Hold On!

Hold Up

Please select a minimum of three sectors in the menu above.

Got It
  • What causes esports stars to struggle on stage?
  • What causes esports stars to struggle on stage?
    Anthony Brolin (2019) ©

Don’t crack! The science of performance stress

Competitive sports are mentally gruelling, with the pressure to succeed often impacting performance – and esports are no exception. Canvas8 spoke to Dr. Phil Birch, a senior lecturer in sport and exercise psychology, to understand the coping mechanisms employed by elite esports players.

Location Global

The first-ever Fortnite World Cup took place at New York’s Arthur Ashe Stadium in July 2019, attracting an audience of over 2.3 million viewers on Twitch and YouTube, all of whom tuned in to watch 100 finalists compete for a share of a $30 million prize pot. Over three days, the event recorded nearly 82 million hours of viewership – further proof of how video games, and esports in particular, have moved from the margins of mainstream culture to occupy a central space. Indeed, analytics company Newzoo projects that global spending on gaming is set to hit $196 billion by 2022.

Although esports represent a small fraction of this burgeoning market – the segment is set to be worth a comparatively small $1.79 billion in 2022 – competitive gaming is quickly being legitimised, with more than 120 American colleges funding varsity esports programs, universities offering degrees on the subject, and dedicated stadiums popping up around the world. What’s more, experts are beginning to study the causes and effects of stress on these elite athletes.

Research co-authored by Dr. Phil Birch, a senior lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at the University of Chichester, has examined the psychological challenges that esports professionals endure at major tournaments. By interviewing players, he and his fellow researchers uncovered 51 stress factors, many of which mirror the mental conditions experienced by physical athletes. Canvas8 spoke to Dr. Birch to understand the coping mechanisms these individuals use to deal with the pressure of high-performance gaming.


Why is this topic important to understand?
Previous research has taught us a lot about how pressure impacts athletes’ performance. But there is a limited amount of information on athletes in esports – how do they cope with these stressors? We wanted to understand the psychology behind why esports athletes get stressed so that employers can help them reach their peak. And with the popularity of esports increasing dramatically, this is important to understand.

This is a new and emerging field, so we’re trying to help answer questions like: how can we get somebody in their given domain to perform at their optimum level while on a stage in front of thousands of people? How can we prepare somebody to better communicate with team members in high-stress scenarios? What strategies can we put in place as practitioners to help esports athletes? These are all important factors in learning more about this new industry and how to help its competitors.

Pressures abound for players out of the controlled home environment
Pressures abound for players out of the controlled home environment
Stem List (2019) ©

How did you go about conducting your study?
We wanted to find out what the main stressors for esports athletes are. From observational studies, we had a rough idea of what situations are stressful, but we wanted to get to grips with the true experiences of esports athletes. For example, what type of coping strategies do they use and how do they translate these from practice into high-pressure performance situations?

To do this, we recruited top-level esports athletes from gaming events and conducted qualitative interviews with them. We spoke to them about what they find challenging – performance-wise, technically speaking, or emotionally – and analysed their answers. In esports, a lot of elite players actually live together in a house that’s paid for by their sponsors. So, we were also interested in asking about these group dynamics and the challenges with that. For instance, do they get along with their teammates outside of esports and how does that impact their teamwork in-game?

Stress management is often a bigger factor than skill in sporting success
Stress management is often a bigger factor than skill in sporting success
Stem List (2019) ©

What were your key findings?
The study had two main findings. The first is that we identified 51 different stressors that esports athletes face and grouped them into internal and external stressors. The internal stressors related to team communication, criticism from teammates, a lack of team goals, poor life balance, and lifestyle impacts. The external stressors included scrutiny and criticism from the opposition or on social media, and event issues such as the audience, media interviews, and logistics.

The main takeaway was that communication is very important and if it’s hindered in any way, that can deter performance. This is not only specific to esports, but is likely to be true of any team sport or sphere of work when performing in high-pressure environments. The second main finding of the study was that esports stars experience a high level of stress when performing in front of live audiences. Understanding how to deal with that stress and getting used to that pressure is very important for performance levels.

Another finding was around effective coping strategies. One of the areas we looked into was pre-performance routines. To create a beneficial routine, we need to know what the specific things are that athletes find difficult, and one issue that is prevalent in esports is performing on stage in front of big crowds. In 2014, more than 45,000 fans crowded into Seoul’s World Cup Stadium to watch the League of Legends World Championship. How do athletes deal with that? We found that some athletes use breathing techniques and count to ten when things are going against them, enabling them to not only be better prepared mentally and physically for an event, but also helping them to react if things are not going their way.

An estimated 443 million people streamed esports coverage in 2019
An estimated 443 million people streamed esports coverage in 2019
Anthony Brolin (2019) ©

Insights and opportunities

  • For a growing number of people, gaming is not simply a hobby – it’s big business. Full-time streamers are building a career out of their communities, and as esports audiences have grown (reaching an estimated 443 million people globally in 2019), lucrative sponsorship deals and developer prize funds have enabled professional gamers to earn major pay-outs. Some savvy parents are now employing coaches for their aspiring gamer children, with Fortnite coaches reportedly earning up to $50 an hour. But as prize pots grow bigger, top esports players are pushing themselves to work as many as 80 hours a week, causing some to experience burnout and retire by their mid-20s.
  • In 2018, the World Health Organization classified gaming addiction as a mental health disorder, marking a significant shift in acknowledging how this leisure pursuit can negatively impact wellbeing. But unlike in more traditional sports – like football, where players are seeking mental health help in record numbers – esports lack the same level of support for professionals, despite high-profile individuals suffering panic attacks on stage. Players are even being criticised for not being strong enough mentally – South Korean League of Legends player Kim ‘Olleh’ Joo-sung had to pull out of a tournament for not being in the right frame of mind to play. While brands are starting to occupy more of a supporting role in this space within traditional sports – for instance, the Heads Up campaign from the English FA promotes mental fitness alongside physical fitness – there’s a strong desire for this to evolve into the esports arena.
  • The esports industry faces a significant gender imbalance. Out of 100 contestants at the first Fortnite World Cup, not one was a woman, even though 27% of the game’s 250 million players are female. When looking at the pressures of competitive environments, however, experiences can differ for men compared to women. For example, research finds that female esports athletes suffer a greater degree of sexual harassment from spectators than their male counterparts. Brands are responding by providing dedicated support and sponsorship for female gamers. Gen.G created a women-only esports team sponsored by Bumble, while Callisto, the first women-only esports organisation in Southeast Asia, generated $500,000 in seed funding.
  • Although Dr. Birch’s research found that high-performance gaming can induce stress in many ways, gaming also has the potential to benefit people’s social and emotional health. According to a survey conducted by The Washington Post and the University of Massachusetts Lowell,companionship is a significant motivator to play video games, with nearly half of respondents aged 14-21 saying they’ve made a friend through a game. With 46% of Americans claiming to feel alone sometimes or always, the potential for gaming to tackle isolation is huge and it’s something that Danish developer BetaDwarf has realised. It’s developing a game that blends social mechanics from different genres with the aim of building ‘intimate friendships between players via data-driven bonding’.

Featured Experts

Dr. Phil Birch

Dr. Phil Birch is a senior lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at the University of Chichester. His research expertise is in performance psychology and he teaches across a range of degree programmes.