By now, esports has inserted itself into almost every media conversation. It’s currently the fastest growing form of entertainment in the world. In fact, the esports marketplace pulled in $696 million this year. And that’s expected jump to $1.5 billion by 2020. However, an increasingly large number of esports pros have been finding themselves in trouble. Suspensions, fines, and even arrests seem to be happening almost regularly.

Sure, every large organization produces the occasional bad apple, but a lot of these incidents seem to be occurring within a relatively short amount of time. I decided to take a look at the issues that have arisen with some of these esports pros, and hopefully, attempt to pinpoint some of their causes.

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Suspensions

esports pros
Félix “xQc” Lengyel

Even before Blizzard’s OVERWATCH League kicked off in January, its players were stirring up controversy. In December, Dallas Fuel player Félix “xQc” Lengyel was suspended for seven days after he threw matches on his stream. This seemed to me like a mild offense because it didn’t take place during an official competition, but Blizzard disagreed. The suspension email they sent called his behavior, “inappropriate for OVERWATCH.”

It’s not the first time Lenyel found himself in hot water either. In November, he was suspended and booted mid-match for “misuse of the reporting system.”

In fact, it seems that the problems between Lengyel and the league had escalated. They released him in March,  despite his full-season contract.

But Lengyel hasn’t been the only troublemaker in the league. Also in December, Blizzard suspended Philadelphia Fusion player Su-min “Sado” Kim for the first 30 games of the season. They discovered that he’d been accepting money for boosting. Essentially, he logged onto people’s accounts and leveled them up against the rules of the league.

esports pros
Su-min “Sado” Kim

Fines

That same month, the Shanghai Dragons fined two of their players for sharing an account. The team released a statement saying, “As professional game players, they should have acted as role models and abided by Blizzard’s account use codes and relevant regulations.”

Blizzard and OWL have control over their players even during their personal streams. As an example, they suspended Philadelphia Fusion’s Josh “Eqo” Corona after he made a racist gesture on his stream. They also fined him $2,000 and revoked his streaming privileges for over two months.

The pro community takes these kinds of offenses seriously. Just last month, casters in Korea during their broadcast refused to even say the name of Son “OGE” Min-Seok, a player who had been under suspension for boosting.

Arrests

To those not closely following esports, these seem like relatively harmless league issues. But a different story emerges when laws are broken and authorities take notice.

Take the example of the unnamed professional Korean STARCRAFT player arrested for fixing matches. They also arrested his accomplice, who ran an illegal gambling site.

The worst occurrence to date happened last month. OWL’s Boston Uprising dropped star player Jonathan “DreamKazper” Sanchez after allegations of sexual misconduct involving underage girls came to light.

Surely a pattern is emerging, but why?

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Who Are These Esports Pros?

It’s easy to forget that these professional players are just kids. According to this analysis by ESPN, the average age of esports pros hovers around the low 20s. Two of the youngest groups are players of STARCRAFT II (avg. age 23.0) and LEAGUE OF LEGENDS (21.2).

Compare that with the ages of more traditional athletes. Their ages range from 26.6 for the NFL, to the old-timers in MLB coming in at 29.2.

esports pros

Keep in mind, these are averages. At least half of esports players fall under the legal US drinking age. Many of them are still in high school. In fact, the current youngest professional player in the world is only 13 years old.

Now, I haven’t mentioned ages to make excuses for poor behavior but, instead, to give some context. I thought of my own teen years, for example. I was a mess of emotions and wasn’t yet mature enough to deal with them. Putting a person like that under harsh pressure and scrutiny could be a recipe for disaster.

Training Regimen

esports pros

These kids are often under incredibly intense training regimens. According to a report by Dal Yong Jin titled “Korea’s Online Gaming Empire,” players are expected to train for 14 to 16 hours a day in bleak factory-like rooms. They sit in secluded cubicles in order to increase playing hours and minimize distractions. These “distractions” include contact with family, friends, and partners. This can be observed in documentaries like “Free to Play: The Movie” and Vice’s “The Dark Side of Non-Stop Gaming: eSPORTS.”

“Even when you are in the off season … you have to practice,” said LEAGUE OF LEGENDS player Alex “Xpecial” Chu, who plays the game for nearly every waking minute. “I’m not satisfied with being anything below first, so I work my hardest the whole time.”

Money

Often, esports pros put up with this because it’s the only way they can earn their living. In a report called “Raising the Stakes: E-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming”,  T.L. Taylor states that so many of these players rely on a very uncertain income stream, due to the varying scope of competitions and sometimes their very performance.

Some organizations, like OVERWATCH League, do pay players standard salaries.  This surely takes a step in the right direction, but there’s a potential problem on the opposite end of the spectrum. What happens when you give young kids with very little life experience tons of money? As noted by ESPN, the minimum salary comes in at $50,000 per year. But many esports pros earn much more than that. They are often given 50 percent of performance bonuses earned by teams. There are $3.5 million of these bonuses available in Season 1, and the winner of the season earns a minimum of $1 million.

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Pressure

Esports leagues are built on competition, and most players face an intense pressure to perform well. Tom Brock and Roger Caillois argue that this kind of competition causes problems in many of these players’ lives. Treating play as work in this way can lead to negative psychological effects. Some players are speaking out about the mental difficulties that come from playing esports professionally. Some have even tried to unionize in an attempt to help their fellow players, but they are finding it difficult indeed.

The pressure can be so intense that it sometimes leads to burnout. Earlier this month, OWL’s Florida Mayhem coach stepped down temporarily from the team. He said, “Unfortunately, OVERWATCH League is a frantic marathon… While it’s mostly an exhilarating journey, it also pushes all competitors to the limit and brings a heavy burden.”

Conclusion

I’m not an expert on this issue, but much of the reading I’ve done on the subject has raised an eyebrow. When you take young kids whose minds are still developing, give them hundreds of thousands of dollars, and put them under intense pressure and brutal competition, does it really come as a surprise that some of them act out? Sometimes even in illegal ways?

Again, I want to be clear that I’m not calling out a direct correlation between the two. Nor am I placing blame on any pro esports organizations. It’s a new industry. A learning curve can be expected. And in some instances, things are indeed improving.

But I do think that this could be a good opportunity for these pro organizations. They should look closer at the way they treat their esports pros. I urge them to try to find more sustainable ways to nurture their players. Hopefully, more understanding of this issue will help keep esports — and its players — happy and thriving for years to come

SiriusXM.com

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