How esports can be a valuable tool for mental health

PlayVS esports championship
Image credit: PlayVS

It’s always important to focus on your mental health. 

This topic, however, is especially emphasised throughout Mental Health Awareness Week (May 13th-19th), a global initiative to support charities within the field and create discussions around mental well-being. 

Similarly to traditional sports, esports can play a huge role in supporting the mental health of youth. As younger generations grow up in a more digitally savvy world, it’s important to tailor initiatives to help them navigate it safely, and esports is arguably well-placed to do just that.

With more youth embedded in gaming culture, creating more esports activities at the high school level, such as clubs and competitions, can promote positive social interactions and develop necessary skills such as leadership and communication.

Jon Chapman, the CEO of youth esports platform PlayVS, told Esports Insider about the benefits that healthy esports competition can have on mental health at the high school level in the US and Canada.

“The statistic I always cite is: For 46% of the students who participate on an esports team with PlayVS here in the US and Canada, it is the first extracurricular activity that they have ever participated in at school,” said Chapman. “That means esports are their first exposure to community and camaraderie, along with winning and losing — and these things are just as important as any subject.” 

As PlayVS’ CEO highlighted, providing extracurricular activities that modern youth can relate to, such as esports, helps create a community of students who share similar passions. This, in turn, should foster a healthy environment, create more inclusivity and bolster confidence, team dynamics and resiliency — all similar traits that can be found when taking part in traditional sporting competitions.  

ESI Lisbon 2024

Dispelling the stigma

Despite gaming and esports culture becoming more accepted across the world, there is a stigma still attached to the activities. Some still consider gaming to be an isolating experience, taking people away from communities as opposed to bringing them in. However, Chapman argues that it is important to distinguish solo gaming from esports, with the latter involving competition — online or offline — usually in a team setting. 

Whilst gaming and esports will always be intrinsically linked, educating individuals — whether parents or teachers — about the difference between the two will enable them to create productive environments that can positively affect well-being.

Kristin Anderson, Co-founder of player development platform FITGMR, agreed: “On the surface esports may appear unsocial to an untrained eye, if watching a player physically sit at the computer playing their game ‘alone’ at their console, however, what many don’t realise is that the field for their game is on their screen and at any given time there could be 5-10 others present.

“There is still a lot of education needed around esports and how it is similar, but different from gaming. Providing information which emphasises the team nature of esports, the different roles in the various games, the importance of ‘in-game comms’ to win matches and the kinship found between esports players.” 

Gaming, for many generations, can be a form of escapism which, in moderation, can have positive effects on a person’s mental health. To tap into that, FITGMR recently teamed up with mental health charity ShawMind to provide youth with tools and skills through gaming. 

Outside of specifically focusing on mental health, esports competitions and societies provide a range of other valuable transferable skills. The UC Irvine-based Connected Learning Lab, in collaboration with NASEF, found that esports activities resulted in 62% of parents reporting improvements in general life skills, a 38% increase in communication and 31% improved strategy among participating students. In 2019, a report on esports at Glebe School in Bromley, UK found that 96% of pupils said esports helped bolster social skills.

Creating Structures

PlayVS esports coach
Image credit: PlayVS

Since its creation in 2018, PlayVS has created competitive esports structures for US high schools across a myriad of titles, such as Super Smash Bros., Rocket League, League of Legends and more. This includes a range of leagues and tournaments that pit high schools against each other.

However, there is a balance that must be adhered to when it comes to implementing esports structures at a youth level. Competition is competition and therefore can be very intense. This is why PlayVS decided to put a team in place to ensure that its esports events don’t negatively affect the mental well-being of its competitors. The team works to stamp out toxic environments, avoid ‘grind’ mentalities and prevent burnout.

“One of the things that I’m really proud of at PlayVS, is we have an absolutely world-class and outstanding live operations team,” Chapman noted. “These are folks who create rulebooks on behalf of states, they moderate matches, they observe and moderate communication  lines and they look out for too intense bad behaviour and cheating.”

No matter whether it is esports or sports, Chapman also emphasised the importance of creating healthy habits and developing skills from a young age. This is partly why PlayVS recently expanded its operations into the middle-school level

“From middle school to high school — that 11 to 18-year-old range — many of your habits are formed. So we want to make sure that those habits involve applying and learning skills that come from healthy competition. Esports provides one of those outlets.”

It’s also vital that structures aren’t just created from a league operations perspective, but that the esports clubs that are formed as a result of this ecosystem have the correct systems in place.

The development of esports clubs at the scholastic level has come in leaps and bounds over the last few years, with coaching particularly at the forefront of this development. More educational institutions are understanding that it’s not sufficient enough to simply have an esports team, with coaches a necessary part of supporting students.

Anderson explained: “Equally important are the benefits associated with having a coach. Learning how to be coached, coachability, to take direction, feedback, guidance and support.

“The bond between player and coach can be very powerful to young athletes and structured scholastic esports makes this possible for many who otherwise would not have had the opportunity.”

What more can be done?

esports and mental health
Image credit: Shutterstock

Esports’ integration into the educational ecosystem is still in its infancy globally, however, from a competitive standpoint, the US arguably has the best structure due to its robust varsity sports culture. Platforms such as PlayVS will continue to provide opportunities for youth interested in competitive gaming, whether that’s as a hobby or a potential career route.

Considering youth esports is in its infancy, academic research on the effects esports can have on mental health is incredibly underdeveloped. However, as the scene continues to develop this will undoubtedly change. 

Both Chapman and Anderson have highlighted that providing more education to parents will help dispel negative connotations surrounding esports. However, Chapman believes that it needs to go one step further, with players also needing to be taught about maintaining positive mental health during these activities. 

“One of the things that we are contemplating and considering rolling out are certain academic or well-being resources that our esports players can have access to over the course of their season,” he said, “giving them some tools and tactics to best manage their mental health. Or we also may give them help to make connections to career opportunities, which is another real benefit to participating.”

Esports is just one activity that can help relieve mental stress. There are many other hobbies and sports that can provide similar benefits, and all should be done in moderation. However, as generations grow up idolising esports stars and gaming enters the cultural zeitgeist, utilising esports as a tool for positive mental development is an effective way to ensure that kids of all descriptions are provided with adequate mental care.

Tom Daniels
Tom has been part of Esports Insider's team since October 2020 and is currently the platform's Editor. When not playing Football Manager, he enjoys reporting on the mobile esports scene as well as the betting sector.