Amid coronavirus shutdown, English players’ union and clubs wary of gaming addiction risk

For many professional footballers, online gaming has helped fill the hours during the coronavirus-enforced shutdown that began in mid-March. Indeed, it has become such a common pastime that last week saw the Premier League stage the ePL Invitational — won by Wolves forward Diogo Jota, who beat Trent Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool in the final — for top-flight stars to compete against each other on FIFA 20.

But in these unprecedented times, when footballers, like everyone else, are faced with the challenges of isolation, disrupted daily routines and boredom, there is concern at clubs and the players’ union, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), that a seemingly harmless pastime could serious issues.

“Unfortunately, the coronavirus situation means that players are not getting their daily fix or release, in terms of being in a competitive environment, by training every day,” Jeff Whitley, a senior figure in the PFA’s welfare team, told ESPN. “The PFA sent out a wellbeing survey to all of our members earlier this month and, although we have had responses already, it is too early to know the full extent of the mental health problems that may be building up right now.”

Sources have told ESPN that, as of Sunday, 258 players had responded to the April 21 survey, with 13 referencing addictive issues or depression/self-harm.

The PFA provides support and counselling for players — current and retired — with addictions to alcohol, gambling, sex and drugs, but problems related to video gaming are relatively new and sources told ESPN that, even before the shutdown, the PFA had been contacted by clubs concerned about the effect on their players.

“In the case of gaming, issues may only really come to the surface when players go back to work and they find they are unable to detach themselves from the gaming that has helped to sustain them throughout the lockdown,” Whitley said. “If young lads are gaming from two in the afternoon until two in the morning, it is going to have an impact on their mental health.

“If they are not sleeping, their training will be affected. They will be snappy, irritable and there may be behavioural issues that will be picked up by their coaches. Family life can be affected, relationships suffer because one partner is spending half-a-day gaming and, if a wife or girlfriend leaves as a consequence of that, there will be financial implications to consider too.”

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