Managing Virtual Teams – What eSports Can Teach Us

KarenBusiness success, Communication Skills, Leadership, Teams

With contributions from Conor Roberts, retired professional eSports player.

Given the recent uptick in corporate teams having to work virtually, I was looking for a way to provide some guidance.

It struck me that eSports (video gaming) teams are a great model of teams that almost always originate as virtual, and for whom virtual seems to be working. So I interviewed a former pro player,* and he offered some thoughts.

Some seem obvious, some are common to “in person” teams, and some seem to be unique. Here is a list of best practices for assembling and managing a virtual team as well as some advice specifically for the coach (or leader) – from the perspective of a former pro player on worked well, and what practices did not.

Managing a virtual team:

  1. Have a collective purpose and goal. This makes every team better, but where corporate teams are often really “work groups” (in that they don’t always have an interdependency or a common goal), eSport teams are 100% oriented towards a common objective. The goals are both short term and longer term – game by game and over the course of a season or a tournament – but they always have a clear objective.
  2. Encourage diversity. Like athletic sports, eSports teams have positions and each position’s role is clear. In addition, great eSports teams tend to be made up of players with different personalities, backgrounds and communication styles. The complementarities sometimes make for communication challenges, but diversity is valued.
  3. Value EQ. Great players have great technical skills AND contribute to the team culture in a positive way. Willingness to communicate is paramount – the teams like to solve problems and resolve issues quickly so they can get back to work. What’s particularly interesting to me here is that young players get really good at both giving and receiving feedback – they all want to get better, they don’t take it personally, they debate it if they think it’s not valuable, and then they move on. And the high performing team is made up of members who hold each other accountable here – no one has to do it for them.
  4. Have fun outside the game. Players are competitive by nature, and they love their particular game, but even the most passionate need a break. When they do take that break, it’s likely to be something else where they can compete – and it’s also most often online. It might be another video game, it might be a trivia challenge, it might be a virtual happy hour – but whatever they’re doing it’s helping them deepen their relationships, built trust, understand each other, share experiences, laugh and relieve stress.
  5. Have fun inside the game. When eSports players are online they are constantly bantering and chatting. They focus when they have to, but they stay connected by voice throughout their practice and play schedule and intersperse task work with social interaction. Sometimes it’s serious topics, both related to the game and not, but oftentimes it’s mundane and even ridiculous chit chat about music and snacks and social events. It all contributes to deepening their relationships and keeps them connected beyond their primary tasks.
  6. Create a culture of continuous improvement. Like any competitor, eSports players are always striving to improve. This means taking risks, trying new things, and debriefing results. Mistakes happen – and no one holds a grudge or loses trust. They figure it out and build on the experience.
  7. Create a work schedule and structure. Practice times, individual skill work, competitive research and more – all key activities are done on a schedule and there is a very high level of expectation that all players honour their commitment to the team.
  8. Take breaks. eSports players work from home, as do most people who currently find themselves on a virtual team. The lines between work and the rest of life can easily become blurred unless you’re mindful of keeping a work schedule and creating a clear demarcation between the work and non-work aspects of life.

Advice for a virtual coach (leader):

  1. Be very involved. Virtual relationships – both with the individuals and with the team as a whole – need more time and attention than those in real life. Invest here and it pays off.
  2. Be clear about the goal. Whether it’s to win, or to achieve a specific level of performance against a particularly strong opponent, or to place at a certain level over the course of a season – knowing the objective and calibrating against it frequently keeps everyone on track.
  3. Give more positive feedback than negative. This one was interesting to me, and while I’m aware of the science behind it, I hadn’t considered the specific application to virtual teaming. When you’re not building a relationship by being face to face all day, the weight of negative feedback can be more damaging than it tends to be face to face. So counterbalancing with relatively more positive feedback supports receptivity and application.
  4. Celebrate often. Again, we hear this one all the time but it has particular relevance for virtual teams. The need for group celebration – the acknowledgement of progress or achievement, whether big or small – goes a long way when you’re not seeing physical evidence of projects completed or objectives met.

What’s clear is that moving your normal team and manager behaviour to a virtual format is not sufficient to create great results. Gaming has been studied as a vehicle for developing skills that can potentially help us make a better world. I suggest that it’s also a great model for business leaders to examine as they try to shift into this new world of managing virtual teams.

The good news – your ability to research it is probably hooked up to the big screen TV in your basement.

*Full disclosure – the retired pro player happens to be my son, whose 5 year career as a pro eSports player concluded in 2019 when he started university full time as a Computer Science student.