The Overwatch League must take burnout seriously

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The Shanghai Dragons are still yet to win an Overwatch League game.

In response to some fan’s concerns about this record, their manager, Yang Van, released a statement on the subject – but it ended up being less than reassuring. He explained that the Dragons “have the most intensive training scheme among all the teams… Our daily schedule starts at 10:30am as we leave for training facilities and return to our houses around 10:30 to 11:00pm, with a possible training extension to 12:00am; we train six days a week with one day off.”

To get the obvious out of the way: it’s not working. What’s worse, the overwork is likely hurting – just as it’s hurting other Overwatch League teams.

The Dragons’ long days add up to at least 72 hours per week. It does include break and meal times, according to their off-tank Geguri, but doesn’t let up much even in the mid-season, when the team rested for only four of the ten days’ break.

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Though the team looks much improved since gaining new members before Stage Three, they continue to struggle overall. And Stage Four has added another wrench into the equation: the inclusion of newest hero Brigitte has made their favoured team composition much less effective.

Other teams have been adapting to this change with varying levels of success, but it’s clear that Shanghai is having a difficult time doing so. Part of the problem lies with the ongoing language barrier between the Chinese and Korean players. Fans and analysts alike have questioned, for example, why Geguri doesn’t play Zarya more often, a hero she was well known for before the League began and who is more suited to the current meta. In response, she explained “with Zarya you need to assess the situation and communicating that is hard.”

Cross-lingual understanding is something that the Dragons can practice (though it’s not clear whether these language lessons, beyond in-game call outs, are included in their long practice times). So is mechanical skill, strategy, and so forth. No one is saying that the team can’t improve, but their current schedule is very likely doing more harm than good.

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It’s clear that the rigour of the League is already having a serious impact on many of its players across a range of teams, despite having only been running for a few months. Several competitors have reported injuries, including the Dragons’ DPS player Ado. A few have also talked about mental health issues. The New York Excelsior’s Pine told fans that he missed games in Stage Two because he was “depressed due to a sudden increase in stress and panic disorder.” Taimou of Dallas Fuel was hospitalised and told by nurses he was probably experiencing the effects of extreme stress. Effect, from the same team, is currently on break in Korea after describing his severe anxiety on Twitter.

There hasn’t yet been much research into exactly how much practice makes perfect when it comes to esports, but we do know that too much can have serious negative effects. Professionals from other games are now beginning to speak out against overwork in the industry, like League of Legends player Rekkles. He told the British Esports Association, “in the beginning of my career, I didn’t value [downtime] at all. I just thought if I played 16 hours every day for a whole year, I’d be the best player. But I think these days that’s one of the worst things you can do.”

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This attitude is slowly making its way into the Overwatch League, too. The Houston Outlaws, who have been looking extremely strong recently, took a break in the mid-stage, and in an onstage interview DPS player Jake credited the rest as necessary for a “mental reset.”

Doctors also stress the importance of time off. Dr. Levi Harrison, a Los Angeles based hand surgeon, says that esports professionals are his second biggest client base after MMA fighters, and that breaks are key. “If you don’t rest, the body doesn’t have a chance to heal itself…the body doesn’t like [non-stop gaming], and there’s a price.”

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Esports might not seem as strenuous as the work of other athletes, but a study from the German Sports University suggests that some aspects are comparable. Players’ heart rates can reach 180 beats per minute, and they produce the same amount of the stress hormone cortisol as a race-car driver. And yet these researchers found that, unlike other athletes, esports players aren’t taking steps to dealing with that strain. “What isn’t happening is cycling the stress, in other words, building in breaks after periods of strain so that the athlete can recover and overcome fatigue during competition,” stated Professor Ingo Froböse.

Besides, athletes or not, there’s plenty of evidence that working for more than 40 hours per week is inherently counterproductive. This is something that has been studied across careers for a century, but is often discussed in the games industry itself. In a statement to the International Game Developers’ Association regarding crunch Evan Robinson summarised: “Productivity drops immediately upon starting overtime and continues to drop until, at approximately eight 60-hour weeks, the total work done is the same as what would have been done in eight 40-hour weeks.” This kind of overwork also often leads to less sleep, which can impair a person as much as drunkenness can. Not ideal for players whose skill is built in part on their reaction time.

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It does seem that some esports organisations are beginning to appreciate the balance needed by their players. The aforementioned Dallas Fuel has been taking steps including allowing players to visit home in the mid-season, and seeing a dedicated sports psychologist. Elsewhere, teams are beginning to spring up that put the wellbeing of their players front and centre, like the Heroes of the Storm team FemmeFerocity, whose core values include “mental health should be framed as the competitive advantage it is.”

Let’s just hope that the Shanghai Dragons will get on board with this necessary shift before they begin to lose more than just their games.

42 Comments

  1. MiniMatt says:

    Disheartening that the tech industry has point blank refused to learn the lessons of older industries. From equality to employment conditions, from coal-face coding to e-sports it seems tech is intent on making all the same mistakes as older industries.

    It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

    • Cederic says:

      It depends which part of the tech industry you’re looking at.

      I work with major international tech companies and they recognise the need for sustainable working. That seldom adds up to a 40 hour week but certainly drops far short of Seattle Hundreds.

      I know that I can hit 70-80 hours without losing productivity in a week. I also know that I can sustain 50-55 hours for months at a time. Any more than that and I burn out, my performance drops and my morale collapses.

      Too many people working in the tech industries are still learning their equivalent tolerance levels and personal performance curves. But although companies could do more to help, they’re generally far better than they were even 20 years ago.

      (The computer game industry is a separate beast entirely, and I do mean beast)

      • Ergates_Antius says:

        “I know that I can hit 70-80 hours without losing productivity in a week”
        You *think* you can.

        • teije says:

          I’ve run a fair-size dev shop for several years (30+ devs, plus QA etc.). In my experience, productivity drops pretty fast after a couple weeks of us working more than 50-55 hours/week. The code output may increase, but the quality goes way down because folks get tired and sloppy, ending up with shipping bad stuff out the door and lots of rework. Not sustainable or good for people or our customers, so we don’t do that. Once in a while, a very targeted push, but not as a rule – that way lies burnout. And your best people quitting.

          • Ergates_Antius says:

            Study after study shows the same thing – Productivity drops dramatically the further you go beyond a 40 hour week.

            Yet there are still so many people out there, people who are aware of these studies, who believe that somehow they’re the exception to the rule, that’s it’s just other people who are affected by this.

            The cognitive dissonance is strong in the tech world.

        • Cederic says:

          Those studies look at steady rate working, not one-offs.

          I stated “a week”.

          But hey, I don’t mind, you go ahead and tell me I don’t know how to work, don’t know how to measure my own productivity, don’t have any idea of my own effectiveness, don’t know what I’m talking about.

          I still wont believe you.

      • batraz says:

        Congrats, comrade Stakhanov !

      • DrollRemark says:

        Heh.

        I’m so grateful that I work in a tech job that almost never expects me to work over the standard 40 hours, and has a proper release schedule you accommodate it. We should be aiming to spend even less time at work, not more.

  2. Eightball says:

    They should look into getting a real job, or at least playing a real sport where you get some exercise. Regular exercise is a great tool for dealing with stress and anxiety.

    • Excors says:

      link to invenglobal.com – many of the teams and players already have physical exercise as part of their routine.

    • Xerophyte says:

      The players are contracted for at least a year with a minimum salary of $50 000. What more do you need for it to be a real job? We pay people who are good at various children’s games way more than that in other sports, after all, why would videogames be different?

      • mitrovarr says:

        This is a kind of messed up work schedule for someone who is only making entry-level educated professional money.

      • Rashism says:

        That’s a garbage salary for having to work 12+ hours a day 6 days a week. Sure, while some would say they play games all day, after 6 hours I can imagine the fun begins to fade. After months of it I bet it’s a chore one loathes.

        • Excors says:

          $50K is the minimum, the highest publicised salary is $150K. Plus free accommodation and food, health insurance, prize money, etc. And they only compete for 7 months of the year – presumably the other 5 months will have a much lighter workload. Doesn’t seem that bad for an 18-year-old with no formal qualifications.

          • Rashism says:

            With health benefits: You make a solid point.

          • mitrovarr says:

            They’re also not getting any kind of useful experience or education. It would look good at 18, but you really wouldn’t want to do it long.

          • Horg says:

            ”They’re also not getting any kind of useful experience or education.”

            Well no argument about education, they would have to study in their own time, but don’t count out the experience of a stressful, competitive, results driven team based environment. There’s plenty of transferable skills in the job if you frame your attributes in a positive way, and the e-sports background is still fairly unique, which can be a positive when trying to get noticed. They’re also the visible representatives of a corporate brand, so if they keep their image clean that will be a valuable self promotion.

        • Xerophyte says:

          Oh, I’m not saying the pay isn’t pretty shit. It certainly is by LA standards for players making the minimum (I don’t know how many do). I am saying it’s a real job by any reasonable definition of the word. They’re contracted and salaried employees.

      • Eightball says:

        >We pay people who are good at various children’s games way more than that in other sports

        What?

      • batraz says:

        For it to become a real job, it should become a meaningful activity ; but a game that you play not to play, but to earn your living, is everything but meaningful. Glorified slaves.

    • Artist says:

      Wow, so much wisdom. Let me guess you read that as a calendar motto, right?

    • Viral Frog says:

      Considering that being a pro-eSports player requires some level of physical exertion (as is blatantly apparent from this article), and the fact that eSports require and individual or team to compete against another for entertainment, this shows that eSports are, in fact, “a real sport”.

      As someone who has played “a real sport”, I can guarantee you that regular exercise is going to a significant amount of stress and anxiety when it’s done in the name of competition.

  3. jakonovski says:

    Given that sports science is actually that, a science, these Overwatch training regimes are pure quackery.

  4. Viral Frog says:

    It just blows my mind how people can possibly think overworking themselves is productive in anyway. It’s well known that working yourself beyond 40 hours a week is guaranteed to reduce your productivity and, eventually, will cause negative productivity. What do they think they’re gaining by pushing themselves far beyond what the human body is capable of? No wonder these guys aren’t winning any games.

    • shde2e says:

      Most of these guys are pretty young, and probably haven’t had a full-time job that they can make a career in before. Let alone one in such a high-pressure environment. They may genuinely not know any better.

      And even then, they probably feel a strong desire to compete, not let the team down and push themselves to their limit. It seems like a logical idea that more work means more results.

      • Excors says:

        Also many of them are Korean, where long working hours are common in regular jobs, and they bring that culture with them. There are plenty of reports from OWL teams with a mix of Korean and Western players that the Koreans are encouraging the team to work harder and longer, and the Western players don’t want to slack off and let them down, and don’t want to lose their spot in the team by being seen as lazy, so the culture perpetuates. Koreans aren’t dominant in OWL but they are doing pretty well (the all-Korean teams are 1st, 3rd and 7th out of 12, and I think every team has at least one Korean player now), so it seems like a decent approach in terms of results, even if it’s bad for the long-term health of the players.

    • Deano2099 says:

      How much is “actual work” though – in this case playing the game? I would assume it’s a training schedule rather than straight up game practice, so while they’re doing 12 hours days, that includes some physical exercise and teamwork/bonding stuff? I could be wrong but that would seem sensible..

  5. CheeseFarts says:

    Fuckin Idiots. Chill, have fun, and bugger whatever u prefer. Then play. Works wonders.

  6. DragonOfDarknessFlame says:

    I’d be burned out too if I only played one game all the time. BORING! But props to them for getting payed to play video games

  7. LewdPenguin says:

    Hardly surprising at least some teams are taking this sort of approach and giving zero fucks about their players, after all there’s a pretty large supply of extremely good (if not all quite absolute top world class) players queueing up at their door for a chance to get in, so they can afford to continually burn through them, dump and replace as needed.
    At least until the merch income drops too low from the continual poor performance/extreme bad press, Blizz intervene and tell them to stop being complete bastards (as if they give a fuck, they got their cash from the teams upfront with the buy in) or players stop signing up for the treatment they have little reason to change if all they want to do try to do is recover that buy in cost and get to profits.

  8. DeadlyAccurate says:

    I play Overwatch almost every day, but around the two-hour mark I start to feel tired. Last weekend I decided to do all my placement matches in one sitting. Took about 3 1/2 hours. By the time I finished, I was so very tired of playing.

    72 hours a week is too much. The eye strain, the mental fatigue, the repetitive stress injuries become exponentially greater the longer you play. I bet fewer hours would actually make them play better.

    • Excors says:

      There are streamers who choose to play Overwatch for maybe 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, for over a year, and can maintain top 500 ranks. And they’re playing the game constantly, whereas OWL players likely spend a lot of their working hours on reviewing videos, discussing strategies, eating, travelling, doing PR stuff, etc. I don’t know whether it comes from practice or some innate ability, but some people can play that much without getting exhausted and without losing all enthusiasm.

  9. racccoon says:

    I suffered from over gaming many years ago.
    It can put you in hospital at any age and the fear of Embolisms can happen to anyone who sits for long period of time not just air flights.. link to en.wikipedia.org
    It happened to me playing games for very long periods of time! I had 4 blood clots trapped in my lungs and this stopped me from breathing normally. If it weren’t for the hospital finding them. I would of been dead ten or so years ago.
    I still play games everyday but I have a much better understanding with caution, movement comes over a games draw. Once you realise that a game does not require you to sit your life away you can become a healthy gamer who can enjoy his/her hobby without stupidity of staying in one spot for overkill hours of game play.
    Its not a competition to stay in game the longest it will kill you.
    So please have breaks, exercise and keep active by getting up hourly.
    Do not do stints I did ten or so years ago, my record was 36hrs straight back then without getting up. That sent me to hospital. I am the lucky one who was saved.
    No game play or money you make is worth your life.
    So stay active.

  10. poliovaccine says:

    All I know is, if genuine stress is happening, you are doing games wrong.

    To be fair, I think this is sort of a flaw of much of Asian culture in general. Westerners are ignorant in many respects, but the west does certainly understand the value of “work hard, play hard.” That, and “All work and no play makes Homer.. something something.”

    “Go crazy?”

    “Don’t mind if I do!”

    • Nevard says:

      I wish that were true but exploitative, horrible unhealthy working hours are alive and well in the West.
      Regularly defended or cried for by gamers, even.

  11. Phasma Felis says:

    It’s fascinating to me how passionately and efficiently the pro gaming scene turns fun into a grueling slog.

  12. Kasjer says:

    Comparing e-Sports to “real” sports is a little misguiding. No athlete can train heavily for prolonged period of times – it does put way too great strain on their bodies and there is a physical limit before muscle fatigue and then, damage to muscles fibres on micro scale, kicks in. Periods of regeneration are as important as smartly designed training regime and diet.

    e-Sports don’t put the same type of strain on people’s bodies. It is much closer to stressful office job in terms of potential health risks than to any sport. Athlete is not at major risk of developing obesity, diabetes, arrhythmia, skeletal deformation and so on – e-Sport player is.

    Closest thing to eSports we have in “old world” of sports are chess and go. Players of both games do not “train” 12 hours per day, six days a week. They keep their bodies and minds well rested, so they can be pinpoint sharp when it comes to playing a game. Overworking kills creativity.

    It seems that in e-Sports world, players and team managers often think that you can forge anyone in to a champion given enough training. Thing is, you cannot fake talent. You can hone skills of mediocre ones, so they’ll be competitive, but best players will always be the ones with talent. No amount of training can overcome this.

    I want to also drop my few cents regarding “e-Sports is not a job”. Of course it is. But it’s an entry level job, with annual salaries that top at what qualified specialist at entry positions in their respective industries gain. Like with working at fast food, no one should drop out of school and stop pursuing acquiring higher education because of e-Sports.

    Similar thing happened in action sports – snowboarding, skateboarding, rollerblading and so on – there was a bubble of popularity, kids were given money for doing tricks, competing, touring, partying. Kids who thought it will last for a lifetime were spending their money on all types of unnecessary things and ended up without a job and qualifications after bubble has bursted. They now work at shitty jobs and struggle to make a living. There are plenty of former “pro-” who ended up as junkies addicted to drugs and alcohol. Smart ones (or with smart parents) saved money, dropped out of sport while they were in their 20’s and got a proper education or specialised in a job that is well paid and have future (for example, there are former pro-rollerbladers who are camera operators noe and shot dynamic scenes on skates).

    e-Sports may be a job, but it’s a dead end job. At least for now.

  13. GeoX says:

    Must it?

  14. Killy_V says:

    Overwatch/Overwork/Overtime…

    I’m in a situation at work where myself I’m at my limit mentally, after a two months period of constant overwork and a final very tiring one week oversea trip for work. I’m gonna pull the plug and drasticcaly reduce my working time at work for a few weeks now, otherwise I’m gonna burn out. I was in this situation a few years ago, and my health started to deteriorate.

    If ever you’re in this overtime/overwork situation for a first time, please think about it.

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