutes to several hours, with teams eliminated or advancing until the final.

With so much at stake, it’s not uncommon for competitors to spend more than 12 hours a day at their computers, engaging in so-called scrims against teammates to work out strategies and hone skills. Just as stressful for players, psychologists say, is the growing trend of streaming practice sessions. Giorgio Calandrelli, an Italian with the Fnatic team who’s better known as “POW3R,” has more than 3 million followers on YouTube, Instagram, and Twitch. Most afternoons he streams his gaming sessions for several hours before grabbing a pizza, often eating in front of the camera while chatting with admirers. Then in the evenings he’ll stream again—sometimes sparring with fans just for kicks—until 2 a.m. or later, when it’s hard to fall sleep after so many intense hours staring at a screen. “I don’t take breaks, because my following is insane,” the 27-year-old says. “I have to give something back to my audience and make some sacrifices.”

Ingo Froböse says those sacrifices exact a heavy toll. The professor at the German Sport University in Cologne studies gamers’ pulses and levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. The heart rates of e-athletes can reach 140 to 150 beats per minute—similar to those of pro marathon runners—and their cortisol levels are comparable to those of many traditional athletes. If not properly managed, Froböse says, this can lead to serious stress and burnout. “Slowly but steadily, e-sports are recognizing the importance of physical as well as mental health,” he says.

Sam Mathews, chief executive officer of Fnatic—a team founded in 2004 that’s competed in hundreds of tournaments in dozens of different games—has built a new headquarters to help players better cope with the stress. Spread across two floors, the airy open-plan site in East London’s Shoreditch neighborhood resembles the countless tech startups nearby. Worktops and desks made from wood and steel are married to mismatched chairs, and the floors and ceilings are made of polished concrete. There’s gym equipment, a bar with fresh fruit and energy drinks, and an on-site chef who prepares nutritious meals.

To help players get accustomed to the rigors of competition, Mathews built a room configured with bright lights, banks of gaming PCs, and cameras to mimic the conditions onstage at a big tournament. The catalyst for the facility, Mathews says, was the 2018 loss of a $2.4 million grand prize in South Korea, which made him better appreciate the pressure players face in big matches. “We underestimated the team that we needed around them,” he says. “They should have had the best sports psychologists money could buy.”

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