As video games become increasingly popular in society, so has the demand for a professional scene. Now called eSports, it consists of professional, paid gamers who play at top tier levels and gain a following of fans. Most competitions are streamed online with varying prizes. Some teams are not even in the same room, playing from their homes around the world. While eSports has largely been around since the 90’s, the activation of Major League Gaming, or MLG, in 2002 is Blizzard Entertainment’s attempt to mainstream eSports to the level of other professional sports such as basketball or American football.
The Overwatch League is Blizzard’s most recent and ambitious effort to bring interest to non-gaming fans of sports. Teams are organised by a specific location such as the Houston Outlaws or Boston Uprising to give fans a “home” team. Jerseys and merchandise are sold, professionals compete in the official Blizzard Arena, and there are broadcasters commentating on plays and interviewing players. Twitch, a live streaming platform that focuses on gamers and gaming, even signed a massive deal with OWL to give it a much larger viewership. To give an example of the rise in popularity of gaming, famous singer Drake recently streamed on Twitch with record breaking views. With gaming rising to the forefront of entertainment, it puts a massive amount of pressure on Overwatch League players to perform at a high level. However, are these players given the emotional support they need to help the Overwatch League grow?
On March 17, 2018, the Overwatch League team LA Valiant released a behind-the-scenes video on YouTube discussing current roster changes. In the video, they comment on Brady “Agilities” Girardi being used as a scapegoat for the team’s lack of success. The video highlights many concerns regarding player treatment at the professional level; putting all the blame on one player, having an additional sister team that has no voice or play time, and giving Agilities an ultimatum that if he does not perform at the level they require, he will be removed from the roster.
Agilities is just 18 years old. In fact, most of the OWL roster are under 25. They are young, vulnerable people as well as guinea pigs for this new type of eSports media. Many of them come from abroad and are striving to adapt to a new language and culture as well as their Overwatch performance. Is it right to put gaming performance over nurturing the growth and emotional wellbeing of these players?
The LA Valiant are not the only team that struggles with morale. Dallas Fuel have suffered many losses, as well player bans for bad behaviour. Rather than working together as a team, they blame their individual play. The Shanghai Dragons are winless so far in the series and have taken to hiring a psychologist to overcome obstacles.
Most professional American football players train around 4 hours per day and are usually given at least one day off per week. OWL players play Overwatch for an average of 8 hours per day as required by their job. On top of that, many OWL players enjoy streaming on Twitch after hours, which includes more Overwatch play time. While playing video games does not take as much of a physical toll as football practice would, one can only imagine the mental exhaustion that would ensue from so much playing. Are the coaches and managers ensuring that players are getting enough free time from Overwatch to avoid burning out?
Another concerning layer to the stability of OWL players is the viewership on Twitch. A Twitch account is not required to watch OWL matches on the site. Twitch offers a chat feature during live streams, allowing fans to comment on plays or talk to the streamer. However, the anonymity that Twitch chat offers has led to it becoming synonymous with "trolling". This means that most OWL players face the threat of hate and harassment constantly for even the slightest mistakes. The fans can often be their biggest enemy, despite needing to keep them in order to enhance their careers. Houston Outlaws player “Jake” has already suffered from Twitch chat "trolling", admitting that it has taken its toll on him mentally.
Burning out is not new to eSports or any profession, but the fact that players are already experiencing burnout on a game that is just two years old signifies a problem. The only teams that do not seem to be suffering from burnout or mismanagement are the top two teams in the league. They are also the only teams with full South Korean rosters.
South Korean gaming culture is far more advanced than its American equivalent. It is considered popular and social. Good players are held in high regard and revered, taking on celebrity status. It is probable that with more experience in gaming on the professional level and the responsibilities that come with it, that the Koreans are better equipped to handle the trials of an up and coming Overwatch League. Should coaches and managers be looking to South Korea on how to improve the league?
The Overwatch League took a big risk on a new game to bring eSports to the centre stage. If the concerns with their players are not addressed, it may result in the downfall of the Overwatch League before it really begins.
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