How Therapy Helps Win Esports Tournaments
For some 15 years, esports athletes have been very reluctant about bringing any support staff. A Manager would be good only for takeout deliveries, coaches surely don’t know the game better than players do, and don’t get me started on analysts. Between the general stigma and the male teen-dominated environment, there was practically no demand for sports psychologists or therapists in esports. Now that things are changing for the better, let’s look at the three ways organizations embraced the importance of mental health.
Breaking a Mental Barrier
Let’s go back to 2016 and meet Astralis, a top-tier Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team. They are a young and capable squad from Denmark, which has an insanely high number of elite esports athletes relative to a population of 5.8M people. The players have won multiple S-tier tournaments, including several key victories over the world’s two best teams, Fnatic and Ninjas in Pyjamas, in mid-2015. In fact, the squad decided to leave Team SoloMid and create the player-founded organization Astralis to focus on competitive results over sponsorship activations.
The problem with Astralis, of course, is that they kept failing to win it on the big stage. Nothing matters more in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive than Majors, which are similar to the Grand Slam tournaments in tennis. Majors have the highest prestige and often the biggest prize pool at $250,000 in 2013-2015 and $1,000,000 since 2016. Last but not least, the Majors were sponsored by the game developer, Valve, and thus would often take place in huge arenas. Here’s the venue for the annual ESL One Cologne tournament, which Valve would often co-sponsor as a Major.
Between huge crowds, the sheer weight on their shoulders, and grueling practice, Astralis never quite showed their 100% at the majors. Their best results since 2014 were a couple of semifinal exits, which is outright unreasonable for a team that was beating Major winners and finalists in both comfy online play and smaller offline tournaments. Choking is hardly unique to CS:GO or esports but Astralis were the pioneers when it comes to an elite team consistently crumbling under pressure.
This all changed in the summer of 2016 when Astralis recruited Mia Stellberg. The organization tried utilizing her expertise from traditional sports to find suitable psychologists, but none seemed to fit. Stellberg then decided to take the matter into her own hands and started to work with the squad personally. She was there to help players arrive at tournaments with a sound mind in a sound body, enforcing a strict lifestyle routine with a healthy diet, regular gym sessions, and reasonable bedtime.
The change took some time but proved irreversible. Astralis won the ELEAGUE Major 2017 in January and then took a bit of the back seat only to plow through the 2018 and 2019 competitive seasons. Astralis won the second Major of 2018 as well as both 2019 Majors on top of more than a dozen of S-tier competitions. Nobody but them has won so many Major tournaments, yet alone three in a row.
Cold, hard numbers clearly improved as well. The core players going back to 2014 (Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz, Andreas “Xyp9x” Højsleth, Peter “dupreeh” Rasmussen) are sitting at $1.9M in prize winnings each. The team’s captain Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander, integrated into the line-up during Mia Stellberg’s day-to-day work tenure with Astralis, is not far behind at $1.7M. The competitive success, which was quite easy to market, allowed Astralis to secure a spot in the franchised League of Legends competition LEC, and hold IPO at a market valuation of $75M.
Full-Time Esports Psychologists
While Stellberg stopped interacting with Astralis on a daily basis within a few months, teams started to realize that they could benefit from a psychologist. Notably, Fnatic’s League of Legends team hired Jens Hofer to help the team bounce back from a disastrous decline in 2016. A former basketball coach, the man helped Fnatic’s franchise player, Martin “Rekkles” Larsson, regain confidence through reinventing his playstyle. He ultimately took the 3-year contract extension, which he had declined due to mental wellbeing concerns, and managed to win two more EU LCS titles
As for team results, Fnatic remains the only squad in League’s history to qualify for a World Championship playoffs stage after starting a six-game group stage with 4 straight losses. Fnatic won the remaining matches and, after a once-in-a-lifetime scenario that saw three teams finish Group B with a record of 2 – 4, came out on top in the three-way tiebreaker. Hofer had already left the team for Ninjas in Pyjamas, but the foundations he built in the first half of the season clearly helped an above-average roster reach unexpected heights.
Another prominent full-time psychologist in League of Legends is Weldon Green. He entered the League of Legends scene as a Sport Psychology Trainer but then quickly transitioned to coaching and assistant coaching jobs. Green was never shy about the fact that his game knowledge is very limited and it’s the psychology background that nets him the jobs. Since the late 2010s, it has been a completely reasonable option: the esports industry has professionalized enough to have analyst(s) and additional game coach(es) even when the Head Coach has an actual competitive gaming background.
Much like Hofer, Weldon Green excelled at bringing more than just the best out of his players. His record includes an unprecedented second-place finish at the 2017 Mid-Season Invitational with Europe’s representative G2 Esports, the very team that collapsed at both international tournaments in 2016. Green also helped a generally mediocre Counter Logic Gaming squad finish third in the 2019 LCS Summer Split. Unless the talent was completely not there (see 2020 CLG), Green’s teams more often than not performed above expectations.
A notable Counter-Strike example of a psychologist working their magic from a managerial position would be Eugene “ugin” Yerofeyev. He has been with Natus Vincere since 2012, helping the team survive a rocky transition from Counter-Strike 1.6 into Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Ugin was there for basically 3 separate iterations of the CS division with multiple S-tier victories and three Major finals between them.
Gig Esports Therapists
Such initiatives rarely become public knowledge, but some organizations contract psychologists short-term to prepare for an important event or address a certain issue. Impact-wise, perhaps the best example would be OG hiring Mia Stellberg, the person behind Astralis transformation, to prepare for The International 2019. Entering Dota 2’s main tournament with no top 4 finishes in 2018/2019 Dota Pro Circuit, OG managed to win TI9 without dropping a single series. The victory earned them $15,620,181 to share between the five players and staff.
One can also see how organizations struggle with the idea of bringing a psychologist in and do that too late. Virtus.pro hired a University of Denver professor to help salvage their CS:GO roster in the fall of 2017, but that shipped cracked back in February. If only they had a person that could convince the organization not to publicly reward the captain with a GLE Mercedes while giving no bonus to the rest of the players…
If you’re going through a tough time as well, BetterHelp can be a helpful resource. With pandemic limiting real-life interactions, virtual therapy went from merely an option to one of the primary ways of looking after your mental health. It will take you less than a day to get started.
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Does esports need psychologists?
Yes. Organizations have realized the need in the mid-2010s, as teams that would previously choke on the grand stage started dominating in their titles. Now, pretty much all League of Legends squads and a majority of CS:GO squads have staff psychologists to help players cope with the mental strain competitive gaming puts on them.
Can a psychologist make a great career in esports?
Absolutely. Weldon Green started as just that, a psychologist, but quickly became an in-demand coach for League of Legends teams. Fnatic’s former mental coach, Jens Hofer, became the club’s Head of Performance within 2.5 years of switching from basketball.
Is is stressful to be a professional esports player?
Yes, and that’s true for pretty much any esports titles for a multiple of reasons. Games on fixed yearly schedules like League of Legends make players run a pretty long marathon, offering few breaks during and even after the season. Professional scenes revolving around world championships have a lot of prestige and millions that one team wins and the rest don’t, all happening in less than two weeks. Practicing with the team, reviewing games, and then honing your skills individually for 12 to 14 hours in total is pretty grueling as well. Note that most squads do all of the above six days a week.