The Trials And Tribulations Of Being An Overwatch Pro
Unaware that the Overwatch League’s main camera was broadcasting him live to audiences watching around the world, London Spitfire player Joon-yeong “Profit” Park–one of the team’s big stars–looked straight into the camera and threw up the middle finger, with a cheeky smile to boot. He wasn’t flipping off viewers; he flipped the bird to his team watching from Blizzard Arena’s dugout area. Profit later
Los Angeles Valiant team manager Mike Schwartz said most players on the team are embracing life in the public eye, with support from the Immortals staff. According to Schwartz, Los Angeles Valiant is “proactive” in preparing its players for both the pressures and benefits of being a public figure, setting up scenarios where players can succeed not only in Overwatch, but in life.
“It’s just about making sure that the players know how to answer questions and be their honest, true selves,” Neale said. “But not to a point where they’re giving away the farm and unveiling their deepest, darkest secrets. It’s a really unique atmosphere to have to manage and it’s constantly evolving.”
Players in the Overwatch League are still learning to live as internet celebrities–and that comes with conflict. A number of players were suspended and fined in the inaugural season because of bad behavior, including boosting, an act where a player helps artificially inflate another’s skill level, and trolling in game. Eight players have been fined so far in the Overwatch League’s 2019 season, preceded by plenty more in the first.
One the more severe infractions was when Los Angeles Gladiators streamer Félix “xQc” Lengyel was dropped from his former team, Dallas Fuel after being suspended and fined multiple times for his actions while streaming–which included using a homophobic remark and “racially disparaging” emotes. These are actions go beyond just a struggle to adjust to public life.
Elsewhere, Overwatch League players have been punished further for infractions well beyond adjustment problems. Former Boston Uprising player Jonathan “DreamKazper” Sanchez was dropped from the team for allegedly abusing his status as a player in the league to take advantage of an underage fan. DreamKazper’s actions can’t be considered a gaffe triggered by life in the spotlight; instead, it’s a player directly using his newfound power and fame in a predatory way to exploit his fans.
For the struggle of life in the spotlight, Atlanta Reign support player Dusttin “Dogman” Bowerman told GameSpot that some of the stress of the Overwatch League is mitigated by just turning off social media. “It’s a lot easier to turn my brain off when it comes to social media and focus more on the game and controllable factors, rather than social media,” Dogman said. “It’s easy to let that impact you.”
Fellow Atlanta Reign support Steven “Kodak” Rosenberger agreed: “I have to take a lot of care about what I do and write on social media,” he explained. “Everybody is looking at Overwatch League players and keep judging them, but I guess that’s normal once you hit the highest stage in a profession.”
Stress has unique ways of being expressed–it’s different for everyone. In the Overwatch League’s inaugural season, we saw players and staff burnout. Multiple players and coaches have spoken out about it. Florida Mayhem coach Vytis “Mineral” Lasaitis took time off during the season to address burnout. New York Excelsior DPS Kim “Pine” Do-hyeon cited an anxiety disorder for his mid-season break.
“The biggest challenge is not letting the stress break you,” Houston Outlaws general manager Matt Rodriguez said. “People talk about ‘gamer moments,’ but they do happen, especially to people under extreme stress [or] not thinking straight. I think when a player snaps or says something they regret, it can haunt them. Trying to keep your cool all the time to avoid any bad press or media is definitely a challenge, and there is a lot of pressure to make the right decisions and represent yourself well in all situations.”
No player is immune to the emotion and stress of competition; even the most composed of players have their moments. Take, for instance, Houston Outlaws’ Jake Lyon, often seen as a face of the league. The Overwatch League’s camera crew cut to Jake after a particularly rough map loss against league titans New York Excelsior. Jake is visibly upset–with a balled up fist and his head in his hand–before he slams the desk. It’s a rare scene of emotion from one of the more stoic players in the league. Fan response was mixed. Some were worried about Jake. Others liked seeing raw, authentic emotion.
“Thanks to everyone who reached out to offer me support,” Jake wrote on Twitter after the match. “I’m doing fine, just had an emotional response to a rough series. Luckily, I have great teammates around to pick me up when I’m down.”
It’s not only what players expect out of themselves that cause these outbursts of emotion. Outside pressure, perceived or real, seeps in. Sometimes it’s an “angry dude out there ready to shit talk you after every loss or to tell you to quit the team because you’re the reason they failed,” according to Rodriguez. Other times, it’s more subtle. It’s internalizing what others are telling you–a lot of unseen emotional labor that’s often ignored when the real work of the job is written off.
Dr. Abidin said viewers or followers don’t always remember about players is that there is real work “beyond the fun and frivolity of their craft,” even beyond the labor of managing emotions. There’s also, then, the push-and-pull of competition vs. corporation. “Teams are interested in cultivating their talent not just as elite players, but, in essence, influencers, whose popularity can ultimately be monetized on behalf of team owners,” Partin added.
Partin said that it’s not necessarily good or bad, but just something that needs to be acknowledged: “Do you invest time and resources into self-branding, or do you just focus on practice? Which one is more valuable? Or what’s the right balance?”
Creating a stable infrastructure for players is essential in adapting to newfound celebrity and stress of the job. Without it, teams will only see more and more players racking up demerits on the Overwatch League’s discipline tracker, which was introduced in December as a way to name-and-shame players that have been punished for bad behavior.
Each organization has a different way of helping their players adjust. Seoul Dynasty operations manager Annie Cho explained that the team provides a safe environment for players to be open about their emotions, approaching each player’s needs individually. Dallas Fuel’s Taylor said a core part of the structure is creating future stability–setting players up for long-term success. Some teams have private chefs, a way to alleviate some of the stress of life outside the game. Teams have psychologists, trainers, and mentors, resources becoming increasingly common in esports organizations involved in other games, too.
“Our coaches are very understanding,” Dogman added. “Generally, we work things out as a team. A lot of it is internal [things] that we really work on together.”
Many players have spoken about how surreal it is to have fans, people who recognize them on the street. People who support them unconditionally. It’s exciting, and many players are thriving in that environment. Los Angeles Valiant, in particular, created a community-like fanbase–it helps that Blizzard Arena is based in the team’s home city–that’s built around the team. The roster has held everything from fan meet-and-greets at the Immortals campus to a Valiant fan-art showcase.
Seoul Dynasty players Jehong “ryujehong” Ryu and Byung-sun “Fleta” Kim’s lives have “drastically” changed since joining the Overwatch League, and not just because they’ve moved to Los Angeles from South Korea. “I really didn’t feel like I was a celebrity in [Overwatch] Apex,” Fleta said. “But once I joined Seoul Dynasty, even before the league started, it felt like people noticed me more. Now that’s been tremendously increased.”
Kodak added: “You can inspire a lot of fans and people who look up to you by being a good person and not doing the wrong thing, [by] showing them that everything is possible if you just try hard.” A few Los Angeles Valiant players are reveling in it, too: “[The players] just really appreciate these people coming up to them and telling them how awesome they are,” Neale said. “Who wouldn’t, really?”