Life in the fast lane: The growth and professionalization of esports

How esports has changed the game for players, businesses and researchers

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the esports market continues to grow as participation and engagement in digital play sweeps younger generations, with implications for business, law and academia. (Jenna Keeble)

Katie Cochrane-Bosley remembers the initial hype surrounding the game League of Legends. Her friends introduced her to the multiplayer online battle arena game when she was still in high school. They would organize online events to watch tournaments together.

In her spare time, Cochrane-Bosley would play competitively and would enter into tournaments with her friends as well. Her dream was to play professionally.

“I would do my homework then League,” she says. “I would barely sleep.”

She is not alone.

League of Legends reached 115 million monthly players in 2021, according to data gathered by LeagueFeed, with leagues in regions throughout the world, including North America, Europe, South Korea, and China.

Two major international tournaments are now held every year: the Mid-Season Invitational and the World Championships.

According to the Global Esports and Live Streaming Market Report, esports revenues will exceed $1 billion in 2021, an increase of more than 14 per cent since last year. It also says that more than 400 million people watch esports worldwide, up eight per cent since 2020, and that the League of Legends World Championship had the largest live viewership on Twitch and YouTube in 2020.

The growth and professionalization have also led to the rise of performance training companies, law firms, and academic studies dedicated to esports.

Cochrane-Bosley says the denial of esports as a legitimate sport is ridiculous. With many different types of video games with competitive circuits, and the rise of collegiate teams, the influence of esports is becoming hard to ignore.

“I like using the surfer analogy of we’re out here waiting for a wave,” says Caleb Cousens, chief executive officer of Adamas Esports Training & Performance Ltd., a company focused on providing health and wellness services for esports athletes.

Cochrane-Bosley is stunned by how popular esports are in China and Korea. She remembers stories about players packing internet cafes to game 18 hours a day. Tournament prize money increased every year, as an increasingly global esports community emerged.

“Everyone here thinks that people playing video games are losers,” she says. “That they’re lazy and nothing comes out of it.”

Cochrane-Bosley says there is a misconception that playing video games is mindless behaviour. Gamers need to strategize, multi-task, and hyper-focus, she says. Teamwork and synchronization are important as well.

“You need to know every skill, every spell that champion has in that game,” says Cochrane-Bosley. “Then you can calculate what your next move is.”

“It’s all just little, tiny calculations.”

Esports performance management

With a background in traditional sports performance, Cousens saw the opportunity to bring similar services to esports athletes.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company had to sell off their facility in Burnaby, B.C. Now they deliver services remotely through Zoom and other online web tools.

Adamas Esports clients include League of Legends and Overwatch teams.

Performance managers work with players to “optimize health psychology lifestyle gaming habits.” This means improving sleep and nutrition, prescribing exercise routines, and developing a training schedule. A psychologist, physiotherapist, optometrist, and doctor are also available to help.

By learning how to manage pressure, performance anxiety, and tilt, which is when a player becomes overly aggressive due to emotional confusion or frustration, the company argues that a gamer’s performance will improve.

Adamas also trains the team and coaching staff to improve communication, resolve conflicts, and debrief after games.

The company’s website states performance management decreases the risk of overtraining, which can lead to injury and burnout. Cousens says he believes the services his business provides will lead to longer careers for esports athletes.

“Lots of these kids want to be the next streamers, the next esports athletes, and in order to do that they are going to have to do more than play the game,” says Cousens. “They need to understand, in order to play better, they need to have healthy minds and healthy bodies.”

“That’s what the top teams are doing at the moment.”

Researchers at McGill University suggest that exercise routines, including squats, push-ups, and high-intensity interval training, improve cognitive performance in-game.

Esports legal services

Disenchanted with their jobs in insurance defence and medical malpractice, lawyers Josh Marcus and Evan Kubes saw an opportunity to use their law degrees in a fun industry.

In 2018, they launched Marcus Kubes Management Group, a law firm dedicated to esports athletes and online entertainers who use Twitch, YouTube, and OnlyFans to distribute their content to the public. Esports teams, organizations, and companies use their services as well.

MKM Group merged with Rumble Gaming, a talent agency and media platform set up by Marcus and Kubes, in 2019. Both companies do multinational work but are based out of Toronto.

“You have an offer that has been presented to you,” says Marcus. “We’ll help you make sense of it and then negotiate those areas that should be touched on.”

MKM Group offers pro bono contract reviews for esports athletes and online entertainers who cannot afford legal fees.

“It’s a lot of helping them navigate the corporate world,” says Marcus. “If you are 21 years old, you have probably never incorporated.”

He can advise clients if it makes sense to open a business bank account and how to bring players into the country legally. He also helps organize brand sponsorships and explains intellectual property rules.

If there is a dispute, Marcus explores whether it can be solved through alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, like mediation or arbitration, or through litigation in the courts.

“The vast majority of disputes I see are usually around unpaid money,” he says.

Marcus says it is hard for teams to make money, and when start-ups run out of money players might not get paid. The global nature of the industry means legal issues often cross multiple jurisdictions, complicating disputes even further.

Esports athletes are often employed as independent contractors, making bringing complaints and taking action against an employer difficult. Although, in some provinces like Ontario, they may be classified as a dependent contractor which gives them additional employee benefits, he says.

Marcus says there are avenues to make harassment and discrimination claims, but “generally speaking, you’re out of luck.”

Players may be able to use complaints to terminate a contract, but this comes at the cost of losing a contract which is hard to come by in the esports industry, he says.

“I think the concept of a player union would be helpful, although probably too difficult to implement in practice,” says Marcus.

“But some sort of collective bargaining unit would be nice even if it is voluntary.”

Marcus points to the Esports Integrity Commission as an example. ESIC works on preventing cheating and competitive integrity within esports.

ESIC has the power to issue fines and suspensions against members, although participation is entirely voluntary. They have been at the forefront of tackling problems like e-doping, which is the use of prescription drugs like Adderall that gives players an unfair advantage but are also used for genuine medical conditions.

Marcus says it’s a big ethical dilemma, and the issue has been hard to monitor and enforce. Bigger franchise leagues may have the structure and funds to implement anti-doping measures, but smaller, amateur leagues that are open to remote competitors often do not.

ESIC also looks at competitive integrity surrounding betting and gambling on esports games and whether the exploitation of in-game bugs is cheating or part of the game.

“It’s new territory for all of us,” says Marcus.

Adding that he expects more consolidations of esports companies with a variety of revenue streams, which may include holdings in traditional sports, technology, merchandise, sponsorship deals, and ownerships of properties like gaming lounges and team houses.

Esports and academia

Regan Mandryk has spent her academic career trying to make sense of digital gaming.

She is a professor of computer science at the University of Saskatchewan’s interaction lab, where she investigates digital gaming and its impact on players. Her Ph.D. thesis involved creating computational models of participants’ emotions using physiological sensors.

“I started using computer games as the application area just because it was low-risk,” says Mandryk. “Then found the whole world quite compelling.”

Throughout her research, Mandryk has found that digital gaming can improve cognition, attentional control and processing speeds, she says.

She also says digital games can help people recover from stress and regulate their emotions.

“I see it in my own kids,” says Mandryk. “Learning how to not get so frustrated and learning how to persevere in the face of failure.”

Her research also suggests digital gaming can combat loneliness and build community.

With the rise of esports, Mandryk has begun studying the difference between recreational and competitive gaming and how it affects players. She says esports athletes, like others who pursue an elite level of their craft, don’t have the luxury of living in balance and harmony.

“It’s going to require a lot of sacrifice in other areas,” says Mandryk.

Her studies suggest similarities between how traditional sports athletes and esports players “clutch,” which is a term for consistently playing well under pressure, and “choke,” a term for a decrease in performance under pressure. Players who overthink what they’re doing while they compete are more likely to choke, she says.

Mandryk and her colleagues have been pulling concepts from traditional sports to research the normalization and justification of toxicity within the esports community. She says moral disengagement is often used to minimize sexism and racism as banter or trash talk.

“It’s a lot of gaslighting,” says Mandryk. “‘No, you’re taking it wrong. You’re being overly sensitive.’”

Cochrane-Bosley says she encounters toxic behaviour in the community. She says she is often harassed and subject to gender-based stereotypes and slurs. Women are considered bad players who usually play support characters, she says.

“A lot of the time, I don’t let people know that I’m a girl because it’s just a lot easier.”

Mandryk says game publishers are interested in solving this problem because it drives away business. There is ongoing research about how to deploy systems in games that detect and stop toxic interactions in real-time, she says.

“It’s really important that we solve this because it will make for a healthier community,” says Mandryk.

The growth of the gaming and esports industry has given rise to new ethical questions in her research.

“If you are creating a technology that causes harm to people, it should be your responsibility to fix that,” says Mandryk, who has done work on assessing mental health using biomarkers drawn from games.

“I never really followed it up because I got a little bit spooked about how that could be used,” she says. Mandryk is now more careful about which research questions she pursues and who she takes funding from.

Mandryk’s personal stake in her research surrounding digital play is her children who are growing up and socializing in a different way than she did.

“That’s why I keep working to understand what this means for human development.”

Cochrane-Bosley never got to realize her dream of playing professional esports.

“I just knew I was about to go to college,” she says. “I didn’t have all the time in the world to spend doing this.”

Every year, Cochrane-Bosley and her friends watch the League of Legends world championship. She cheers on TSM, her favourite team.

“There’s definitely drama,” she says. “They pull these moves out of nowhere.”

“You see them on screen and they’re like sweating.”

She also watches her favourite esports streamers, Michael “Imaqtpie” Santana and Alex “Xpecial” Chu, on Twitch.

“I’ll follow them even after they retire,” she says.