Developing Mental Toughness in Esports

Posted by Caitlin November 27, 2020 in AdviceGamingMental Health and Wellbeing

In a 2019 interview, sports psychologist Mia Stellberg, now famous for working with; Astralis, Team OG and most recently Ence, commented that she feels “being an eSports athlete is more demanding than being an athlete on the traditional side” (Red Bull Gaming, 2019). So, in this world of eSports highs and lows, what can the aspiring athlete do to help deal with all these pressures.

In a recent study, Poulus and colleagues (2020) explored mental toughness (MT), coping styles and stress in eSports. A discussion of coping styles can be found in a previous article ( Poulus and his researchers’ study proposed that as an eSports athlete increases in levels of MT, they are more likely to use adaptive forms of coping and less like to use the more problematic forms.

I suppose the next question is, what is MT? Personally, I like the definition proposed by Guccicardi (2015) that it works as a resource caravan, that is it allows a transfer of psychological resources where someone with lower MT might struggle. Graphic 1. aims to demonstrate this, with the first chart (Green) showing someone who feels that they can “win” or achieve their goals for that match. Here we can see the player believes that their perceived demands are not greater than the available resources. We can commonly see this when a player is matched against someone they perceive to be weaker than them, they may for example have a lower in-game rating. The second bar (Red), shows the converse situation, where the player believes that their current goal is greater than their abilities. This could be seen in the adverse scenario where a player believes they are lower ranked. The third and final example (Orange), shows how despite the player being a lower-ranked, their MT kicks in, represented by the blue hashing, and allows them to have a buffer and believe they can win. Using the example of in-game ratings again, this would be the participant using PSC and challenging their ratings, that they are just as good, if not better and the in-game rating is not an equal representation of their actual abilities. This highlights the important impact of how our own perceptions are key to performance.

I have for a long time advised against using in-game ratings as an effective tool for skill. NFL quarterback Tom Brady was famously considered on paper a terrible draft pick and has now won more super bowls than anyone ever. In the world of Esports, a similar parallel can be drawn in OGs DOTA team. In 2018, after having their roster ripped apart by Evil Geniuses, they pick up a random pub-star Topson who had never played at a LAN, their coach is now a player and everyone had them going out straight away. Not only did they go on to win the whole thing, but they also did it their way. Valve now record the finals from the players POV, in their ongoing series “True Sight”, and they give us a unique insight into the behaviours of these top players. Now, I could talk about True Sight for literal hours, however, to keep this on point, we can look at one moment, during the draft on the final deciding match. Here, Topson begins to show some small cracks in his confidence,, (Dota2, 2019) the pressure of the situation might be finally getting to the young player. But then, we can see with some insight from Ceb (a literal psychological wizard of the game), he snaps himself back into a confident focused state. This is a prime example of the buffering that MT gives, as Topson collects these resources; his personal confidence in the hero, his teammate’s encouragement and the collective knowledge of his own skill helped him to go on and to succeed.

But why? Why is this so important, why do I write two articles talking about how you need to effectively cope and believe you can win. And the answer is a simple one, flow states, and to explain what a flow state is I again refer back to the Wonderful Wizard of OG, Ceb, (Dota2, 2019). “So we have a little more challenge today, I mean, the cameras and stuff. I promise that 30 seconds in we’re gonna forget about it and it’s gonna be gone, don’t think about it.” So let’s dissect this a little, he proposes that there will be a unique challenge, more so than previous games, the cameras. Referring back to our graphs, we can see that this will add to the perceived demands. They are just about to go into a grand final, and they have the added pressure of the cameras. This might then push them from graph 1, over to graph 2; how can they deal with this? “Don’t think about it”, Ceb proposes an avoidance coping strategy for the cameras. Which, in turn, will allow them to just “forget about it”, and this forgetting will be the key mark for them entering a flow state.

Want a definition of a flow state? How do they work? How they are beneficial? Well, that’s for another article.