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The Evolution of Mental Health and Nootropics in Esports

  • October 30, 2021
9 minute read

In the past year, esports has been under a microscope when it comes to mental health. This is certainly nothing new in traditional sports, as we've seen a number of cases of top athletes and performers struggling with depression and anxiety. Most famously, four-time Olympic gold medalist, Simone Biles, withdrew from the Tokyo 2021 Olympics for mental health reasons. US Open Winner Naomi Osaka follows suit, openly admitting that she has dealt with anxiety and panic attacks throughout her career.

With esports now being considered a professional sport, it's only natural that we'll start seeing the same mental health problems affect this industry. While not every professional player will experience anxiety and depression, it is important to know that these issues exist and that they can be dealt with in an effective manner. What follows is a look at how esports teams have begun to focus on mental health and what measures professional teams and players have implemented.

How Esports Organizations Are Emphasizing Mental Health

Ever since the suicide of popular Twitch streamer Byron “Reckful” Bernstein, who suffered from Bipolar Disorder and Depression, efforts to help fight mental health have been ramping up. Esports is an incredibly competitive environment and players are constantly under stress. This is often greatest for the most talented esports athletes, as they have long had to fight for any opportunities they get at success and fame in the scene. The pressure can be all-encompassing, particularly when it comes to younger esports athletes and those who aren't receiving any guidance. As a result, esports teams have begun to prioritize mental health as a means of staying competitive. 

This includes hiring support staff who can help players with their mental health both on-and off the stage, such as team therapists and social workers, whose focus goes beyond that of coaches and managers. Misfits Gaming Group (MGG) is on the cutting edge of player wellness, hiring Dr. Carolyn Rubenstein as the team’s official licensed psychologist and Chief Wellness Adviser.

As esports teams recognize the importance of mental health, it's a misconception that they can simply hire a therapist and send their players to weekly/monthly sessions. The organizations who prioritize mental health have taken multi-faceted approaches: While some teams are providing services like therapy, others are implementing more intensive procedures like video analysis and role-swapping, yoga, and mindfulness,

Well-known teams, such as MAD Lions and Rogue have prioritized the practice of mindfulness to boost player performance. A former professional athlete himself, Rogue’s official Performance Coach, Ismael Pedraza, used his experiences to coach esports players on mindfulness. According to Pedraza, “mindfulness itself is paying attention to the present moment, in a non-judgmental manner,” and is a form of meditation. Furthermore, MAD Lions Performance Coach, Jake Ainsworth, states that mindfulness is the most important way to build player resilience. 

In addition to pro-teams, mental health non-profit Rise Above the Disorder (RAD) has recently disclosed its partnership with esports talent agency Evolved to provide its over 260+ signed players and content creators with mental health services. Evolved’s clients include talent like former Overwatch League pro and Twitch variety streamer Félix “xQc” Lengyel, who has 8M followers on the platform. RAD specializes in helping esports athletes and content creators by offering services ranging from cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) to exposure therapy. The goal is simple: Behavioral change for a healthier, happier lifestyle.

Furthermore, Cloud9 has partnered with Kaiser Permanente to launch Presence of Mind. This initiative will increase mental health awareness and reduce stigma through engaging teens & young adults who are part of an active gaming community. Cloud9’s new content series, Presence of Mind, will focus on mental health within gaming communities. Influencers and Kaiser Permanente’s experts will discuss topics such as coping during COVID-19 pandemic and combating burnout. 

While many esports teams have implemented mental health measures, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Some players may not be open to talking with therapists or don't want their every move on camera (and therefore private), while others don't want the responsibility of playing different roles. Additionally, players who struggle with their mental health will often not be able to put in the kind of practice necessary to improve as a player. With each case being unique, esports organizations have started to understand that they must treat mental health cases on a need-to-need basis

The Esports Players Contributing To Mental Health Discussions

At the forefront of the mental health discussion is Yiliang Peng, better known as Doublelift from Team Liquid. After experiencing a serious bout of burnout during the summer of 2018, Peng went into his own experience with depression and decided to become more vocal about it. Since then, he's been travelling around North America talking about mental health to high school and university students while emphasizing the importance of learning more about how it works.

Similarly, Peng has also been engaging with esports teams in order to help them better understand the need for a support system. If they can't hire mental health professionals, then players like Peng have tried to bridge that gap by providing their own advice when needed.

He's not the only one leading the charge. Brad “Scar” Vaughn, a professional Mortal Kombat 11 player, has been vocal about his struggles with mental health. Vaughn is well-known in the space for speaking about mental health and has been working to give players the resources they need to succeed. In a Tweet, Vaugn stated, “Taking a break from MK. I've been heavily burnt out this past week and I've been forcing myself to play which has affected me. Reminding you guys to take a break as well if you feel like you don't want to play or as if you're forcing yourself. Going to stream other games soon.” 

Despite access to mental health therapy, countless professional esports players choose to use performance-enhancing drugs, such as Adderall and Ritalin to increase their focus and improve their reflexes during tense moments of competition.

The Evolution of Nootropics In Esports 

The use of nootropics by esports athletes isn't anything new. Adderall, for example, is a common stimulant that places use for enhanced focus. In March 2015, Kory Friesen, better known as "Semphis," a pro Counter-Strike: Global Offensive player in the Electronic Sport League (ESL), bluntly stated that he used Adderall during an on-camera conversation with BOXR posted on YouTube July 12, 2015. "We were all on Adderall. I don't even give a ****. It was obvious if you listened to the comms. People can hate it or whatever.”

In addition to Adderall, Provigil (Modafinil) is one type of nootropic that has been used by gamers. Modafinil is a drug used to treat narcolepsy, but it has been used off-label for other purposes such as neuroenhancement in healthy individuals.

A large number of gamers have admitted to taking nootropics such as modafinil. Timo "Taimou" Kettunen, a Finnish professional Overwatch Player for a team called Dallas Fuel, recently stated, “Imagine if you use Adderall and then it gets banned in the [Overwatch] League, and then you're like…there are probably 20 players who use Adderall in the League, and then imagine if it was illegal to completely use Adderall, they'd be so fucked dude.”

One of the problems with cognitive enhancements as doping agents in sports is that there are many different brands and types to choose from. This makes it difficult for regulating agencies to ban out all the possible products available for sale. However, there are some reputable brands providing legal supplements, such as VALIS® known as “the nootropic for gaming”. According to the company, VALIS® is a dietary supplement developed for competitive gamers that helps support cognitive functions, including memory, mental speed, and focus. Other legal cognitive enhances that available to esports gamers include N-Acetyl-L-Tyrosine (NALT), which relieves stress, L-Theanine which promotes wakeful relaxation, and Citicoline, a “cognitive supercharger” that provides stimulant-free mental energy.

The future effects of nootropics in esports are still unknown, however it is very likely that we will see more use of smart drugs in the future esports scene. It is also likely that other types of cognitive enhancers will be used as well. 

Professional gamers are no different than any other athletes when it comes to mental health. Many leagues have invested in performance coaches and psychologists to maintain the peak performance of their players and prevent burnout. Players, however, have increasingly turned to cognitive boosters and nootropics to perform better on the main stage.