Digital Communities

Understanding the Experiences, Challenges, and Professional Identities of Esports Coaches

Abstract
The growth of esports has resulted in the emergent career of esports coaching, and with that career path, a need for professional consistency and development. However there is a lack of foundational knowledge, education and training for esports coaches, who often resort to using their own instincts and experiences for coaching in place of official standards and guidelines causing a level of fragmentation amongst the professions and the industry in general. Understanding the development of the esports coaches’s shared professional identity will help find the relationship between the professionals’ values and practice to workforce problems and industry barriers. Based on twenty-five semi-structured interviews, this research explores the experiences, challenges, and professional identities of esports coaches.
About the Author
Robin Kang

Robin Kang is a digital media and communications specialist who can optimize companies’ online presence to boost brand awareness and communication objectives. She has spearheaded a range of online and offline advocacy campaigns on issues such as pay equity, legalization of cannabis, reproductive rights, and more under the Association for Ontario Midwives and for the Ontario Public Health Association. She is currently working with Ryerson University First Year Engineering Office as a Transition Facilitator and is also the social media coordinator for the MDM program. Outside of the digital media sphere, Robin has extensive experience in the development and execution of conferences and workshops. In addition, Robin served as a liaison between government representatives, health professionals, organizational partners, and community members to foster system change at the provincial level. Robin is currently pursuing the Master of Digital Media degree at Ryerson University with a focus on esports.

About the Project


For the 2.3 billion active global gamers, pursuing a career in the esports industry appears more possible than ever, be it as players, or in other roles such as coaches, analysts, event organizers, managers and more. Functionally, esports operate in the same manner as major professional sports leagues, in that at the highest level, it requires intense training and focus as distinguished players and teams are constantly vying for the top spots in their game of choice. Esports players rely on an interdisciplinary staff, receive base salaries, and have specific windows of opportunities for signing with new teams.


However, unlike sports leagues, there is a lack of foundational knowledge for esports coaches, who often use their own instincts and experiences in place of official standards and guidelines for coaching, because they simply do not exist. This research looks at esports coaches through the lens of professional identity to provide in-depth insights into the factors that influence an individual’s orientation and demeanor, including in professional settings.


It is understood that a strongly rooted professional identity enables individuals to practice with confidence and professionalism by convincing others of their practical abilities. It develops over time through work socialisation and observation through peers, gaining insight into professional practices and values of the profession. Part of the attraction of identification research for numerous professional groups has been to find the connection between professionals’ view on their values and practice to workforce problems and strengthening the industry.  


Drawing from twenty-five semi-structured interviews with esport coaches, it shows that esport coaches’ identity consists of four main components, namely pioneers in a new industry, self-educators, hybrid coaches, and parental figures.


Esport coaches saw themselves as pioneers in this new industry as they navigated in establishing career pathways, standardized job responsibilities and skill sets, and educated the general public of this new profession.

  • As there is no education or career pathway to become an esports coach, almost all participants, regardless of the game and their current workplace or sector (e.g. amateur, collegiate, and professional), begun by volunteering as a coach or as a team member (e.g. player, manager, or analyst) on an amateur team to develop their skill sets.
  • Once coaches entered a paid position, most struggled to find precise job roles and responsibilities, but rather were presented with an overall expectation to “lead the team”. This included, but was not limited to, creating strategic and tactical approaches for the team, leading practice schedule and preparation for competition, managing staff and players, and helping to shape the direction of the team.
  • Collegiate esport coaches had additional or different expectations such as recruitment and retainment of students, initializing and running the school’s esports program and pursuing sponsorships and marketing the program.
  • As a new professionalized career, esports coaches became educators and advocates to the general public to fight against the stigma of being in the video gaming industry.



As esports coaching does not have official accreditation programs or educational systems, esports coaches are considered as self-educators, having very limited resources in building a foundation of coaching knowledge and in accessing best practices.

  • Some coaches rely on traditional sport coaching materials and resources to help build their own coaching philosophies and skill sets.
  • Esports coaches will use sources from Twitter, Discord, YouTube and Twitch to keep abreast of new developments and inspiration for new methods and knowledge of coaching.



Esport coaches can be considered as hybrid coaches, a blend between sports coaching with unique digital media related attributes and culture.

  • The ambiguous boundaries for esports coaches in general have given autonomy for them to develop unique structures however, it also meant that they had to take on multiple roles.
  • Esports coaches recognized that the physicality and mentality was the biggest difference between sports and esports and that esports was more a cognitive game with coordination of fine motor skills.
  • Esports coaches must be able to adapt and come up with strategies much more frequently based on the uncontrollable factors made frequently by the game developers (e.g. patch updates, new maps, new characters).
  • Collegiate esports coaches needed to be knowledgeable of various digital media skills including how to set up streaming, broadcasting, social media and understanding streaming platforms and subscriptions. They also were responsible for setting up and upkeeping the school’s esports arena that stationed multiple properly equipped computers.


A majority of respondents found one surprising responsibility attached to their role as an esports coach, becoming a parental figure to the esports players.

  • Many respondents noted that because esports players are very young and almost straight out of highschool, they had yet to develop basic “life skills” and found their role was to guide these players on how to work and live in a professional setting.
  • Respondents perceived that professional athletes gained experience and professionalism by going through stages of sports throughout their lives (e.g. little league, highschool, varsity) before entering the professional level whereas professional esports players are sometimes placed straight from the serious leisure scene.

The four central professional identities of esports coaches found in this study shed light on the gaps and challenges of this emerging profession and of the esport industry more generally. The findings were that there are parallels of sport and esport coaching dimensions and esports coaches can learn and gain insights by understanding traditional sports coaching profession through the lens of professional identity construction to further legitimize and strengthen the esports coaching profession. Findings also point to the lack of infrastructure in the esports industry and how it influenced in shaping the coaching roles and responsibilities. Given the benefits of professional identity, especially in a work environment that is gaining global recognition and expectations, it is in the best interests of the esports coaches and the esports industry in general to encourage continuous research development of professional identities.


To get a full copy of the research paper, please email Robin Kang at robin.kang@ryerson.ca.

MY NEONORMAL STORY
''
Esports operates under the combined logistics of traditional sports event attributes coupled with digital culture. Traditional sport entities highlight this growing relationship between sports and esports as they invest into establishing their own esports teams or creating their own virtual game representations of their sport. Even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic as major sports organizations such as the NBA, NHL and Formula One and sports broadcasters such as Sky Sports, Fox Sports, and ESPN have contributed to the biggest crossover between mainstream sports and esports to fill their suddenly empty schedules keeping both fans and sponsors happy. As the esports ecosystem continues to grow, so does the breadth of support roles that come with the industry such as coaches, administration, managers and more. The need for more esports related research that can strengthen the infrastructure is more apparent than ever as the shift of esports entertainment is no longer a niche community but a global professional industry.