The (not so) beautiful game: A brief look at problematic videogame playing among professional football players

Today’s blog briefly looks at the issue of problematic gaming amongst footballers and whether it is an issue that professional football clubs must take seriously. In a previous article I wrote about gambling (and gambling addiction) among professional footballers which has become a well-known issue over the last couple of decades. The reasons for why professional footballers gamble have similarities to why they play videogames.

It is the night before a big match. Professional football players are confined to staying in a hotel. No sex. No alcohol. No junk food. Basically, no access to all the things they might love. To pass time, footballers may watch television, play cards for money, or play a video game believing these are ‘healthier’ for them. The difficulty in detecting problematic gaming is likely to be one factor in its growth over other forms of potential addiction – especially as many players are more health-conscious and the testing for alcohol and drugs is now more rigorous. However, any of these ‘healthier’ activities when taken to excess can cause problems. Many years ago, England goalkeeper David James once claimed his loss of form was because of his round-the-clock video game playing. In short, the top players are very well paid and inevitably have lots of time on their hands.

During my career, I have been asked a handful of times by the press to comment on why footballers play videogames. For instance, I was recently interviewed by The i newspaper about the medical consequences of excessive gaming after a story emerged that Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil frequent back problems may have been related to the excessive amount of time he spent playing Fortnite (at least according to Professor Ingo Frobose at the Sport University Cologne in Germany).

mesut-ozil

Although the English Football Association has strict rules on gambling by footballers, there are none (as far as I am aware) on the playing of videogames (and to be honest there is no real need to do so). There are many reasons why footballers may gamble or play videogames to excess compared to other less ‘healthy’ behaviours like excessive drinking or drug taking. It is a shame that addictions to drugs and alcohol tend to generate more sympathy among the general public as many people view gambling and gaming as self-inflicted vices. But gambling or gaming to excess can be just as destructive because of the huge consequences on time and/or money.

According to a story earlier this week in The Sun newspaper, an “English football star” (who wanted to remain anonymous so as not to damage his reputation) had allegedly been playing the Fortnite videogame for up to 16 hours a day which he said was threatening his career (and his relationship) and causing him to miss training sessions. He also claimed there are many more in the sport” just like him. By speaking out about the issue, his motive is to “raise awareness about an addiction which has been described as a ‘silent epidemic’ in football”. The Sun claimed that the footballer’s story was “likely to resonate with dozens of his fellow professionals, who also while away their free time on consoles”. Other footballers such as Mesut Ozil and Harry Kane have claimed to big fans of playing Fortnite. The Sun also claimed that the Professional Footballers’ Association had been contacted by football clubs concerned about the amount of gaming habits by players. In the footballer’s interview with The Sun, he said that:

 “[My] gaming has become a massive problem. When I get back from training, the first thing I do is turn the Xbox on to play Fortnite. I play for about eight to ten hours a day, but I once played 16 hours non-stop the day before a match. When we have away matches and we travel by coach, I am gaming from the moment we leave and then I carry on in my hotel room at night. It is quite normal for me to stay up playing until two o’clock or three o’clock in the morning. I get a lot of eye strain, I am tired the next day and I miss training sometimes. When I started missing training, that was when I knew I needed help as I was getting in trouble from my club. This has been going on for about a year now. If I get told to come off the game, I am sometimes quite aggressive. I have mood swings. If I keep gaming, I worry that it could potentially finish my career. It is also affecting my relationship with my girlfriend because I play on the Xbox instead of seeing her…I think some of my team-mates need help as well. About 50 per cent of our squad are into gaming. And I know they play for a lot of hours because I play Fortnite with them – as well as with players from other clubs.”

The Sun also spoke to the footballer’s psychotherapist Steve Pope. He is currently treating five professional footballers who have problematic gaming and he was quoted as saying:

“Over the last few years, we have probably treated more than 20 footballers for this problem alone. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. They are all at it. It is the biggest scourge of our times. It’s a silent epidemic because footballers can’t be tested for it. I don’t think clubs realise what a big problem this is and the debilitating effect excessive gaming has on a player’s psyche. They wouldn’t let a footballer have a bottle of vodka in their hotel room the night before a game, so why would they let him loose with an Xbox?…If it’s a national problem, which gaming is, then why shouldn’t it affect footballers who have hours and hours to kill on planes, trains and coaches, and then sit in hotel rooms by themselves? For footballers, the real appeal about computer games is that, unlike with other addictions, they can’t be tested for it. It is a problem that needs to be outed to save players’ careers”.

Pope then went on to say:

“Footballers have an addictive personality because that’s what makes them good at their job. From an early age at academies, they are conditioned to work for a high, whether that is making a great pass or scoring a great goal. That is the work-for high. The brain likes that feeling, likes that elation, likes that rush. But if they are not getting that high from football, they are getting it from something else – alcohol, drugs, gambling or gaming. That is the lazy high. Footballers are trained to be competitive and with the kind of games they are playing, Fortnite or Fifa, they are continually in a competition. It’s a follow on from playing football. The trouble is they are playing the games all night and use up all their happy chemicals so their brain is imbalanced. So come the match the following day, they are as flat as a pancake. They are a jangled wreck, trying to clear their head. When I worked in-house at Fleetwood, we banned game stations the night before matches. I would walk the hotel corridors at night time nicking PlayStations and Xboxes to stop them using them”.

Whilst I don’t subscribe to the idea of an addictive personality, much of what Pope says I agree with. It’s not hard to see how professional footballers can get hooked into gaming. Consequently, time rich and money rich young footballers need to be educated about the potential downsides of excessive videogame playing.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Coverdale. D. (2019). Football’s silent addiction: Gaming makes me aggressive and I’m worried it’ll end my career. The Sun, march 28. Located at: https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/football/8735239/football-silent-addiction-gaming-fortnight-addiction-career/

Griffiths, M.D. (2006). All in the game. Inside Edge: The Gambling Magazine, July (Issue 28), p. 67.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gambling addiction among footballers: causes and consequences. World Sports Law Report, 8(3), 14-16.

Wigmore, T. (2018). If Mesut Ozil really is addicted to Fortnite then Arsenal have a problem. The i, December 14. Located at: https://inews.co.uk/sport/football/mesut-ozil-fortnite-addicted-gaming-arsenal-injury-news/

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 800 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3500 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on March 29, 2019, in Addiction, Case Studies, Compulsion, Computer games, Fame, Games, I.T., Online addictions, Psychology, Technological addiction, Technology, Video game addiction, Video games and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. This is an interesting topic! I enjoy video games but agree that EVERYTHING must be taken in moderation. Humans have addictive tendencies. Also, playing Madden is nothing like being on the field (to state the obvious).
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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