In 2021, two FIFA players represented by Goliath Gaming, 20-year-old Julio Bianchi and high-schooler Thabo Moloi, were the first esports athletes to make the Forbes Africa 30 under 30 list. As young people and professional athletes balancing school and career, they look to Stephan for guidance in order to triumph under pressure.
Stephan grew up playing games. “I remember going to a NAG LAN festival in the early 2000s and being completely bewildered that thousands of South Africans were congregating to play games, and that there was a thriving competitive scene,” he says. In his early twenties, he began competing in esports but he also noticed negative emotions like frustration and anger were heightened whenever he was gaming. While working on establishing a healthier relationship to the genre, his curiosity into the links between high performance gaming, unhealthy gaming and video game addiction was piqued.
Today he works with Goliath Gaming to coach players on their mental and physical well-being, both inside and outside of the games. We spoke to him about what this entails.
Does sports psychology have a more nuanced role in esports, considering it’s largely a mental sport?
In reality, our minds are embodied, so the physical and mental are always intertwined. So, we find a lot of overlap between how sports psychology operates in the esports space versus traditional sports. We can think of sports psychology as the psychology of high performance and well-being. With the athlete’s well-being and performance as the objectives, a sports psychologist will utilise the same techniques for developing mindset, harnessing focus, team-building, motivation, developing grit, and offering counsel in defeat. In addition, we see the same application of regimented training schedules, methods of improvement, and the importance of healthy lifestyle.
What’s the schedule of a professional esports athlete?
Well, 90% of our players either work or study so our professional esports schedule at the moment entails large chunks of sacrifice. I’m constantly motivated by how hard our players work. Many commit to full-time jobs and studies before coming home to get their daily hours of practice in. The full-time competitive gamer schedule we aspire to consists of a good night’s rest (eight hours!), daily exercise (morning time, before practice) and a wholesome, nourishing meal to tick all the lifestyle boxes before practice even begins.
What are some of the unique pressures esports athletes are up against when competing?
I’m rather insistent on noting that competitive gaming is extremely demanding on time, and it is almost always a sedentary activity. It raises the concern of health risks related to being seated for prolonged durations in front of screens. I believe it’s necessary for esports athletes to be mindful of the lifestyle that comes with gaming. Staying active, taking breaks in between long sessions of practice, stretching, getting sunlight, and tending to relationships and responsibilities outside of gaming is important.
What are the environments, fans and communities like?
The gamers, the athletes, and the fans are the beating hearts of gaming and esports in South Africa. There’s tons of enthusiasm, love, and energy for gaming in our esports scene. I lose my voice at just about every competition. It’s always a turn-up, especially for Goliath Gaming, sporting our red-hot GG and Nike team gear.
What makes some people better gamers than others? And how does the mind come into this?
It’s in the passion. You have to be entranced by your craft before you can excel. You have to have that feeling of ‘I want to be great at this!’ It’s got to grab you enough that you remain motivated to put in the time, to push through the failures, and to keep orienting yourself toward improvement. Of course, skill and talent are necessary—but these traits are forged through genuine engagement in your craft. Talent and skill cannot manifest and thrive unless there is an ethos of hard work and determination.
Do you have some tips or exercises that you give gamers that anyone could use in their lives?
We’re currently developing gamer-specific stretches and workouts, so you’re going to have to watch the GG space for this one. Though any advice I could give would circle around the three pillars of health: good diet, exercise, and sleep. Tend to these and I guarantee you’ll be a better gamer than you are without them.
How established is the esports industry in South Africa compared to abroad?
Our tendency here is to compare ourselves to America and Europe and say we fall short. But are these realistic comparisons? Surely not in terms of gaming and internet accessibility. Maybe it’s more thought-provoking to think about how we fare in Africa, or other regions in the global south. Interestingly, South Africa trails only behind Egypt for total gaming revenue in Africa, with South African gamers boasting the highest earnings through esports in Africa. Players and teams from South America, South Africa, and Australia have all broken through to the international scene.
Our biggest issues are the connectivity barriers incurred from being so geographically isolated from other popular gaming regions, along with accessibility issues in our country that restrict the numbers of youngsters that can get involved in esports.
South African gamers boast the highest earnings through esports in Africa.
Both of these will take time to address, though I’m confident in the growing esports community. The roots already run a few decades deep, nurtured by an enduring group of tournament and league organisers, gaming organisations, casting talent, media producers, gaming journalists and many other professionals who are determined to see esports blossom in our country.