Esports athletes, and gamers in general, are commonly misjudged. The classic stereotype is all gamers are overweight teenagers who go days without seeing sunlight while living in their mother’s basement. Yet – this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The negative stereotyping of Esports athletes is even fuelled in some cases by sports media outlets. After making fun of an Esports athlete’s weight, popular FOX Sports pundit Colin Cowherd went on to say that he will quit his broadcasting career if he is made to cover Esports – distastefully quipping that would be “the equivalent of putting a gun in his mouth.”
While Cowherd is entitled to his own opinion, his lack of knowledge about the Esports industry and its athletes is a lapse that many critics share. As the lines between Esports and traditional sports continue to blur, it will become increasingly difficult for mainstream media to disregard the Esports industry.
Here, we delve into some of the reasons that Esport athletes are the future, and how they are smashing negative stereotypes:
The Physical Game
Esport athletes require an exercise regime to boost performance and extend the longevity of their careers. Filip “NEO” Kubiski is regarded by many as the greatest Counter Strike 1.6 player in history. Hailing from Poznan, Poland, NEO fell in love with Esports at an early age and was fortunate enough to have a family that supported his gaming aspirations. Despite the hours required to achieve mastery in competitive gaming, NEO said that he “doesn’t like being in one place and staying there”; a major contradiction to the stereotype of the Esports athlete. Furthermore, NEO stated that, “playing the game, most of it happens in your head. So, it’s good to just go outside and make your body loosen up a little bit.”
NEO’s wife, Asla Marks, says that he regularly bikes up to 100 km in a single day to stay alert. Whether it is one more kill in the server, or one more kilometer on his bike, NEO’s life is fueled by a competitive drive that is a shared quality between Esports athletes and traditional athletes. NEO says he wants to play forever, and while his career is sadly reaching its end, he recognizes the importance that physical activity can have on increasing the longevity of his career.
The physical risks of Esports are real and calls for proven methods to maintain the health and wellness of the players. Astralis, a Danish organization that primarily competes in Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), is leading the way in adapting sports performance techniques to Esports. The team employs a physical trainer, a psychologist, a massage therapist, a medical doctor, and a nutritionist as part of their “performance team”. As more money is poured into Esports, it is logical to assume that more teams will look to secure their investments by embracing the strategies that organizations like Astralis have popularized.
Similar to other athletes, Esports athletes assume many physical risks while playing. Hand and wrist injuries are the most common amongst Esports athletes and have recently sidelined Berlin International Gaming player Johannes “nex” Maget and ravaged the career of the once great Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer Gustaffson. The severity of these injuries has forced players like Jordan “n0thing” Gilbert to use Kinesio Tape on his wrists, just as a basketball player would on their shoulders or a runner on their calves. Additionally, hand warmers have long been used by Esports athletes as a means to increase blood flow and maintain dexterity, just as American Football players do in the winter.
The Mental Game
For the vast majority of Esports athletes, the main battle is not fought physically, but mentally. The immense pressure of Esports coupled with the prevalence of burnout only adds to the challenges Esports athletes face as they develop their mechanical skills. Kids rise so fast in the Esports scene that they are not able to build up the mental fortitude needed to succeed at the top level. While some gain competitive experience from participating in youth sports, others accidentally stumble into competitive gaming. Ranked matchmaking and ladder systems that are akin to feeder teams in professional sports can be climbed by anybody with a gaming system and headset. In Esports, it takes only one bad performance to ruin a player’s career. As such, many Esports teams have floated the idea of hiring sports psychologists to enhance the performance of their players and improve their overall well-being. Enter Mia Stellberg.
Mia Stellberg is a Finnish sports psychologist who has used her past experience with the Finnish Olympic team to help change the mental landscape of the Esports industry. When Stellberg took the role as sport psychologist for Astralis, she inherited a team that was in emotional disarray. For years the team was notorious for making deep playoff runs at almost every tournament they attended before losing in the semi-finals. Star player, Nicolai “device” Reedtz, who has been ranked in the top five for the past five years by Esports media site HLTV.org, was hit hard by the mental block. Despite his obvious talent, device would routinely resort to a conservative playstyles – inhibiting his growth and impact as the team’s star player.
For both device and Astralis as a whole, there was an obvious mental barrier creating an artificial cycle of failure that Stellberg was brought in to break. Just as she did with the Finnish Olympic team, Stellberg focused on the well-being, attitude, and desire of her athletes and collaborated with the team analysts to find at what point the players would “choke.” After working with Stellberg, Astralis have not only won 4 world championships, but are now widely regarded as one of the most clutch teams in the CS:GO scene.
Stellberg’s success with Astralis led her to two more Esports teams, OG and ENCE, who she helped win The International 9 (a DOTA championship) and place second at CSGO’s spring major in 2019, respectively. Everywhere Stellberg has gone, team performance has gone up and any underlying mental issues have been mitigated. Stellberg’s reputation in the Esports industry has become somewhat legendary and she is now known as an “Esports whisperer.” Peter “dupreeh” Rasmussen, a teammate of device’s on Astralis, said that most Esports athletes do not believe that a psychologist is beneficial, but that Astralis would not be where they are today without the help of Stellberg. OG players Jesse “JerAx” Vainikka and Topias “Topson” Taavitsainen agreed with dupreeh as even after winning the previous world championship in 2018, they still brought on Stellberg to help them win their next title. Stellberg’s value to a team is now unquestionable and her cross-sectional methods used for both Esports and traditional athletics show that these athletes are cut from the same cloth.
The Money Game
Sponsorship in Esports is complicated. Since the market is underdeveloped and still somewhat risky, non-endemic brands like McDonalds or AIG have been hesitant to sponsor Esports tournaments, teams, and athletes. Jim Braun, the Director of Sponsorship Sales at Allied Esports International, has said that until Esports switches to a more sustainable business model and attracts larger media companies by moving away from violent games, the market for sponsors will remain volatile. Traditional sports on the other hand have long been able to pull sponsors from many different industries such as insurance, automotive, and lifestyle brands.
However, the rise of several popular personalities is pushing Esports in this direction as well. Tyler “Ninja” Belvins has quickly become the face of the gaming world and has a deep pool of sponsorship deals that any athlete would be happy to have. With sponsors like Adidas, Red Bull, UBER, and Hershey’s, Ninja is showing the world that gamers can attract popular sponsors that can build their brands through Esports. While Ninja is currently one of the few outliers in Esports with his nearly 15 million Instagram followers, he is living proof that gamers can reach the same heights as traditional athletes.
The signature shoe has been the hallmark of NBA branding deals for the past three decades. Legends like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant were able to capitalize off their on-court success and create a product that resonated with fans. Supporters of James and Bryant have been able to buy their shoes, impress their friends, and try to emulate what their idols do in packed arenas within the solitude of their driveways. Adil “Scream” Benrlitom was one of the first Esports athletes to secure a branding deal with an endemic sponsor.
While Scream may not have been the best player in most of his teams throughout his career, his flashy playstyle became extremely popular among fans and was easy for his organizations to market. His deal with the US based peripheral company, FinalMouse, saw the company create an individual line of computer mice that was bolstered by an advertising campaign focusing on his renowned mechanical skill. Scream has shown that Esports athletes can secure personalized sponsorship deals and provide value to companies just as traditional athletes can.
As Esports athletes switch to more healthy lifestyles, seek out mental help from certified sports psychologists, and grow their brands through individual sponsorship deals, critics like Colin Cowherd will have no choice but to acknowledge the similarities between traditional and Esports athletes. Amongst traditional athletes, this shift in perception has already taken place. Boston Celtics star forward, Gordon Hayward, has appeared on Cowherd’s show in defense of Esport athletes. When Cowherd began peddling his stereotypes of Esports athletes, Hayward claimed Cowherd’s words were “bullcrap” and that “you need to know what you’re talking about before you can go and criticize it.”
Hayward is not the only athlete who has come to the defense of the Esports industry. The Los Angeles Laker legend, Rick Fox, recently owned an Esports team called Echo Fox which competed across 10 different Esport titles. Fox initially invested in Esports because he believed that “Esports jocks are just like NBA players.” The Esports market is estimated to bring in over $1.79 billion and amass a total audience of 645 million fans by 2022. It is time to heed the advice of Hayward and Fox and acknowledge that Esports athletes and traditional athletes are not that dissimilar after all because Esports will be in everyone’s lives sooner rather than later.
At SPRTER, we are not waiting for sport media personalities and the general population to change how they view Esports athletes. We recognize the accomplishments of Esports athletes and the strains that go into perfecting their craft. This principle applies to any athlete in an unconventional sport through our emphasis on diversity. Right now, SPRTER offers every kind of athlete the chance to grow their brand, connect with their fanbase, and support their most important causes, all without the clutter of traditional social media sites.
Additionally, SPRTER helps athletes connect with new fans, find sponsorships, and will soon provide them with the ability to monetize their brand through our experience store. We strive to give athletes the opportunity to build deeper relationships with fans than they are accustomed to over other social media platforms. By using the SPRTER app, athletes are entering a judgement free environment where they are all treated equally, regardless of how they express their physical talents. You can find out more about the platform here!