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 said he made the gesture in response to jokes from players and coaches off-stage. He didn't expect the gesture to be broadcast to the world, but it was. While many found it funny–even London Spitfire owner Jack Etienne joked about it–Profit was fined $1,000 and had to apologize for his actions.
Profit's on-camera slip-up is a microcosm of the issues esports players face in the spotlight. When Blizzard Entertainment announced the Overwatch League in 2016, it touted the clear-cut "path to pro," which would allow any player with a high enough rank to get noticed by Overwatch League teams. Overwatch League's path to pro would turn ladder warriors into global superstars, but the speed at which people were elevated from casual players to public figures created unique challenges. While newfound fame for esports players does have major upsides, some players have struggled with the challenges of being in a global competitive gaming league–namely a lack of anonymity, language barriers, and long training hours, all of which are difficult pressures to prepare for.
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Profit's infraction was on the lower end of the seriousness scale, and yet it was still something that impacted him: "I will take the time to deeply reflect upon what I say and do to make sure that nothing like this takes place again," he wrote in his apology. "I'm sorry [to] the fans that I have let down through my actions."
In November, 2018, Daniel "dafran" Francesca retired from the Overwatch League, before the 2019 season even began. That retirement didn't stick and, days later, dafran tweeted that he would still play with the Atlanta Reign in the upcoming season, and that he wasn't really going to retire. "I messed up, don't know what to say except sorry to the community, my fans, and ATL," he wrote. "It wasn't [a] jebait, sometimes I have these days and make dumb mistakes."
Just after the 2019 season's first stage, dafran retired from the Overwatch League–for real this time. He's staying with the Atlanta Reign, but as a full-time streamer. For dafran, it wasn't life in the public eye that was the problem; instead, it was being a public figure specifically in the Overwatch League. And he's not the only one. Washington Justice general manager Kate Mitchell stepped down from her position in May. Dallas Fuel DPS player Hyeon "Effect" Hwang retired from professional play, but not before the team's assistant coach, Christian "cocco" Jonsson, left his position. Do-hyung "Stellar" Lee also left Toronto Defiant for "personal reasons."
"In the end, you see a lot of people in Overwatch that are facing an immense amount of challenge," Mitchell told GameSpot. "Numerous players have negative public events unfold because they’re not used to the level of attention and pressure."
Given the Overwatch League's long season–five four-week stages–players must adapt to the pressures of the space away from already established support systems. “"With the amount of emotional stress and endurance, it's a marathon," Los Angeles Gladiators player Aaron "Bischu" Kim explained in an interview conducted for GameSpot's Building Overwatch League series. "It's so easy to get burnt out. There’s tons of players that really didn’t know how to balance life."
While other esports grew organically from grassroots scenes, like League of Legends' continuous growth since its release in 2009, the Overwatch League popped up fully-formed not too long after the game's launch. Though many of the players had participated in smaller Overwatch tournaments–namely, OGN’s Overwatch Apex event in South Korea–and sometimes other esports, the jump to the Overwatch League was a major lifestyle change. The Overwatch League’s franchised structure helped the transition from amateur or semi-pro Overwatch player to full-time esports pro, offering players a minimum salary of $50,000, benefits, and housing. But even with help from the teams and the league, it’s a major change for the players. Even those who do have experience at tournaments, it’s never been on a stage as big as the Overwatch League's. The Overwatch League is one of the more involved leagues in esports–a custom-built arena, with the promise of one in each team city, high-profile sponsors like Toyota, and major broadcasting rights deals that bring the competition to the likes of ESPN and ABC. Since the beginning, the Overwatch League has been positioned for the spotlight, and some players weren't ready.
Since the beginning, the Overwatch League has been positioned for the spotlight, and some players weren't ready.
It’s a challenge that professional sports leagues have spent decades perfecting–and they’re still working on it. Professional athletes have notoriously tough schedules with lots of travel. Even the NFL, which has been around since the 1920s, still hasn’t gotten it right. An ESPN report from mid-April said that the NFL has even agreed to a three-year research grant to study how to use "a mathematical approach" to make better schedules, for instance. The Overwatch League has no such history behind it; many of the players are new to it all, too. The league's front office is certainly thinking of these things–and has provided support, like a player summit with media training–but players are still working out life in the public eye, adjusting to both the good and bad of it all.
"If you make Major League Baseball, you've already been traveling, living in hotel rooms, and traveling on buses in the crucible of the minor league before," former Washington Justice general manager Mitchell said. "There's no massive professional infrastructure [in minor league esports]. There isn’t a ton of institutional memory and knowledge of how to navigate spaces." Blizzard has positioned Overwatch Contenders as a minor league of sorts, but many players don’t find it an adequate preparation for the Overwatch League; with most events held online. Online tournaments certainly have value, but it doesn't prepare players for a life in front of a camera broadcasting on a global stage.
"In the Overwatch League and most esports, these are brand new spaces where we don’t really have best practices for how to thrive in these jobs yet," Mitchell added. "That's something we’re all figuring out together, and that’s a tremendously exciting thing. Being able to try and set down a culture here at [Washington] Justice that's inclusive and understanding was my favorite part of this role, and it's also part of the challenge."
Understanding life in the public sphere, specific to the Overwatch League and the new kind of celebrity it creates, is one of the biggest hurdles for up-and-comers. The Overwatch League's players have a situational kind of fame that’s akin to internet celebrity–an umbrella term Dr. Crystal Abidin, digital anthropologist and author of "Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online," defines as "high visible," personality-backed media content that's native to the internet. "High visibility can be attributed to fame or infamy, positive or negative attention, talent or skill, or something else," Dr. Abidin told GameSpot.
Overwatch League pros' fame is based on a number of factors, but that celebrity isn't predicated on a surge of virality that fizzles away; instead, it's sustained. It's a level of internet celebrity that's closer to influencers–"careerist internet celebrities." But, of course, not all Overwatch League players elevate their celebrity to influencer status. There are some players in the league who aren't necessarily looking to create a "brand" out of their skill. They just want to play the game. The balance between these players' desires–to just play–and the expectations of teams and the league–for them to be personalities, too–can cause misalignment that leads to the pressure and burnout that players face.
Players, like many on Seoul Dynasty, Houston Outlaws, Atlanta Reign, or Los Angeles Valiant, have secondary pursuits, like streaming or vlogging, on top of their day jobs of playing video games at a professional level. A lot of these players practice what's called micro-celebrity. This means micro in their reach, typically to a specific demographic, and in what's shared, as in a micro-look at the personal details of a person's life.
We follow Overwatch League players because we like to watch someone playing the game we play at the highest level. We keep following them because we feel connected to them in some way. Maybe they play for our city's team. Maybe they're entertaining. Or maybe they play the same hero we do. There's definitely an aspirational aspect to the celebrity, but it's the perceived interconnectedness of influencers, Dr. Abidin said, that draws people in.
Esports stars are uniquely positioned in their fame, as opposed to, say, traditional athletes, given the "micro"-ness of their celebrity. Players are accessible. "You can’t get onto the basketball court and LeBron James is playing beside you," Immortals and Los Angeles Valiant PR manager Jen Neale says. "It'd be very rare that you’re going to play a pick-up game and he would be there. But if you're high enough [on the ladder] in Overwatch, you can play alongside these players."
Will Partin, a doctoral candidate researching esports at the University of North Carolina, said that accessibility is partly what makes the esports celebrity so appealing to fans. (This is in comparison to more traditional celebrity, which is predicated on a person's status and skill, but also in how they're perceived as untouchable or elusive.)
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?"