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A Growing Frontier: Competitive Gaming and Mental Health (By: Nick Vincent)

In February I had excitedly purchased plane tickets to Ottawa, Canada to visit family. The main objective for the trip to our northern neighbor was to witness the high school graduation of my twin nephews. Sadly, I had to call and let them know I would not be able to attend now due to travel restrictions placed upon as a response to Covid-19 pandemic. Upon sharing the news with my sister, I asked to speak with my nephews to catch up and let them know more directly. My sister retorted back “we might need to call you back- the boys are just attached to their video games like bugs caught in a spider web. Since being at home, they have been more than happy to spend their time playing video games with each other and their friends.” When I did finally speak with them, I was curious to learn more about their gaming habits. The excitement in their voices when discussing playing Call of Duty, Fortnite, Overwatch, and sporting games added to my already emerging interest in the world of gaming but also to the recognition that in this climate of being quarantined, playing video games is likely to grow more and more as it is one of the safer activities to do collectively with people. Furthermore, with professional sports having to be shut down worldwide, competitive gaming, also known as ‘Esports’, for Electronic Sports, will undoubtedly benefit from this. With that understanding in mind, it is important to make the connection for the need and establishment of carrying trained professional social workers who can properly care for the Esport athletes who have and are continuing to suffer from various mental health issues due to their sport.

In the fall of 2018, in Arlington, Texas, near the location of the Dallas Cowboys, one of the most valuable and popular sports franchises in the world, was the completion of ‘Esports Stadium Arlington’ a purpose-built eSports venue that will offer an immersive spectator experience in the live eSports event market. The estimated cost of the stadium was at about $10 million dollars.[1] Competitive gaming is the fastest growing spectator sport in the country. This is in part because playing video games is one of the most popular hobbies across the globe. The immense popularity of playing video games as a hobby has culminated in creating professional leagues and tournaments seen by millions of people that have transported it into a global sport. According to Newzoo, a market tracking company, 427 million people will be watching esports by the end 2019 and will reach a global audience of 1.1 billion by 2021.[2] Esports gaming is still in its early stages. The emerging sport is having to navigate how to handle the increasing mental health concerns that are rising within the athletes, which the majority tends to be teenage boys.

The prior “training” typical of an amateur video gamer meant spending time on their own or with friends playing without the sense of anyone else. And just to have fun. Once turned into a professional, during their formative teenage years no less, these players are now receiving big-name corporate sponsorships, talking to the press, interacting with newly devoted fans, and doing this for a full-time job. It becomes an atypical new life. Add to that, the immense pressure to win which can be daunting and adversely add negative effects to a young mind’s mental, emotional, and even physical well-being. The World Health Organization (WHO), in the spring of 2019, officially voted to adopt the latest edition of its International Classification of Diseases (ICD), to include an entry on "gaming disorder" as a behavioral addiction.[3] This news has been a major step in viewing the drawback and knowledge of what excessive playing with video games can cause on a person’s mental health. Professional esports players and leagues earned more than $900 million in 2018, and esports is drawing millions of dollars in corporate sponsorships.[4] There are no signs of popularity slowing down. And no signs of pressure to succeed decreasing.

Competitive Gaming is very much in its infancy. The understanding of the mental health concerns is just beginning to be illuminated. However, there are actions that can be taken so as not to be behind in taking care of the health concerns of these “new athletes”. This is why it is important to have professionally trained social workers serve as vital team members within the world of esports gaming. In leagues with teams, a social worker should be on staff for each team to serve the needs of the players and coaches. Across the United States, colleges, universities, and high schools are adding esport teams at a rapid rate. Athletic Departments in these institutions should implement a social worker(s) on staff. A qualified trained social worker can provide a plan of services that include baseline testing of addiction, clinical evaluations, and offer counseling services as well as mental health assessments. These services would be shared with athletes and coaches alike. The resources provided can assist with academic performance and social behaviors and should be presented in a way that does not bombard the players with too many evaluations or tests but offers a realistic time frame and an explanation of how these tests can benefit them. Social Workers and coaches can build working relationships geared towards being adept at noticing patterns of unhealthy behavior commonly found with esport athletes. The goal being to integrate healthy habits for individuals while being considerate of the demands needed to improve upon the skills of esport athletes.

Competitive gaming will continue to grow in popularity, monetary funds, and stature. And with Covid-19 essentially adding more reason to stay indoors and play, there is no reason to think it will not grow more than may have even been originally anticipated. Linking with the growth of esports will be further health concerns that have already begun to materialize but are still unknown or not openly acknowledged throughout the gaming community. Academic institutions, Gaming governing bodies, the leagues across the world, and teams are expected to want this industry to continue to grow.

It is then up to these organizations and institutions to ensure that the athletes, coaches, staff and even parents, are regulating proper health management strategies to all involved. Having trained social workers who can care, guide, and educate this new frontier will only benefit the sport as it begins to head in new directions.

[1] Malone, David. The Largest Esports Stadium in North America Opens in Arlington, TX. November 2018. Accessed May 5, 2020. [2] Buijsman M , 2018. Rainbow six: siege esports hours on twitch quadrupled compared to last year. Available from: Accessed May 5, 2020. [3] WHO, 2018. Gaming disorder. Available from: Accessed May 5, 2020. [4] Ingraham, Christopher , “The Massive Popularity of Esports, in charts,” The Washington Post, Aug. 27, 2018, A journalist offers a graphic look at the growth in esports events and prize money. Accessed May 5, 2020.

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