The Psychology of Esports – Professor Stewart Cotterill

Stewart is Head of School for Psychology, Sport and Physical Activity at AECC University College, and a Professor of Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology.

He has over 15 years’ experience as a consultant psychologist across a wide range of professional/amateur sports, as well as across a broad range of performance domains.

This year, Stewart has been working as a performance coach for professional esports players based across Europe. He tells us more about the psychological challenges that these players face and how he has been supporting these individuals to enhance their performance:

“Esports is a computer game-based competition, where players either compete as individuals, or as both individuals and as part of a multiplayer team depending upon the game. Some of the most well-known games include Fortnite, Call of Duty, FIFA and Rocket League. Esports offers significant earning potential for those players who become professionals.

“While the context is different, many of the challenges experienced by esports players at a social and professional level are similar to those facing other sporting athletes. What’s more, there is currently a real desire in esports for organisations to actively support their players’ growth and development as well as supporting performance outcomes.

“As a result, there are great opportunities for sport psychologists to support esports athletes and to make a positive impact on psychological performance in this exciting and growing sporting arena.”

Enhancing performance of Esports players

“There are a number of similarities between esports and other performance domains, such as the military, emergency services, and the performing arts in terms of the factors impacting upon psychological performance, as such strategies already developed for these fields of performance can be effectively applied to esports.

“Lifestyle challenges are a key consideration for these professionals. In my experience, many esports players benefit from improvements to their sleep routines. Part of my job is to support them to improve both the quantity and quality of their sleep.

“This lack of quality sleep often stems from an overall lack of structure or daily routine. Poor sleep and a lack of routine can also have a negative impact on the timing of mealtimes and the quality of food and drink consumed.

“The other challenge I regularly come across with these esports players relates to their exercise behaviour and general physical activity levels. Many esports players are social as well as professional gamers and as a result, they risk not getting away from the screen and engaging in regular physical activity.

“Ensuring this is planned in the day/week is important to maximising their wellbeing as well as positively impacting upon their cognitive performance.”

Psychological challenges

“By the time esports players turn professional many of them have often evolved techniques and tools that help them to perform effectively, and to cope with the pressures they experience.

“Key psychological challenges that I have come across that players experience relate to include: emotional control, focusing effectively, and also maintaining confidence.

“A lot of confidence in esports is linked to the readily-available data and stats relating to gameplay, which can make players very dependent on this one source of confidence, which can be a problem if they are going through a period of poorer form.

“Another challenge that is increasingly experienced by professional esports players is having to cope with online abuse. Esports events can attract very large online audiences, and the nature of the platforms and links to players’ social media profiles makes it easy for players to receive feedback, suggestions and also abuse from other online users (trolls).

“Coping with this sort of online activity can be a challenge for players and affect their ability to perform.”

Challenge of multiplayer teams

“The concept of esports teams is something I have become increasingly aware of during my time working in the sport. Esports organisations often put together talented players to operate as multiplayer teams, but historically there has not been a particularly structured approach to the development of the team’s ability to function effectively and cohesively at a team rather than task-focused level.

“In this regard many of the core concepts underpinning team performance in sports teams can be applied, such as enhancing role clarity, developing shared mental models, enhancing communication and developing shared leadership structures.

“Overall there are real opportunities for sport and performance psychologists to work with esports players and organisations to further enhance both the performance and wellbeing of professional esports players.”

Stewart is a past chair of the British Psychological Society (BPS) Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology, and editor emeritus for the journal Case Studies in Sport and Exercise Psychology, as well as sitting on the editorial boards of a number of other journals.

He also writes a blog on his website, entitled Think Performance. You can take a look here.