This course dives into the process behind burnout and how it can be prevented / managed in esports.
Brett Becker MS, OTR/L, ACE-CPT is an Occupational Therapist and an American Council on Exercise (ACE) personal trainer where he has history working with traditional athletes. His traditional sports experience includes football, baseball, basketball, tennis, golf, disc golf, volleyball, and wrestling. His undergraduate degree comes from the University of Northern Iowa in Psychology with a strong interest in sports psychology. Following undergrad he went on to earn his Masters in Occupational Therapy at Allen College where he now resides in Minneapolis, MN working as an Occupational/Hand therapist. He has been involved with multiple esports performance initiatives and education programs.
What Will You Learn?
- What is Burnout?
- Why Does Burnout Happen?
- What are Signs of Burnout?
- How Can Burnout be Prevented?
- Interventions for Burnout
Burnout is a state caused by chronic stress and both physiological and psychological demands. It results in decreased levels of enjoyment, performance, and motivation leading to depersonalization, fatigue, and decreased personal accomplishment. This can be seen in sports and workplaces across a variety of fields. Though there is no clear research which demonstrates the effect of burnout in esports, it can be assumed that just like traditional sport athletes and workers, esport athletes would experience similar levels of burnout.
Esport athletes work and train long hours to perfect their craft. When athletes are not successful in a task that they give their all on, they may feel discouraged or defeated. Oftentimes, these gamers have formed a component of their identity around gaming and excelling, and though it is something that they likely enjoy, factors that negatively impact performance can lead to doubt and lack of enjoyment.
Burnout has a negative impact on several different areas, all of which can be detrimental to both team-based and individual-based esport competitors. Burnout enhances stress and anxiety while also putting the individual at an increased risk for sleep disturbance, fatigue, musculoskeletal pain, and depression. If proper measures are not taken and good coping mechanisms are not established, this can lead to maladaptive behaviors which further negatively impact the team or individual. Burnout that is ignored or left untreated may negatively impact social connections leading to interpersonal conflict and social isolation at a time when individuals are even more in need of support..
Think of burnout as a health bar. When we are thoroughly enjoying the game because it is fresh, new, or even just had a new major update adding in new maps, characters, guns, cars, missions, etc., then our bar is filled. When we have been playing a game for a prolonged period of time and have found little to no success in it, then our bar is low. Enjoyment is one thing, but success is another. Esport athletes are used to being successful and as their success grows, so does their competition. This lack of success with increased pressure is where burnout can set in.
Burnout can happen in a variety of contexts, including when something that was once seen as fun and entertaining now becomes more of a burden and a strain on someone’s life. At times, it can be hard to recognize the progression towards burnout, given the number of factors in play.
In esports, one of the most common factors impacting burnout risk is competitive performance. When players and teams are not performing well, but there is insufficient motivation or pressure to improve, it’s hard to break out of the rut. This makes a game feel boring. On the inverse, when pressure becomes overbearing and you or your team are not performing well, burnout risk is high due to the imbalance of stress and reward. The bell curve demonstrates that the vast majority of successful individuals fall in the middle: having moderate success and moderate pressure to perform well, allowing them to maintain their overall enjoyment and their sense of accomplishment.
The red zones are places where a smaller number of gamers fall, and they both have one thing in common: poor performance. This is a general sign of burnout, though it is not to say that successful individuals cannot experience burnout. While it is understood well that burnout causes poor performance, there’s less conclusive data as to whether poor performance causes burnout. In a study by Kwon and colleagues (2022), individuals who focus on perfection with little measure of their performance face higher levels of burnout as this increases stress and lowers motivation. Pressure is the other variable on the graph and is often confounded by player perception. Not all gamers experience pressure the same way, and knowledge of an individual is important to addressing factors leading to burnout.
A 2007 study out of Sweden looked at 980 (402 females and 578 males) high school athletes representing 29 different sports to determine the prevalence of burnout in a population of adolescent elite athletes. Researchers determined that between 2-6% of the male athletes and between 1-9% of the female athletes experienced symptoms of high levels of burnout. Interestingly, training load was not correlated with elevated burnout in athletes, which is a common assumption. Another finding to note is that male athletes experienced greater rates of burnout in team-based athletics as opposed to individual-based (Gustafsson et al., 2007). A more recent article by Gustafsson and colleagues also determined that fear of failure was correlated with increased burnout (2017).
Authors in a separate study discussed three main signs which should be monitored in helping to detect burnout within an athlete:
Exhaustion:the feeling of being depleted of oneʼs emotional and physical resources
Cynicism:a negative, hostile, or excessively detached response to the job
Professional efficacy: an emphasis on effectiveness and competence
These are all things which should be monitored and addressed as indicators of burnout are observed (Maslach, Jackson, & Leiter, 1996; Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001). Expert consensus also indicates that the more motivated an individual is to succeed, the greater the risk is for burnout.
Think of it like this: if you are not motivated to win or do your best work, then you likely already do not care as much about an outcome. When you are extremely motivated but still coming up short with your goals, you have much more of the investment of your identity, time, and effort lost. It’s not unreasonable to assume that most if not all top level esports coaches and players are extremely motivated to succeed, between external drivers such as compensation and social support as well as the internal drive to succeed. Motivation is a key factor in performance, one which will be further addressed in a future article here.
Preventing burnout is a challenge in itself, as in order to be the best players often think that they have to play, practice, or “grind” for long hours. This is where it is extremely important to understand the signs of burnout so that support staff can better plan and work around this.
Training load may not be associated with burnout in traditional sport athletes in adolescents as discussed above, but this should still be navigated with caution. A key area that is different between adolescent athletes and esport gamers is their incentive or motivation to participate. Research suggests that when athletes have strong intrinsic motivation (motivation from within) they are less likely to experience burnout. When extrinsic motivation is high (motivation from an outside source, such as money/prizes) they are more likely to experience burnout. This is not to say that esport athletes are only motivated by external factors because that is simply not the case, but certainly this could play a role. Additionally, esport athletes have heightened stress and pressure put on them as millions would like to be where they are at in their career. Traditional sports are based more on physical fatigue than mental which is easier for an outsider to observe and limit training. Esport athletes on the other hand experience more mental fatigue which can be much harder to observe and monitor, but should be taken with the same caution.
As adults there are a variety of other stressors in life which can all take up time and energy. For many gamers, the first experience they have as “professionals” with responsibilities (to their team, to their career, etc.) is around the age where there is a transition from being a “kid” to an “adult.” This leads to changes in roles, relationships, identity, and the onset of the realization of having to be financially conscious, career focused, and more independent. These confounding factors may also influence burnout in esports players.
For coaches, one of the easiest interventions is to promote and allow time for breaks–not just during practices, but also throughout the longer competitive year. Professional players will occasionally get criticized from fans who feel that they shouldn’t be playing any other game, but the one they are a professional in. Though they are well intentioned in their beliefs, they fail to lack the understanding of burnout and the impact that this can negatively have on their performance for the game they do play professionally.
Both traditional and esports athletes generally structure their life around the game they compete in, meaning they live and breathe that game for months or even years on end. However, time away from the game engaging in related or entirely novel activities is essential, as these allow players to generalize their skillset, learn new skills, reduce competitive stress, and reset their mental focus in order to prepare for the upcoming season. There are multiple studies reporting a decreased chance of injury with athletes who engage in multiple sports vs just one sport that they specialize in. When engaged in a variety of different sports or video games the individual will use different muscles to perform the task. This allows for a more well rounded conditioning of the muscles as opposed to only using the same muscles for one sport which can get overused with time therefore causing injury (Bell et al., 2018).
In a systematic review researchers looked at sport specialized athletes vs sport sampler athletes (athletes participating in more than one sport) and found the athletes who are involved in just one sport experienced higher levels of burnout, decreased sense of accomplishment, greater levels of exhaustion, and sport devaluation. This study demonstrates the importance of allowing and even promoting gamers to switch it up from time to time (Giusti et al., 2020).
In a systematic review by Xu and colleagues, 14 studies were looked at to determine what the best interventions are for reducing the effects of work related stress and burnout in emergency department staff. Emergency department staff are prone to burnout due to the long hours of work in a highly stressful job all while working with inconsistent sleep schedules. Though gamers may not experience the level of stress healthcare staff may face, there is without question stress when you are playing to perform well and ultimately keep your job all while the best players in the world are constantly trying to take the job from you. On top of that, the sleep schedules of split-schedule emergency department staff aren’t all that different from the non-traditional sleep schedules of esports players, and sleep is a well-known factor impacting burnout risk
The review went on to look at six educational-style interventions, four mindfulness-based interventions, and four organizational-directed interventions that incorporated a variety of strategies. Tools included in measuring outcomes for these studies consisted of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the Perceived Stress Scale, and the Professional Quality of Life Scale. The results of this study show that educational interventions reported a statistically significant reduction in both stress and/or burnout. Mindfulness based strategies were also used and determined to be effective in reducing stress levels in 75% of the studies. These findings regarding mindfulness were also substantiated within a meta analyst done in 2019 by Li and colleagues which found mindfulness strategies decrease burnout. Lastly, organizational-based interventions were found to reduce stress levels but increase burnout. It is important to note that even though stress seems to have a negative connotation to it, not all stress is bad. There is stress that is good and which helps motivate us and give us a sense of excitement. An example of this good stress would be the stress that comes with trying to clutch a 1v4 situation or trying to hang on and win a close match.
This research demonstrates what is effective and what is not. When talking with players about these burnout interventions, it is necessary to get buy-in. Without players’ genuine interest and trust, their participation will be significantly limited.. Research can always be used to back up claims, but ultimately players want to see how interventions help their performance.
In regards to burnout, players need to understand what burnout is and that it can happen to them even if they have always loved the game. As a coach or other support staff, it is also important to maintain consistent, open communication and rapport, as players may fear negative repercussions for asking for help with burnout.
To integrate this research in practice, we will first look at educational interventions. Educational interventions consist of addressing areas of staff wellness, self-care, lifestyle changes, effective communication, resilience, and stress management, all of which should be areas of focus by a coach, therapist, or psychologist familiar with esports and the lifestyle demands that they go through to better relate and give pertinent advice to.
Organizational-based interventions consisted of making systemic wide organizational changes. These can be very small changes such as changes in resources (Snacks/drinks), work tasks (Streaming or content requirements), environmental modifications (Gaming setup), workload, or larger changes within the organization such as policies or rules. It can be challenging to get everyone on board with particular changes especially when esport players have seen success in the past. Change instead should take into account input from everyone, not just the star player or the coach. Discussing and hearing the rationale and why for these changes can help everyone to be in agreement.
This again highlights the importance of communication, as without a foundation of trust and communication these changes may be seen negatively. With an added understanding of burnout and other life stressors, these changes are more likely to be seen in a good light. Lastly, mindfulness based strategies used within this study focus on being in the present, allowing the individual to be accepting no matter what the situation is as opposed to reacting negatively to a stressful situation.