Today, Alberto "neptuNo" González of the Philadelphia Fusion made public his decision to not play in the Overwatch World Cup for Team Spain in a TwitLonger post around 5:30 AM PDT. In a statement that assured his fans that Team Spain already knew about his decision well in advance, neptuNo paints a weary picture of what it's like to play in the Overwatch league:
"And after so many months of non-stop scrims, thinking about the game, what can we improve as a team, what can I improve, how can I be a better teammate, going into stage and give everything every single time... kidney stone during 45 days, tonsilitis[sic], stomach acid problems, sleep problems ...
I've decided that the best for me as a person and player is to not participate in the WorldCup. I want some free time and focus on having fun in the game I love and stop being tilted-annoyed-stressed for a while."
Upon reading this, I was immediately reminded of Brandon "Seagull" Larned and his reasons for retiring from the OWL. He made his decision public just a week ago, also citing sleep problems and the physical and mental toll of playing in the league:
"That whole time though, I had to sacrifice a lot of things. A lot of my personal life, a lot of my mental physical health -- I literally put on like 40 pounds I developed sleep apnea I could barely sleep. And uhh...I had a lot of problems but it was all worth it because I got to compete. But, I don't know man, to sacrifice my stream and the fans that got me here in the first place for so long? I just didn't want to do that anymore."
Many fans empathized with Seagull's decision to quit the League, partially out of appreciation for the return of his stream, but also because it was so easy to notice OWL's negative effect on his happiness. Afterall, Seagull's trademark frivolity and joy when playing competitive Overwatch was part of what made him the games most popular streamer. If a positive personality like Seagull can't survive the league, who can?
The long, long league.
Back in May, Nicole Carpenter of DotEsports also noticed a trend of player exhaustion and fatigue. In her aptly titled article, she outlines how the league is filled with depressed, anxious, or otherwise over-stressed players. One quote, from ex Florida Mayhem coach, Vytis “Mineral” Lasaitis (who quit because of burn out) particularly stands out in light of recent news:
"It’s very hard to find a balance between a healthy amount of rest and optimal preparation, and it’s a dilemma pretty much every team wrestles with...I think most people in the Overwatch League are teetering on the edge of burnout heading into stage four.”
It's well past stage four -- who else might be "teetering on the edge of burnout?"
The Winner's Circle
After winning the Overwatch League Season 1 Grand finals in New York, Inven Global spoke with pro players Jae-hee "Gesture" Hong and Seung-tae "Bdosin" Choi. They were accompanied by team owner Jack Etienne who could confirm how tired the "harsh times" of the OWL made their players:
"There were some players that felt tired after stage 1. They seemed to be unhappy when they were on stage, which made me sad. Still, they managed to not give up until the end and I’m proud of my players...We will likely bump into unexpected obstacles next year. However, this season, our coaching staff gained a lot of trust. We experienced those harsh times and I believe that this will be helpful for next year. "
- Jack Etienne
"The league schedule is very long. I had a tough time in this season quite often. I’m going to focus more on my mentality and condition next season...The difficult moments during the season -- most likely -- were the meta changes and birdring’s wrist injury. And as for myself, I was in a bad psychological state during that."
I was tired; I felt really fed up during Stage 3 and 4. But when the playoffs began, I changed my mindset from “I have to adapt,” to ”I have to win.”
London Spitfire players have the advantage of being a winning Overwatch League team -- all the sacrifice and exhaustion paid off. On top of that, they have support staff keenly aware of the stresses the league places on them. Their general manager, Susie Kim, is an esports veteran who carries with her a sincere empathy and understanding for the pro-player lifestyle. Their live-in manager, Robin Lee, interacts with the team every day and told Inven Global that one of the focuses of season 2 will be around healthcare and wellness.
With support like this, I find it hard to imagine a Spitfire player slipping through the cracks.
But what happens to the players without that level of personal support? Back in June, OWL fans saw the release of Dongjian "MG" Wu from the Shanghai Dragons after, apparently, he just asked to leave:
" I felt lost and depressed. I am not satisfied with a life with high salary but only playing ranked all day. This is not what I came US for[sic]. I decided to leave and talked to the team. Now I am allowed to leave."
I've written about suffering Overwatch players that play ranked all day and MG (despite being paid to play) was clearly one of them. However, he wasn't the only OWL player I met during the regular season that needed an escape from the pressures of competitive Overwatch.
I spoke with Jonathan "HarryHook" Tejedor Rua of the Dallas Fuel during one of the teams many slumps and, upon asking him how he deals with the stress of the league, his response stuck with me:
"For me, going to the gym helps. I use the gym as an escape when I am depressed or sad. When I have troubles with the team, it's the gym or the beach. That is what I do to escape from the Overwatch League."
I then asked a follow-up question: "What do you like to do at the beach?"
"Just chill. I walk, I go by the water -- I don't need to do anything. Just have my mind blank. I don't need to do anything else. I don't think about the game ever when I am there."
Wasn't playing in the league supposed to be a dream come true? How can someone feel the need to "escape" the Overwatch League? Today, neptuNo cited the months of "thinking about the game" as part of his burnout symptoms; perhaps he should take the HarryHook approach and find a nice spot at the beach where he doesn't have to think about shot calls, metas, or anything resembling an ultimate charge.
I can't imagine 140 days of grinding competitive Overwatch like it was my job, let alone doing that at 23 years old -- the average age of an OWL player. On the contrary, I more often find myself agreeing with player decisions that involve leaving the league for their personal life satisfaction. I'm glad that players like Seagull and neptuNo are likely empowered by their popularity and relative success as Overwatch players. It seems as if they can afford to take a break and maintain their value within the scene.
But how many other players in the league are absolutely exhausted with no backup plan or method of recuperation? Is it feasible for a mid-tier OWL player without a hugely popular stream or a 2nd place Season 1 finish to publically express how tired they are without fear of losing their spot or coming off as unworthy of the league?
I hope the players of OWL Season 2 will benefit from the now public knowledge that player burnout in the OWL is a real and constant issue. I also hope neptuNo isn't the last player to publically express the need for a break and, personally, I think his decision to not play in the Overwatch World Cup is a good one.
Some may even call it the best decision ever made.
Photos by Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment.
Warcraft 3 is my one true love and I will challenge anyone to a game of Super Smash Brothers Melee.