Esports has changed a lot in the last two decades. From competitions held in hotel ballrooms to arenas, from prizes in the hundreds to prizes in the millions and from a grassroots industry to one pursued by investors around the world. But one area in which esports hasn’t changed enough is the focus on player health.
Starting in the last few years, esports players have been pushed to focus on health, both physical and mental. Esports history is littered with cases of young players having to retire or burning out before they even reach their mid-20s. Now, organizations, leagues and even brands have begun to prioritize player health more.
“When I look back at the history of esports, I like to do so from a player perspective because that’s what’s most important,” said Jason Lake, the CEO and founder of Complexity Gaming on Nerd Street’s Esports Meta podcast.
Lake, who founded Complexity back in 2003, making it one of the longest-running esports organizations in North America, splits esports into three eras.
“Esports 1.0 was back in the late ‘90s, early 2000s where players lived in their moms’ basements,” Lake explained with a laugh. “They’d practice with their teams online but might only see their teammates once or twice a year at a [Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL)] event or a Quakecon.”
As more money went into esports, organizations began investing in housing for their teams so they could develop better teamwork and collaboration. In reality, sometimes the distance was for the best.
“Esports 2.0 is the dawn of the gamer house,” Lake continued. “Teams would get better much quicker, but what we discovered is that it’s not always healthy living with your co-workers. We actually opened America’s first gamer house back in 2005. Living with your co-workers and not having that space actually created too much tension in the team dynamics. So while teams improved in-game, it was offset by the relationship dissolving in real life.”
Which brings us to the modern era. Gamer houses are still a thing for some teams, but it's usually a temporary set up to get a solid bootcamp in before a big event, not a permanent living establishment for all the players.
“Esports 3.0 is what we’ve been building out since about 2017,” Lake said. “The best way to describe Esports 3.0 is that it’s a professionalization to take best learnings from traditional sports and integrate them into the player lifestyle across the board. Players live in apartments provided by the company and train in the GameStop Performance Center. We’re trying to focus on player well being. We are looking at nutrition, we’re looking at exercise, we’re looking at proper medical care, we’re looking at relaxation and we’re looking at mental health.”
Photo credit: Complexity
Cowboys' majority stake influences Complexity’s emphasis on health
Health was a focus for Lake and Complexity for years, but it was the acquisition of a majority stake by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and real estate mogul John Goff that literally opened up doors on this front. Complexity moved into The Star, the facility in Frisco, Texas, that houses the Dallas Cowboys. Sharing a campus with one of the most valuable sports franchises in the world has given Complexity access to some of the best equipment, facilities and experts in sports.
“The fundamental core of what the Cowboys have built here, that we’ve been able to piggyback on, is one of excellence,” Lake said. “When you come to work each day in a place like this, it’s inspiring. It’s easier to get our gamers in the mindset of making good decisions, of eating properly, exercising, practicing mental care and taking training seriously.”
In traditional sports, injuries are common. In esports, they can be more rare, but that also makes them more difficult to be aware of, diagnose and treat. In addition, a player’s body in traditional sports is pretty good at telling them when there’s something wrong. At a certain point, weight training or practicing is no longer having a positive benefit and all athletes understand that. But in esports, that point where practicing has actually turned into a net negative is a much harder place to pinpoint as it doesn’t come with physical exhaustion.
“Do we have the physical problems that the Cowboys across the street have? No, of course not, we’re not getting tackled out on the field,” Lake said. “But that doesn’t minimize some of the injuries we have in esports. It doesn’t minimize how much money is being invested into contracts. If we don’t start taking health more seriously, it’s going to be a problem.”
Photo credit: Complexity
Prioritizing mental health
But the other looming issue, which is only recently becoming a focal point of traditional sports as well, is mental health.
“You have young people, who have been streaming or performing in competition, and that pressure is tough,” Lake said. “We need to talk openly about mental health and taking care of yourself. Esports historically has been so unbalanced in the unhealthy direction that it's time we really start focusing on how we can do things right.”
Physical injuries are fairly standard. A player breaks their wrist? Put it in a cast, it will heal in six to eight weeks. Sure, some may need surgery or physical therapy, but there’s only so many ways a human body can get hurt, and few are surprising to medical professionals. In regards to mental health, however, the diagnoses are difficult and the treatments are even more complex. Something that helps one person might not make a difference for another. Many people who struggle with their own mental health don’t even realize something is wrong.
“Sadly, I think the reason why mental health is becoming more normalized to speak about is because so many people struggle with it,” Lake said. “At Complexity, we are definitely trying to normalize speaking about mental health in esports. We openly encourage people to seek a therapist, to seek counseling, at the first sign of any feeling of being overwhelmed. That can happen with younger gamers that are dealing with the pressure, the spotlight, having their name be trashed on Reddit or Twitter.”
Burnout is common in esports players and streamers. On the outside it looks like a dream job, but that attitude pushes players to go well beyond healthy limits in pursuit of the grind. The end result is esports careers often being bright flashes of stardom and not drawn-out success over multiple decades akin to the careers of traditional sports stars like Tom Brady or LeBron James.
Uzi’s early retirement puts renewed focus on important of player health
It’s rare for esports players to play into their 30s, with many retiring before they even reach 25. One famous example is Jian “Uzi” Zi-Hao, a top AD carry playing with Royal Never Give Up in the League of Legends Pro League. In 2018, he was considered the best AD Carry in the world as RNG won the Mid-Season Invitational, the LPL Spring Split Playoffs and the Summer Split Playoffs. At just 21 years old, he appeared to be one of the next stars of League of Legends esports.
In 2020, he retired, citing health issues including injuries and obesity. Although he has recently been rumored to be pursuing a comeback, Uzi’s case highlights why a focus on health isn’t just important for the players but for the esports industry as a whole.
“Nobody wins when a player retires early,” Lake said. “The player is robbed of a long, fruitful career. The company loses out on some of the investment made in the player and potential future upside. The fans lose out on a star player. There’s nothing good that comes from the downside of physical and mental health problems. To me, it's just a no-brainer. Let’s keep these players healthy. Let’s keep them mentally healthy. Let’s keep them happy. Let’s extend their careers to everyone’s benefit.”
Player health is important without business reasons, but the fact that the industry would benefit greatly from extending player careers only gives orgs another reason to invest heavily on that front. In addition to being a star for RNG, Uzi was also the face of one of Nike’s first esports campaigns. Wearing a T-shirt that said Dribble & Carry alongside Chinese actor Bai Jingting and LeBron James, Uzi was reaching a level of stardom that few esports players had ever come near.
But last summer, when James led the Los Angeles Lakers to his fourth NBA championship at the age of 35, Uzi was retiring at the age of 23. It’s a problem esports needs to solve, not just for the health of players but to give this industry the types of stars that drive all successful competitive leagues.
“When I’m in a boardroom, I can explain why health investments are good economically,” Lake said. “When I’m speaking to a parent of a gaming recruit I flew in, I can explain why this is good for their child. When I’m talking to a gamer or a streamer, I can explain why it should matter to them. It’s just common sense. I’m almost ashamed for our industry that we haven’t focused on this sooner. But we are now.”
Complexity is an industry leader on this front, but plenty of other orgs are seeing the benefits as well. Cloud9 partnered with Kaiser Permanente for a new initiative focused on mental health. FlyQuest’s MeQuest campaign placed mental health at the forefront of the brand. Team Liquid’s tongue-in-cheek content showcases the org’s gym and chef. Most teams now have some sort of gym in their compounds, hopefully a chef and a therapist as well. Welcome to Esports 3.0.
Lead photo credit: Complexity Gaming