Mental health in esports: an analysis of the League of Legends scene

Mental health in esports: an analysis of the League of Legends scene

When people talk about esports and mental health, the term “mindset” is tossed around a lot. Players, staff and the community itself frequently refer to it as an essential aspect for better performance. But what does “mindset” means? Is there a kind of approach or mentality to be considered “ideal” towards optimizing performance in esports?


First of all, we need to consider that athletes are fundamentally different from casual players, once a professional player is not someone that plays with the same motivation as someone who plays for fun. Pros build a career around the game, so it changes the way they experience the matches.

There is the need of training and finding a balance between mental and physical health. Besides, because the game is connected to a financial stability, of course there is a change in motivation and responsibility.

A couple of studies seek analysing what motivates an athlete. Specifically, a Vorderer research shows that two aspects are essential when it comes to motivation to play: interactivity and competition. The first one is related to the opportunity of communicating and cooperating with other players in an online environment; while the latter is the mechanism through which players compare themselves to rest.

Few studies until now have tried to investigate the motivation of the players, but it seems noticeable that competitive motivation, in the case of these athletes, is one of the things that induces encouragement. A recent Seo research tried to establish what makes the Pro Player career attractive, the reasons behind players’ desire to seek the opportunity of becoming an athlete and to develop their professional identity.

During this investigation, Pros revealed the main factors that attracted them to the career are mainly: a way to show the mastery of their individual abilities, the seek for self-promotion and the sense of justice, fairness and mutual respect when it comes to the institutional rules and codes within the esports scene.

However, in a more recent research by Himmelstein (2007), skills and mental techniques used by athletes in achieving an “ideal” performance in highly competitive gaming environments was identified. The article also investigated the barriers Pros may experience in the search for a better performance.

With that, they noticed that for achieving a good performance players must have vast knowledge about the game, think strategically, make decisions quickly and in an intelligent way; be motivated to always look forward, which indicates avoiding thinking about past performances; be able to separate personal from professional life; avoid distractions and maintain focus; deal with fans; maintain a growth mindset (positive attitude); warm up physically and / or mentally before the performance. Other factors have also been marked as the ability to adapt to opponents, communicate adequately with teammates and rely on their abilities.

Also, they must be able to develop themselves and their staff (improving their skills and analyzing their own performance) and define their goals separating by time span (short and long term and the process itself). Regarding performance barriers, some were identified as confidentiality issues, such as inadequate strategies to deal with anxiety, past achievements and mistakes that influence their present actions, the way to deal with their influence, lack of personal and team development (team dynamics, communication, individual skills) and difficulty in separating their personal life from the career.

All these aspects are related to what the community has referred as “mindset”. For Natália Zakalski, psychologist for the CBLoL team CNB, mindset is “a set of attitudes both inside and outside the game. That is, to prepare for the match, train and play it itself, it demands an adequate mindset, a mentality that is prepared to face whatever comes.”

According to her, to achieve excellence in the game, being on esport or on traditional sports, it is necessary to prepare your mind to deal with each moment: “The moment of the training requires concentration and focus on learning, so the mindset for this moment is different, one must prepare the mind to meet those demands. In the context before a decisive match, the mentality should be focused on levels of activation and anxiety, so that these are at a positive level and you can have high performance. During the game, the mindset lean towards the need for concentration and focus, but you must have a level of anxiety and activation that leads to action and decision-making, as previously said, for high performance.”

Natália also highlights that the mindset do not fit only on a specific context, but in general: “Looking for ways to prepare and act within the mental specter is also to look for a mindset, but a mindset within a greater context, which will dictate your actions in your daily life. This is intrinsically connected to the actor’s motivation. Therefore, those willing to evolve mentally, looking to activate its mentality for the right moments, with the right feelings and straight thoughts, is structuring a mindset not only for the game, but for the whole life.”

Gratuated in PE and Master of Psychiatry by USP, Daniela Lopes works with mental health related to physical activities and, nowadys, study high-performance athletes. Her PhD thesis involves esports pro players in order to comprehend and compare them to players from more traditional sports.

When questioned about her understanding about mindset, Daniela say: “Academically speaking, we work with the idea of mental force, which would be really similar to what you consider a mindset. For example, we study Olympic Champions, considered the best athletes of the world. They have certain psychological abilities, which consists basically in being optimistic, easily adapt, keep focused, maintain emotional control, resist to frustration and keep up with pressure. Currently, those questions caught the attention in the area of sports psychology, mainly because it is quintessential for an athlete to face adversities and stressing situations. They are constantly taking risks and making decisions, and they need to face the consequences of those acts.”

About the work on mental health in esports, she adds “It’s really important because high-performance sports are really stressful. It is fundamental for an athlete to deal with the competition. You can be very skilled, but it will not matter if you can’t deal with psychological questions.”

Psychological Disorders

Another topic approached was cases of depression on professional players, deeply linked to motivation and mentality. Recently, brazilian player Gustavo “Baiano” Gomes announced he would be stepping down from CNB due to a diagnostic of depression. Besides that, on December 9th, it was announced that Brandon “Saintvicious” DiMarco, head coach of FlyQuest, resigned from the position after furious reactions about his comments on depression.

He described depression, anxiety and ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) as “a made up excuse”. Later, he published an apology stating “Admittedly, this was an ignorant statement stemming from my severe lack of subject matter knowledge.[…] I was surprised to realize just how uninformed I was regarding mental health, especially because it is an important part of my responsibilities as a coach”.

In this context, Daniela commented: “Esports are very young here in Brazil, it’s still very raw. In Korea there are coaches who really studied to face this. Here, everything is new, it is difficult to find someone with a trainer formation. We have been studying about the role of the trainer/coach for the performance of an athlete. It is really important… we study a theory called Self-Determination Theory. It states that the coach who offers elements that favor an athlete’s self-esteem, autonomy… he has a more well settled athlete, who can face those pressures. Here, the coach doesn’t have a role as important as the ones on traditional sports, but it is becoming more and more professional and coaches are always learning. But we still lack the skills to face this.”

Still about the coach-athlete relationship, she completed “I’m trying to apply on esports a proven model on traditional sports to see if it will work. In this theory I study, if a coach encourages an athlete autonomy, he contributes to the development of a smarter athlete, technically and tactically, in addition to developing a better commitment with social practices and relationships. They need to feel safe, welcomed and connected to the environment around them. If this connection doesn’t exist, mostly in LoL, where the players live/interact together in the same house, away from their families, with unknown people… it’s obvious they miss their families.

The environment created in this house has a very strong impact on the emotional process of the athlete, this element is the key for quality of sports involvement. So sometimes we think it is the player who needs therapy, but in many times are the own coaches and staff members who actually need. It is common to see coaches who don’t want to participate the therapy sessions because they think only players need it. Coaches need guidance in how to deal with it because it makes a huge difference. The objective of my studies is to understand better what’s the function of this environment created by the coach, this environment they are inserted, inside their efficiency.”

About the elements connected to players withdrawal, she added: The environment they are inserted makes the whole difference. Sometimes it is not something like ‘we will take care of that specific athlete with therapy, bring him a psychologist’, sometimes it isn’t that. I strongly believe the environment is the main reason and has a very strong impact in those emotional processes, being the key to the quality of their development. We will see if it will be confirmed after the studies. We already have researches that show that when coaches present coercive, controlling and authoritarian attitudes there is a high probability of failure.

In short, the coach is the main responsible for the performance of its athletes, his influence in their actions and decisions are very high. But you also can’t look only for the player and forget about the environment around him.”

Close to the departure of Baiano, then-coach Jimmy Harisson tweeted about it:

When contacted to speak more about the topic, he commented: “Mindset is a misunderstood concept in Esports. We got to the point where everyone can agree that the right mentality will positively affect the performance, but it is a complex matter. More teams are using a sports psychologist, but I still need to see one case which directly reflects a better performance. Young players want fast solutions for their problems, but you need to look out for mentality the same way you would train a muscle, it takes time, effort and dedication. Player are under a ton of pressure, they are paid to do a very difficult job, and, if they fail, they lose their jobs. Incorporate healthy thoughts is crucial for esports longevity in my opinion.”

About depression cases, Jimmy said: “Depression is more common than people think. The term “tilt/tilted” is commonly used and it represents not meeting expectations. The players have very high expectations, that’s what put them on the top of their respective regions. When those expectation are not met, they are constantly faced with failure, it’s obviou they will present some level of depression. Not every athlete can easily transform failure in something positive, especially when players are so young and did not grow up in a traditional sports environment, where being knocked down and get up is something normal.”

In his second tweet, he mentions that players in less-developed regions take more risks to compete. About that, he clarifies: “I think all players take risks putting aside education to follow their dreams. Sadly, the reality is that only a small percentage of players really profit with esports, and even then, their carreers have a short duration. In the main regions, you see former players transitioning to jobs in the area, such as working for game developers or sponsors, but I don’t see that in Brazil. Even though you can go back to school/college after trying their luck on esports, many players don’t have the desire or financial support for that, ending in a lower quality of life. I heard a lot of players say “I don’t know what would I do if I couldn’t play League of Legends professionally anymore”. I try to work with players to help them understand their skills and how to transition to a career that does not involve playing League competitively, because that’s the reality.”

Regarding the impact of the media and the public around the performance and the emotional of players, the coach said: “Sure, it is not different than traditional sports, it’s a part of the job. Players can compete and earn money if their fans want to watch them. I heard about teams completely banning social media, while others ask the players to read comments only after their wins. No one is really prepared to face public critiques in large scales. Some players can’t be bothered on ignoring comments, while others can let them impact negatively. I suppose the opposite is also true and some players can use the comments to push them. I ask my players to ignore the comments because the fans usually don’t know much about the game.”

He also mentioned about comments from Ranger, Kabum’s jungler, after the team was eliminated from Worlds 2018: “Ranger is a perfect exemple. I don’t have a clue on why social media was allowed during a competitive game. There is no way you can see tons of comments bashing you because you missed smite and guarantee it will not affect your next game in any degree. I think it was a major failure from the staff.

The coach also spoke about a following tweet where he mentioned a phrase Baiano said to him, in the lines of “You know much about the game, but you don’t understand how players feel.”: I think coaches, especially younger ones, can’t truly understand how their players feel. That was something I needed to personally get better. I would watch a player do some play and think, ok he is not afraid, it’s a mechanical error. Then, my payers would tell me the player was afraid and was hoping the picks would win the game. They take a risk because the champion is strong in a point of the game, but they don’t feel confident they can win later. That was an opening for me.

When you see players making mistakes, there can be so many reasons for that. Many times I don’t see only a technical error. If you allow players to play important games from the comfort of their homes , I think you would see a higher level of play, except from players who perform better under stage pressure. When I left CNB, I knew Baiano was aware I could see what their problems really were. I’m not saying I have everything planned, but I made some significant improvements and I can relate better to the players. The key for almost everything on esports is to have a healthy discussion. I insist I can constantly talk to my players, solo or in group, so I can keep an eye on how they feel when there is no pressure and when there is lots of it. A great coach needs to get involved with their players in an emotional level, otherwise, you will never get their trust.”

Still in the topic of understanding the players’ feelings, Hugo “Galfi” Garcia, former Vivo Keyd coach, commented: “It’s common, not because coaches don’t want, but our routine is a big ‘organized mess’, always focusing on performance above everything else and, many times, the players don’t seem to give enough openings fo talk about it or the coach doesn’t have the sensibility to identify those problems between the whole evolution process of the team. That’s why I emphasize the necessity of a dedicated psychological team that gives proper assistance and has the readiness to pursue the root of the problems of the players, it is a very important job.”

When asked what would be the likely reasons behind the withdrawal of players or episodes of depression and anxiety, he said: “I think our routine is quite exhausting, not just because of physical fatigue, but because you’re always competing. Competing is stressful, it’s not easy, when your life comes down to competing, your perspective on some things may change… you see problems bigger than they really are and you lose your sense of reality, or rather, you create a reality for you where only what matters is the results. A professional player has to do this, to be able to dedicate himself all the time, strive to reach the potential that the team needs him to reach, the problem appears when the results do not come and you see your effort being useless. When that feeling comes up it’s a very big void that you cannot fill, and you need to be well equipped to deal with those difficult times.”

All the interviewees showed that it is quintessential for teams within the esports market to have adequate psychological monitoring that is able to contribute to all members, not only to the players. Above all, further research is needed in the area such as that of Daniela Lopes, so that it is possible to delve into the reality of the esports scenario in Brazil, in order to share the knowledge necessary for it to evolve. It is also essential to recognize the importance of the environment in this process, which appears several times as a crucial factor for the development and well-being of athletes.

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