A Year of Burnout
Burnout has been prevalent in the Counter-Strike scene this year, but what can be done about it?
Esports has truly blossomed over the past few years: interest, viewership, investment, production quality, and popularity have all been climbing as the scene continues to grow. One of the main benefits of esports slowly integrating into the mainstream has been the dismantling of negative stereotypes surrounding gaming. Still, one of the most overlooked issues in our community continues to be the well-being of professional players.
In the Counter-Strike scene specifically, a dialog surrounding player's health has been opened up this year, but is it too little too late?
A new kind of injury
Injuries are by no means new to CS. Richard "shox" Papillon underwent surgery for a wrist injury in March 2018, Ruben "RUBINO" Villarroel was sidelined from Heroic in May of that year due to an eye infection, and Ke "captainMo" Liu was hospitalized following a segway accident later that same month. However, what's new is the alarming rate at which professional players have been experiencing burnout, and while there were inklings of it in late 2019, 2020 has truly taken its toll on our scene's pro players.
The travel fiasco
Coming into the New Year, many pros felt out of it due to the excessive travel required to attend all the events at the top level. The most extreme example of this would've been Evil Geniuses' travel itinerary, with the North American team flying 11 times in three months, more often that note between continents. In March 2020, the first professional player to go inactive due to burnout was non-other than Team Vitality's captain, Alex "ALEX" McMeekin. The Brit was unable to keep up with the brutal schedule associated with traveling to each LAN event, thus benching himself on the French squad only to resurface recently as Cloud9's new in-game leader. While some tournament organizers looked to make changes to the tournament landscape by modifying their leagues to eliminate non-essential travel, the world would be in for a surprise with the Covid-19 pandemic going global.
Official statement regarding our CS:GO team. pic.twitter.com/ioAGqfx86M— Team Vitality (@TeamVitality) March 4, 2020
While the pandemic certainly eliminated traveling issues, it also brought along its fair share of new problems. As travel became prohibited and quarantines mandatory, tournaments were canceled across the globe, and TOs had to adapt by moving their events to an online setting. On the one hand, players would be able to carry out their official matches from the comfort of their own homes, but on the other hand, no real breathing room was given to them in between events as the oversaturation persisted. While professional players indeed were fortunate to continue working during the quarantine, they have also suffered just like everyone else. There's a lot of pressure to perform that comes with the job, and it's no secret that consistency is scarce in an online era.
Furthermore, as teams are stuck at home, the CS:GO scene essentially became region-locked, meaning that teams are always facing the same opposition, both in practice and official matches. While there have been many adverse side effects relating to the move to regional online play, the central point we'll focus on in this case is the feeling of sameness. While excessive travel is less than ideal, qualifying for an event in another country is very exciting! You get to see another part of the world, experience the LAN setting, and face some of the best teams in the world in a melting-pot of CS styles. In the online era, teams are qualifying or attending different events, all held online, versus the same teams they played against just a week prior. Understandably, excitement and motivation will begin to dip for many, as it feels like they're stuck in a Counter-Strike time loop. With prize pools also being reduced due to events all being online, it's not even as though players can find fiscal motivation beyond salaries.
Obviously, there's no one-size-fits-all reason why certain players feel burnt out, but 2020 easily holds the record for the largest amount of pros taking a break due to burnout. Follwing in ALEX's footsteps, Markus "Kjaerbye" Kjærbye, Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander, Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer, Timur "buster" Tulepov, and Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth all took medical leave in May 2020.
The most recent cases are those of Ninjas in Pyjamas' Tim "nawwk" Jonasson and AVEZ's Kamil "KEi" Pietkun, who both took time off in late September. KEi's departure from active play should also serve as a reminder that it isn't just the top teams that can feel burned out. In fact, quite a few of the teams with the most maps played this year aren't even in HLTV's top 30.
There are quite a few things that can be done to limit the feeling of burnout and keep pro players' health in mind. Many organizations have followed in Astralis' footsteps, as the Danish organization decided to bolster its squad with two additional players, resulting in a seven-man roster. Aurimas "Bymas" Pipiras was initially signed by mousesports as a developmental player before being promoted to the main roster shortly after. As a part of its talent development strategy, North signed Kristoffer "kristou" Aamand and loaned him back to AGF Esport following his stint as a stand-in for Kjaerbye. Even the new Cloud9 Colossus roster is being built with the idea of a sixth back-up player in mind. While it may seem like the new normal, this new methodology brings quite a drastic change to how rosters are formed and would've been considered unthinkable just a few years ago.
Even TOs are partaking in the process of advocating for player well-being. While there were many conflicting opinions on the matter, the conversation of tournament start and end times was recently brought up in the community. Some matches began at 10:00 AM, while others would end into the early hours of the morning. The inconsistency in the scheduling of games left plenty of pros feeling unhappy, as consistency is vital when performing at your best level. While there's only so much you can do to eliminate unwanted variables in the online era, controlling the times at which matches start and end is definitely within our control. As such, ESL and DreamHack have worked with the CSPPA, vowing to keep a consistent schedule moving forward while also limiting the number of group stage matches to avoid unnecessary fatigue.
When it comes down to it, could the number of burnout cases be higher than it currently is? Yes, of course, but it thankfully isn't. There's only so much we can do in the middle of a pandemic to ensure our scene's healthy development, as following government guidelines to limit the spread of Covid-19 comes first. While things certainly aren't perfect, it's been great to see what solution organizations, tournament organizers, and players have taken to limit the effects of burnout over the course of this year. With the likes of the CSPPA, Prodigy Agency, and many other third parties advocating for our scene's professional players' well-being, things are at least headed in the right direction, and it'll be crucial to continue the conversation even once the pandemic is over.