Authors: Wanyi Tang

Corresponding Author:
Wanyi Tang
Doctoral Student
United States Sports Academy
One Academy Drive
Daphne, Alabama 36526

Wanyi Tang is a resident doctoral student and teaching assistant at the United States Sports Academy

Understanding Esports from the Perspective of Team Dynamics

This paper provides an overview of the esports industry and outlines recent development in esports research, with a focus on studies concerning impacts of team dynamics on performance. The characteristics of successful esports teams are identified through discussion on the variety of team resources and composition, the conceptualization of team cohesion in different dimensions, and the functions of communication and social support within a high performing team. It is also understood that participation in esports not only requires teamwork and communication skills, but can also serve as an opportunity for players to develop a variety of life and social skills.

Keywords: esports, team dynamics, cohesion, group communication, leadership

“Esport is a new area in the gaming culture, and is starting to become one of the most essential and popular part of video game communities, especially among adolescents and emerging adults” (Bányai, Griffiths, Király, & Demetrovics, 2018, para. 1). In recent years, the ever-increasing popularity of esports (electronic sports) has rendered the topic area increasingly relevant for academic study. However, while scholarly interests in esports have been growing, the amount of research on the discipline is still limited. Inconsistences in the definition of esports remain, although it is generally agreed upon that esports refers to structured, computer-mediated, and competitive multiplayer-gaming with spectators (Freeman & Wohn, 2017).

While it is different from traditional team sports which takes place in the physical world, esports also relies on teamwork that entails coordination, communication, and cohesion. Similarly, member attributes, motivation, and team process are factors to be taken into consideration when discussing the characteristics of high-performing esport teams. This paper will focus on the factors that impact team dynamics in esports. By examining the group dynamics in esports, a deeper understanding of the qualities that are key to team success in esports can be developed.

The Rise of Esports
Early esports started in the 1980s in the form of arcade video gaming, but it was the advancement in technology and the Internet, pushing esports into a new era where interactive communication could occur effortlessly, that has contributed to the rapid growth in esports consumption (Lee & Schoenstedt, 2011). In order to gain a better understanding of modern esports, it is necessary to establish a full picture of the esports ecosystem.

Esports Industry and Consumption
Similar to the commercialization of traditional sports, the popularity of modern esports has allowed the industry to become an unneglectable market segment. According to the Entertainment Software Association (n.d.),

In 2016, the industry sold over 24.5 billion games and generated more than $30.4 billion in revenue. Total game sales included purchases of digital content such as online subscriptions, downloadable content, mobile applications, and social networking games. Computer and video game companies provide jobs to more than 220,000 people in 50 states. (para. 6)

It is clear that the phenomenon of esports gaming has created lucrative market opportunities involving large number of individuals who participate in different ways, whether it be making and marketing the games, organizing gaming events, playing games, or being a spectator.
The relatively new industry is still evolving, with European and North American markets expanding quickly while Asia still being the most prominent geographic segment of the global market for now. The potential of esports consumption is vast, although right business decisions will need to be made in order to achieve the potential (Jenny et al., 2018). To keep esports consumption growing, a symbiotic relationship between professional players and the esports industry that is sustainable and beneficial for both needs to be cultivated.

While individual players can become famous and draw large audience as streamers, investors looking for sponsorship opportunities tend to perceive team brands as more valuable (Coates & Parshakov, 2016). Esports games based on traditional sports have also been gaining popularity in recent years, as more and more video game publishers partnering up with traditional sports franchises in the development of seasonal tournaments and esports representation of the franchises (Raraport, 2017).

Research on Electronic Gaming and Esports Players
Through a brief review of literature within the field of esports, two subjects that have received relatively more scholarly attention can be identified: 1. comparisons with traditional sports and 2. esports players.

Researchers have been trying to determine to what extent is esports similar to traditional sports in terms of the nature of the activity and the operation of the business model. Some argue that similarities exist in not only the nature of competition, but also the form of organized events, from judging, commentaries, live audiences, broadcasting, to cash rewards for players (Adamus, 2012; Jonasson & Thiborg, 2010; Lopez-Gonzalez & Griffiths, 2016). The discussion on whether esports should be classified as a professional sport is ongoing (Jenny, Manning, Keiper, & Olrich, 2017) with the contentions mainly surrounding the absence of physical movements and the (lack of) establishment of institutional stability (Hollist, 2015). However, the recent comment from the Olympic Channel (a digital platform launched by the International Olympic Committee with the priority to engage young people) that esports will be the next area to be explored (Grohmann, 2018) seems to indicate that the line between esports and traditional sports is getting increasingly blurred. Currently in the realm of public discourse, there still seems to be a social stigma against gamers. Esports players are trying to shatter the negative image associated with playing video games by liking themselves to athletes. For many, the similarities between esports and traditional sports are obvious enough to the extent that they view esports players as athletes albeit the lack of physical activities involved in gaming (McTee, 2014).

Characteristics of esports players have also been studied. Ma, Wu, and Wu (2013) defined esports players exclusively as professional gamers who viewed gaming as their job, as opposed to casual gamers who played for recreational purposes. Studies have looked at why people participate in gaming (e.g., Burroughs & Rama, 2015; Griffiths, 2017) and how the social and psychological elements in esports affect players’ gaming behaviors (e.g., Freeman & Wohn, 2017; Neidhardt, Huang, & Contractor, 2015). As the understanding of esports deepens, the effects of video gaming have been reexamined and the benefits of playing esports further explored (Cain, Landau, & Shimamura, 2012; Irons, Remington, & McLean, 2011; Powers, Brooks, Aldrich, Palladino, & Alfieri, 2013).

Becoming a Team Player
Himmelstein, Liu, and Shapiro (2017) identified team dynamics and communication as potential barriers for esports players in achieving optimal performance. Contrary to stereotypical perception of gamers, esports players need to communicate with teammates effectively and operate as a team member. Furthermore, collective intelligence has been identified as a predictor for the performance of esports teams (Engel et al., 2017). It would seem that group dynamics plays a critical role in team performance for esports in a similar way it does for traditional sports.
From the perspective of motivation, Martončik (2015) found that esports could satisfy the need to belong by creating relationships through membership in teams and the need for power by giving team leader the authority to determine course of action. Martončik’s findings also correspond with motivations for participating in online community. It has been found that individuals may continue participating in a site for reasons other than those that drew them to the site in the first place. Additionally, a sense of belonging to the site was important to all types of use across all types of users. Importantly, the predictors of contribution among these users seemed to not be associated with how easy the site was to use for them, but may instead have social or cognitive factors. (Lampe, Wash, Velasquez, & Ozkaya, 2010, p. 1935)

However, the impact of participating in esports is not merely limited to players’ online behaviors. It has been found to bleed out into real life (Freeman & Wohn, 2017), suggesting that any discussion on the qualities and attributes of esports players should incorporate two contexts: virtual environment experience and in-person social outcomes.

Characteristics of the Virtual Environment
Esports is inherently prone to being commercialized due to the internalization of video games and devices in any esports activity. While traditional sports also rely on gears, they tend to not take on a role as highlighted as their counterparts in esports do. Some of the most popular esports tournaments, such as League of Legends World championship and Dota 2 Championship (Raraport, 2017), feature just one multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game for the entire event. Understandably, the developers and publishers of these games are heavily concerned with and invested in the success of such events.

The definition of esports also indicates a highly tasked-oriented and competitive environment, which requires fast response and efficient decision-making on the part of the participants. Similar to athletes of traditional sports, skilled esports players have developed their expertise by long periods of learning and practicing.

While players can become highly-skilled on an individual level, teamwork involving both online and offline interactions is essential for a high performance team (Freeman & Wohn, 2017). As the industry continues to grow—drawing in more and more sponsors and investments—professional esports events are likely to become increasingly commercialized, which will render high-performance teams even more valuable financially.

Lee and Schoenstedt (2011) have observed similar patterns of fan consumption between esports and traditional sports. Like fans of traditional sports franchises, loyal fan base can be built around the brands of esports teams, at which stage the financial promises really begin to materialize.

However, there is one prominent difference in fans’ consumption motives, namely the lack of location-based attachment since esports players of a team might be from different parts of the world. While the sentiment of regional allegiance is likely to grow stronger with the emergence of more and more international competitions involving national teams representing their own countries—such as the FIFA Interactive World Cup initiated by the industry giant Electronic Arts (Khan, 2016)—the lack of physical and spatial constraints is still a vital component in the appeals of esports, which makes team performance, (in another word, winning), extremely important for fan support, as opposed to traditional sports where fans may support a local team regardless of its performance.

The Making of Esports Teams
One question that is often brought up in the discussion on group dynamics of esports is the distinction between professional teams and teams composed of casual gamers who voluntarily form groups. While a narrow definition of esports may exclude the latter from being esports players, from the perspective of group dynamics, it is still worth examining both types of teams.

As discussed earlier, on the professional front, the trend of partnerships between esports leagues and traditional sports franchises can be observed. Traditional sports franchise owners are eager to expand into the esports industry to profit from revenue streams including sponsorships, merchandise, tickets and media rights. The involvement of traditional sports would likely lead to more permanent franchises, stable contracts, and team-centric advertising in esports, all of which have been proven to be the recipe for financial success for traditional sports (Badenhausen, 2017). Accordingly, professional esports teams are likely to become increasingly similar to traditional sports teams in terms of player recruitment, contract, and compensation. To better protect the players, rules and regulations, which currently are close to non-existent (McTee, 2014), will need to be put in place. How the new structures and formalization of hiring will impact esports team dynamics remains to be seen.

With regard to the casual players, while spectators of esports tournaments are not necessarily gamers, the majority of esports consumers and the core fan base of esports events are individuals who play games themselves (Lee & Schoenstedt, 2011). As a result, casual players, who usually meet each other online in the games randomly and start to become a team spontaneously, continue to be the most important segment of esports consumers and consequently the main target of marketing.

Esports businesses and sponsors would benefit by gaining a deeper understanding of how to enhance the enjoyment of participating in the games so as to attract more players. However, the situation can become tricky for game developers. For one thing, while games are designed to be as interesting and engaging as possible, there is a risk of becoming addicted, which could harm the players’ health and wellbeing. For another, so much of the gaming experience relies on interactions with other gamers, which is partly out of the developers’ control. Gamers’ enjoyment is heavily influenced by their teams (Freeman & Wohn, 2017); thus, the study of group dynamics of online gaming teams and communities is relevant for game developers in the sense that using the findings of such study they may be able to create more enjoyable gaming environments by manipulating certain elements in their games.

Sometimes the line between the two types of teams can become blurred with the help of major tournaments such as the Evolution (EVO) Championship Series, the largest fighting game tournament in the world, which according to the head of EVO, is more than just winning. EVO is open to anyone, feature stations available for relaxed free play, and offer unique opportunities to meet people from different countries and different walks of life who share your passion. Established champions face off against unknown newcomers and new rivals that might have only talked or fought online meet up and become old friends. (“Upcoming Event,” n.d., para. 5)

It would seem that while professional teams are likely to be more stable and structured, the differences between professional and non-professionals teams can be reduced since the barrier of getting into the esports world is not as high as some traditional sports. However, while it seems easy to have a team by just start playing, to build a high performance esports team that succeeds in the highly competitive gaming world is a complex process which requires much time and effort.

While exhaustive research has been done in the field of sports team synergy and process (Carron & Eys, 2012), the development of esports teams still sees an absence of in-depth research on team dynamics, which is likely to be influenced by a variety of factors. The following discussion looks at what it takes to build a successful esports team from the perspective of group dynamics. The theoretical framework used involves the resources and composition of a team, the conceptualization of team cohesion in task and social dimensions, and the functions of communication and social support in a group setting.

The Resources and Composition of a Team
According to Carron and Eys (2012), team resources are members’ attributes, such as physical size and body type, mental and motor abilities, and personal traits. These attributes would interact with each other, with the end result being the unique group composition. One of the most studied psychosocial attributes related to team performance is individual and group motivation.

Several comparisons can be drawn between an esports and a traditional sports team in this regard. Like a sports team, heterogeneous skills of players are required for most esports teams, which means based on the division of responsibilities, each player contributes to the variability of team resources. Apart from skill levels, cognitive capacities have also been found to have an impact on group performance (Carron & Eys, 2012). This is particularly relevant to esports, given that participating in esports could potentially contribute to one’s cognitive development and cognitive skills have been positively linked to high-performing esports players (Pereira, Wilwert, & Takase, 2016).

Esports offers players the opportunity to form teams and forge relationships with people from the other side of the globe, resembling the way traditional sports teams recruit internationally. While diverse cultural contributions may sometimes hurt group dynamics (Carron & Eys, 2012), the diversity in race and ethnicity has been found to be conducive to individual’s cognitive development in a group environment (Gauvain, Beebe, & Zhao, 2011). For instance, in their interviews with esports players, Freeman and Wohn (2017, p. 442) found that a few players pointed out that understanding team members’ different cultural perspectives and “the unique experience of suffering through a defeat” made them grow up and become better people intellectual, mentally, and emotionally: I’ve had opportunities to meet, talk to, and become friends with hundreds of people from all around the world and gain a very great cultural perspective.

Team Cohesion in Task and Social Dimensions
While the variability of group composition is often a prominent feature of esports teams, how efficiently the resources of a team can be utilized also depends on the compatibility of members, since each member’s performance is influenced by how well he/she can work with others in the group (Carron & Eys, 2012).

It is generally accepted that team cohesion facilitates cooperation among members and contributes to team performance, although researchers have not yet reached a consensus regarding the definition of cohesion other than the understanding of several key elements of the concept, including its task and social dimensions (Salas, Grossman, Hughes, & Coultas, 2015).

As mentioned earlier, esports teams operate in a highly task-based environment. While for casual players the main goal might be having fun, the competitive nature of most MOBA games renders the objective of winning an essential component and a priority of the overall gaming experience. For professional teams, the objective of winning becomes even more crucial, which puts the players in a tough position where in order to win they must be able to collaborate under pressure.

Fighting side by side in the virtual world. Studies have identified correlation between enhanced team cohesion and better team performance in a variety of contexts (e.g., Chiu, Owens, & Tesluk, 2016; Dingsøyr, Fægri, Dybå, Haugset, & Lindsjørn, 2016; Falcão, Bloom, & Loughead, 2015; Salas et al., 2015; Thompson et al., 2015). In sports, specifically, the mutual influence between team cohesion and performance has been identified and analyzed on individual as well as group levels (Carron & Eys, 2012). Considering the resemblances esports bears to traditional sports in terms of team synergy and dynamics, it is reasonable to apply at least some of the findings in traditional sports to the players fighting side by side in the virtual world.

A team composed of avatars of gamers in the virtual gaming environment is just like a team of athletes on the football field in the sense that both groups are in a combat zone facing the enemies together. A high-performing esports team is like a sophisticated machine that functions smoothly with each part put together in a meticulously designed fashion. To achieve victory, team members need to cooperate, support each other, and sometimes make sacrifice for others. The sense of team cohesion is greatly strengthened when members feel they can trust others on the team to look out for them (De Jong, Dirks, & Gillespie, 2016), which in the virtual world often means the difference between life and death.

Group cohesion is shown to have critical relevance to team performance when the teams work in highly stressful and task oriented environments (Charbonneau & Wood, 2018), which explains why cohesion is such a vital ingredient for the success of esports (Kozachuk, Foroughi, & Freeman, 2016). From the perspective of task dimension, cohesion has an impact on team process and output by influencing every members’ decision making process and response rate (i.e., players would not need to spend any time worrying about themselves if they are assured of their team members’ skills/willingness to watch their back). In the process of fighting together and accomplishing tasks, members of an esports team start to develop camaraderie and a sense of belongingness to the team, which, on the one hand, further contributes to increasing team cohesion and performance, on the other hand, often bleeds into other domains of players’ life (Freeman & Wohn, 2017). One particular aspect of esports that is relevant to the discussion lies in the impact it has on players’ inter-person relationships.

Changing social behaviors. Similar to the mutual impact between involvement in traditional sports and individual’s social outcomes (Thomas et al., 2017), researchers have been examining the relationship between participating in esports and players’ social behaviors, with correlation found between gaming experience and changes in players’ social process and inter-person interactions (e.g., Boyle et al., 2016; Greitemeyer & Mügge, 2014; Seo & Jung, 2016).

One possible cause for such changes has something to do with motivation. While escaping from reality might be what attracts people to play video games in the first place, the interactive experience offered by online games has no doubt transcended the gaming practice itself (controlling the chosen avatar in the virtual world to move and complete tasks). In fact, social experience was found to be an important motive for esports consumption (Freeman & Wohn, 2017). Presumably, players start playing video games for the things they could do in the virtual world, but once the gaming experience sinks in and begins to change their online and offline social behaviors, continue playing because they like what they have become through playing.

While casual esports players have reported changes in their online and offline social behaviors (Freeman & Wohn, 2017), for professional esports players, the impact of engaging in esports seems to be only more significant: It is normal for team members to get together physically for competitions, which requires the team to travel together and, similar to traditional sports, contributes to the bonding among team members (Carron, & Eys, 2012). For professional players, the social dimension of esports is extremely helpful in that it could not only influence their performance in the game, but also offer them emotional and social support in the face of great pressure or failure.

Also similar to traditional sports, leaders are important in providing support for team members. According to the Institute of Esports Leadership, the need for effective leadership has never been more so, where people require confidence, resilience and determination in developing and building their leadership style. Every day, we see more individual gamers and teams, both professional and amateur, trying to build a portfolio in a global phenomenon that seems to be dominated by a select few. (Dunn, 2016, para. 2)

While the responsibilities of leaders of esports teams mainly involve coordinating intellectual labor and duties within their teams, the current esports industry, which suffers from lack of regulation, transparency, and equality (Hollist, 2015), places upon them the responsibility to provide essential social support for team members.

Effective communication. Based on the discussion above, it becomes clear that to get the most of the online gaming experience, social skills, including the instrumental skills to effectively cooperate with others and the emotional capacity to support team members online and offline, are necessary. For both team leaders and members, the process of social interaction requires them to communicate in an environment which is made of competition but can only be survived via cooperation. It is imaginable that those equipped with effective communication skills are more likely to navigate through the intricate circumstances successfully and obtain better results of communication.

In the process of trying to survive and succeed in a complex gaming environment, esports teams naturally tend to emphasize the sense of community (Freeman & Wohn, 2017), which could also have an effect on their communication process. According to Penrod (1986; cited in Carron & Eys, 2012, p. 223), the three categories of factors influencing the effectiveness of changing group members’ attitudes are “the source of the communication, the nature of the communication, and the nature of the target.” For esports teams, multiple communication sources and targets are often present at the same time, with the purpose of exchanging instrumental, emotional, and social support within and outside of the game. While at the beginning a team may view communication as a tool for achieving better performance, as members connect and bond through the shared gaming endeavor, they experience a greater sense of friendship and comradery, and the communication process itself may become a major source of enjoyment. One might argue that at this point, while the nature of the players’ communication process may retain its original characteristics (instrumental, situational, multi-faceted, and dynamic), the focus of the communication is likely to have been shifted from the initial utilitarian purposes.

Today the benefits of playing video games are still up for debate, with some studies (e.g., Boot, Blakely, & Simons, 2011; Murphy, 2009) failing to replicate findings of gamers having improved cognitive abilities (e.g., Cain, Landau, & Shimamura, 2012). The fact that the differences between video gaming and esports are not clearly established also renders it difficult for any previous conclusions on gaming to be applied to esports. Furthermore, there has not been any study on esports players conducted on a large scale, partly due to the costs and challenges of engaging esports players (Kozachuk, Foroughi, & Freeman, 2016).

However, as discussed in the paper, for the industry to grow in a healthy and sustainable manner and, more importantly, for the wellbeing and success of the players, it is imperative to develop a better understanding of the fast growing industry as well as the player communities.

Success in Esports
Similar to traditional sports, the performance of esports teams is influenced by team dynamics. Therefore, the social dynamic of a team should be viewed as important social capital that needs to be cultivated and developed. Reinforcing team cohesion within the fast-advancing communication environments should be a priority for team leaders of esports.

To really establish an effective communication mechanism incorporating both online and offline components, team leaders as well as members would need to strengthen the sense of cohesion in the communication process. Esports participation could also serve as an opportunity for team members to improve their social skills. And the resulting improved social outcomes could in turn contribute to players’ enjoyment and performance.

The Dark Side of Esports and Future Studies
Unfortunately, the growth and opportunities in esports have also resulted in a series of issues (Hattenstone, 2017), among which are addiction (which has always been a focus of research on gaming), player exploitation (which, given that many players are young, could cause serious damage), and corruption (which has sadly become common in the more established traditional sports industry). To combat these issues, game developers and publishers must work with the gaming community to develop rules and regulations which are conducive to a better and safer esports ecosystem (Hollist, 2015).

As mentioned in the paper, esports could offer opportunities for leadership skill development, which warrants further study. Future studies should also examine how esports can help players improve their communication skills. How the encroachment of traditional sports franchises and the formalization of hiring practice will impact team dynamics is another topic area worth paying attention to.

I would like to thank Dr. Brandon Spradley for his assistance in the development of this manuscript.

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