There was so much Adderall in Nick “MaNiaC” Kershner’s system that he hadn’t slept in 90 hours. Kershner, a former professional Halo player and content creator for OpTic Gaming, was flat on the hardwood floor bawling, unable to wiggle his toes.
Kershner cried every night for months – each time he tried to rest. Nobody saw these moments, other than Kershner’s orange tabby cat, Nick Jr. Sometimes his dream job was a nightmare.
The 30-year-old has been outspoken about mental health awareness since his month in rehab in January 2021 – especially mental health in gaming.
“I was excited to tell people what it was like,” Kershner told The Dallas Morning News, opening up about his past struggles. “But I was really scared of getting out of rehab and having to do everything I’ve done in esports without a Benzo or a Xanax.”
The red-haired, tattoo-covered Kershner said his peers in rehab were interested in his esports life. A couple had even heard of OpTic Gaming, which has its headquarters in Frisco. But a cool job didn’t shield him from stress, he said.
North Texas is a hub for esports in North America, and the first week of June will be popping with major events – days after the end of May’s mental health awareness month. Envy Gaming’s Dallas Fuel will host the Kickoff Clash Overwatch League tournament at Esports Stadium Arlington and send OpTic Texas to Toronto for Call of Duty League Major III. Complexity Gaming’s Counter Strike team will compete at DreamHack Dallas.
Teams practice, review their own gameplay and play in their free time on repeat to prepare for such events. Esports professional estimate that they regular put in more than 60 hours a week, with the intensity increasing during major tournaments.
It should be all fun, yeah? Kicking your feet up, playing video games every day for an esports life that can dig into six or seven-digit incomes. Seeing the influx of YouTube subscribers, Twitch donations or large crowds singing your praises because of video game skill. The 60-hour work weeks aren’t always glorious.
Pros will fill their bodies with caffeine, sit at their desks for 10 hours a day and ignore their physical health to reach pro status. Kershner said this life was manageable as a teenager, but it caught up with him.
“‘Ah, you play video games for a living? Wow, so lucky,’” Kershner said. “But to get to the point where you can play video games for a living, you are pretty much doing everything a human shouldn’t do.”
Mental Health America reported nearly 20% of adults are experiencing mental illness. The majority of pro gamers are between the ages of 18 and 25, and the numbers are even more concerning for teens.
There are mental health experts and coaches in esports, and they’ve learned that esports pros are misunderstood. They urge the non-stop work status quo to change.
Summer Scott, Director of Team Operations at Counter Logic Gaming, wanted to use her Bachelor’s degree in psychology to pursue her passion for gaming. That started with scouring Reddit forums to understand what gamers dealt with.
“It’s almost like a shame-driven step forward, where they are just fearful of being bad,” Scott said. “Fearful of justifying the Reddit post or Twitter comment. It’s not coming from a healthy sense of ego, but a fear-based spot.”
Why in esports?
Rehab didn’t cure Kershner of his social anxieties. It’s still a daily battle for him, and it’s hardest when he’s bored. Kershner made a ritual of morning workouts, something he believes is crucial for gamers.
It’s not a traditional sport. The work isn’t physical exercise. Too much mental demand is unhealthy, especially when paired with poor sleep and countless caffeine drinks, which experts say can harm psychological health.
“You are by yourself, not around people, not moving your body,” said Kershner, who has over 160,000 Twitch followers. “I think a lot of that stuff is very healthy and necessary for us to live a happy, fulfilled life. But when you get so deep into the game, you are pretty much doing everything to your body you shouldn’t be doing.”
Professional athletes aren’t immune to mental health problems either. Simone Biles brought awareness prior to last year’s Olympics, and NBA champion Kevin Love continued his mission for mental health awareness this year.
Mike MacCrory, Director of Mental Skills at Dallas-based Envy Gaming, experienced the pressure of being a student and an athlete firsthand as a Power-Five football player at TCU.
The Dallas Mavericks hired him and ushered his transition into esports through the NBA 2K League. MacCrory joined Envy as a full-time employee in 2019, talking with players about their daily stressors. Roles like his have become more common.
Gamers are locked in on winning, viewership and following. They forget to take care of themselves, and MacCrory wants to help.
“There are all these highly competitive outcomes that we become hyper focused on,” MacCrory said. “Because of that, we are naturally inclined to focus on those things instead of letting ourselves take a break or have rest.”
There are some elements of esports that are already changing because of the toll on its players. Complexity Gaming COO Kyle Bautista said leagues made efforts to lighten travel demands, especially with the knowledge absorbed from the global pandemic. Teams flying twice a week to play at live events wasn’t sustainable. Now the hybrid model of online matches and occasional live events is more prevalent.
“We definitely saw travel to the extent that it was maybe a little bit difficult on players from both a physical and a mental health perspective,” Bautista said. “And that’s something that, especially in Counter Strike, has been talked about for a long time.”
Facing the mental
Jason Docton dropped out of life in 2012. He quit med school, stopped leaving the house and turned down every invitation. Docton, who founded Rise Above the Disorder, a company which covers the cost of therapy around the globe, said he was ready to take his own life.
His love for helping people in his World of Warcraft guild kept him going.
“I thought maybe if I could convince someone to not take their life, I could justify taking my life,” Docton said. “World of Warcraft was the only world I existed in, so I set off to find somebody in World of Warcraft that I could convince to not take their life and it just never stopped.”
Docton eventually got the help he needed. Now also employs over 20 people at Rise Above the Disorder, and hopes to have its office in Frisco, to be at the heart of gaming.
Docton, like Scott and MacCrory, urges gamers to speak out and embrace that anxiety and depression are real. Acknowledging feelings is scary, but necessary.
Call of Duty League players did so right before Champs in 2021. Three-time world champion James “Clayster” Eubanks spoke out about his struggles during the pandemic. OpTic Texas’ Seth “Scump” Abner, the face of Call of Duty esports with 2.2 million Twitter followers, is always under the microscope.
Abner faces a dilemma unique to himself in Call of Duty, to the likes of Michael Jordan or LeBron James. He lifted the esport to its current height under the OpTic Gaming banner through a decade of championships and connecting with the audience.
Dedicating his life to winning wasn’t always fruitful, especially during a stretch in 2021.
“All I was doing was competing. I wasn’t streaming or anything like that. So that’s why I was a little bit down on myself,” Abner said. “That’s all I had. It was my job and I was doing a bad job at my job.”
Sad. I’ve been sad for months and months. I want to win so badly. I gave up personal content to try and improve just to get the same result. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Really just lost atm. I never talk about my mental health but damn it’s been rough recently.
— OpTic Scump (@scump) June 21, 2021
Scott said this mindset is more common than people realize. In front of the camera, pros may have big egos and unlimited confidence. That’s not always the case.
“A lot of the pro players that I’ve worked with don’t actually have a concept that they are that good,” Scott said. She’s had to remind players to eat, to shower, to text their families. VALORANT players asked Scott if they could participate in a tournament for leisure after a major competition.
She told them no. That was their time to be away from the job.
Kershner started taking that approach more. When he’s down he tells people about it. He learned his listeners weren’t limited to Nick Jr.
“It’s just a feeling in your body and in your brain, and nothing is actually happening. I’m getting to a point where I’m comfortable with suffering,” Kershner said. “Random days, when I’m feeling super anxious, sometimes I’ll just lay on my couch and feel it, not run from it … I think that gives me power over it.”
Being the change
It’s hard to talk about mental stress and feel powerful. Abner said it himself in his tweet.
“I never talk about my mental health.”
But Scott and Kershner both liked that word: power.
Scott wants to see more pros open up, especially with psychology experts. Docton’s company has worked to make that as available as possible to the gamers who don’t make lucrative salaries.
“I think it gives people their power back. Especially working with men, there is this allergy to admitting that you have emotions,” Abner said. “A lot of the conversations I have are about normalizing that emotions are not these bad things.”
Sending a tweet or talking openly can make a big difference, especially from high-profile individuals. Mental Health America reported that over 3.5 million adults experienced mental illness in Texas. MacCrory said mental health is still a taboo topic, and that people should understand they aren’t alone. Abner’s tweet, which had nearly 50,000 likes, had important reach.
Every time MacCrory sees “TL:DR” – short for too long, didn’t read – on his Twitter timeline, he already knows it’s an esports pro taking a step back. That’s hard to do. But MacCrory and Scott would like to avoid things ever getting to that place.
The days of practicing for 10 hours a day, six days a week don’t have to continue the same way traveling to a new Counter Strike twice a week didn’t have to.
“I think a lot of what we end up sacrificing and giving up has to do with the fact that we don’t actually know what the line is that you can reasonably get away with and still be really successful,” Scott said.
To start that conversion isn’t to be soft. It’s to be concerned and empathetic.
“Me coming out and saying all the stuff I did,” Kershner said.”I think it gave people hope to quit what they’re doing and start this journey of living a healthier, more comfortable, happier lifestyle.”
Kershner knows he’s not a therapist, but his situation has opened him to being a beacon for others. He wants you to talk about mental health with him.
Find more esports coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.
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