The esports industry, built around competitive games like Fortnite and Call of Duty, has been undergoing a massive boom in recent years.
According to data from market research firm Newzoo, global viewership will total 453.8 million in 2019, representing a 15% increase from 2018. This figure includes roughly 201 million esports enthusiasts and 253 million occasional viewers. By 2021, the U.S. alone is expected to have 84 million esports viewers.
For comparison, The MLB is projected to have 79 million U.S. viewers in 2021, while the NBA and NHL are projected to come in at 63 million and 32 million, respectively.
With the surge in viewership, significant capital is beginning to flow into the industry. With industry revenue projected by Newzoo to hit $1.1 billion this year, esports organizations continue to secure major fundraising through a combination of venture capital, professional athletes like Michel Jordan, and celebrities including Drake and Will Smith.
While the excitement around esports is palpable, questions are already being raised about the impact on player health as many professional esports athletes suffer from health issues that can result in early burnout, often as early as their mid-20s.
Gaming Isn’t Healthy
As first reported by Polygon back in 2014, both fine motor skills and reaction time are thought to significantly decline with age. A more recent study by researchers at the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine found that esports athletes are also highly susceptible to overuse injuries, with 56% reporting eye fatigue as a major adverse outcome of their gaming.
According to Boston-based registered dietitian Catherine Ward, these problems extend well beyond physical injuries and into player nutrition.
“Esports athletes face truly unique challenges,” said Ward, “the sedentary lifestyle coupled with 80-hour work weeks often result in poor food and drink choices that could lend to key nutrient deficiencies. Ultimately, these lifestyle choices work against the athletes as they perfect their craft.”
Major esports organizations share Ward’s concerns. The head analyst and coach of German esports organization PENTA, Jessica “Jess” Bolden, told us just how difficult it is to make sure her players are getting the proper nutrition.
“Most of our players are young men who live by themselves or with family, which makes it an arduous task to monitor their eating habits,” said Bolden. “This means we face challenges with monitoring their nutrition particularly, as well as esports being an extremely sedentary job. To motivate young players into wanting to eat healthily and be more physical is a tough task, especially when their job requires them to be sitting at a computer for long periods of time.”
Traveling Schedules Make Things Worse
Esports is a global phenomenon, and tournaments are hosted everywhere from Chicago to Seoul, meaning esports athletes are often required to take on extensive travel schedules.
According to Team Liquid’s CS:GO athlete Jonathan “Elige” Jablonowski, these schedules have a significant impact on player health as it becomes nearly impossible to achieve a properly balanced diet.
“I think the biggest challenge is the lack of consistency for meals,” Elige told us in an email. “We are traveling a lot and there isn’t always the same food options available in every location so sometimes you have to make do with what is in front of you even though it won’t always be the best for you. When you are at home, you are able to do meal prep if you want, carefully plan out a balanced diet and get yourself into a routine. However, when you are traveling they all become question marks and hard to keep up as well as I would like to.”
The fact that players like Elige are struggling on the road is especially notable given that Team Liquid is one of the better-capitalized organizations and has been a proponent of player health for some time.
While leagues like Overwatch League (OWL) are now making concerted efforts to reduce travel with the development of home city arenas, the current reality is that esports will likely remain travel-heavy and some teams have already identified this as a major area of focus.
“Just being in a foreign country for three months at a time changes how you need approach competitions,” Mat Taylor, the GM of the Overwatch League’s Dallas Fuel, told us in an interview. “You’ve got to adjust to a number of factors, even weather, to find the best way to win.”
Ultimately, Taylor sees each oversea tournament as a learning opportunity for the organization and the players.
Industry Investments Are at Risk
As of last October, data showed that the 12 highest-value esports organizations are collectively worth a whopping $1.7 billion with an industry total of 63 deals worth $2.34 billion conducted in 2018 alone.
Since that time, numerous organizations have raised multi-million-dollar fundraising rounds, including Gen.G, Immortals, aXiomatic and Fnatic. These investments, which mainly fell within the Series A-B range, are destined to help boost the brands and influence of the organizations to the global scale.
The surge in investments has not been limited to venture capital dollars flowing into professional teams, as major game publishers have started ramping up their tournament prize pool sizes. Perhaps the most notable example being Fortnite creator Epic Games, which recently released the full details for the upcoming Fortnite World Cup, which will feature a ridiculous $100,000,000 prize pool this year.
This trend extends well into the public markets, where major game companies are beginning to bet the future of their share prices on the sustained growth of the esports industry.
For example, Take-Two Interactive (TTWO) CEO Strauss Zelnick recently told CNBC in an interview that he thinks the future is very bright for esports, especially for the competitive titles being developed at his company.
“We’re having a record year with NBA 2K, so one of the things we love is that when there are more hits in the market, there are more people engaged and the entire market grows,” Zelnick said. “So we’re going to sell more units of NBA 2K this year than ever before, we’ll have higher recurrent consumer spending than ever before.”
However, despite the broader optimism, some notable investors have signaled early concern over esports, specifically citing the issues of player burnout.
As we previously reported, billionaire businessman and investor Mark Cuban has shied away from purchasing his own esports organization due to what he sees as a currently unsustainable model.
Cuban views the constant changes to units and gameplay via updates as the core issue associated with burnout, as pros are in a constant state of learning and stressing over perfecting their craft. Ultimately, this is a leading factor in Cuban avoiding purchasing his own esports organization, as unpredictable game updates make building a dynasty exceptionally difficult.
“That’s how guys burnout,” said Cuban in response to a December tweet indicating that Overwatch League players practice 12-14 hours a day, 6 days a week. “[In my opinion,] they last longer now because the money has improved and the teams are more proactive and professional. But working 70 [hours] a week [in-season] when you can quickly lose your spot is super stressful.”
Esports Organizations Take Things Seriously
With how much is tied to the overall well-being of their athletes, esports organizations have started focusing on building health and wellness programs specifically tailored to the needs of their athletes.
According to Complexity Gaming COO and GM Kyle Bautista, the Dallas-based organization is taking player health very seriously.
“The entire organization from our Founder and CEO, Jason Lake, to our front office, coaches, managers, personal trainers, is responsible and accountable to ensure our player’s overall wellness and longevity,” Bautista told us in an email. “A fundamental pillar of our organization is our investment in the long-term success and well-being of our players. Emphasizing Jason Lake’s vision of ‘Esports 3.0,’ we have and will continue to treat our players like professional athletes.”
Bautista notes that Complexity provides its players with a number of amenities, including health benefits, state-of-the-art physical training facilities, luxury housing, nutritional meals for optimum performance, preventative measures for injuries, retirement planning, sports psychology, media training and continued education in esports to ensure their success long after their playing careers.
Complexity also recently launched the “Mind Gym,” a new proprietary initiative that will focus on the development, training, and improvement of core cognitive functions for esports athletes.
— Complexity Gaming (@compLexity) May 16, 2019
The holistic approach to player health is one that seems to be gaining traction with other teams as well. PENTA’s Jessica Bolden noted that her organization strives to provide the players with any means necessary to ensure their mental and emotional health is well cared for throughout their time on the roster.
“Burnout is a common outcome in esports as the hours are often unpredictable and of high intensity mental and cognitive tasks,” said Bolden. “It is highly important to PENTA to ensure each player feels they have enough annual leave, holidays, relaxation and getaway time that they need in between and around seasonal games to ensure they never reach a period of burnout throughout their career.”
The approach to player wellness also seems to be evolving over time, as both players, coaches and organizations learn more about what works and what doesn’t. One such example is the trend away from player houses, where athletes live and work under the same roof as their teammates, to more traditional personal housing.
According to Taylor, the Dallas Fuel were one of the first teams to have a player house but have since allowed their players to have off-campus apartments after learning that alone time is a key component to the mental health and longevity of his team.
“We tell them to go home and chill out after a tough game or tough practice,” said Taylor, who also noted that his team has five coaches, all of which are open as resources to the players.
Competitive gaming is no longer limited to dusty basements. The phenomenon is real, and the dollars are there to prove it. Given the relative infancy of the industry, it’s clear that there are a number of growing pains yet to be ironed out, with player health perhaps being the biggest.
Whether esports teams adopting a more traditional pro sports model is the proper way to solve some of these issues has yet to be determined, but it’s definitely encouraging that the industry is working to improve athlete health at such an early stage.