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Can esports players be considered athletes? The suggestion that professional esports players should be considered athletes often leads to a few raised eyebrows. Have you just done the very thing?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines an athlete as “a person who is very good at sports or physical exercise, especially one who competes in organized events.” Whilst esports do not necessarily involve physical exercise, neither does Formula 1 in its truest form of driving a car in laps. However people are unlikely to argue that Formula 1 is not a sport, for obvious reasons, and that the drivers are not athletes.
So what’s the difference between esports and Formula 1? The answer is data.
Just as traditional sports were revolutionised by young analysts reviewing every strand of data, esports is in the process of a similar revolution. While it is difficult to compare the physical aspects of esports and many traditional sports, there have been an increasing number of studies into the demands placed on professional esports players, the training they need to undertake in order to compete and the kind of strains they are exposed to in tournaments. Just look here!
It is the results of some of these studies that have indicated professional esports players and professional athletes have more in common than it may seem on the surface.
I’m sure my old friends at Mercedes F1 team won’t mind me using Brendon Leigh as an example…look at him in 2017 when he won the F1 Esports Series, and look how his appearance has changed as he has worked with Mercedes, and been treated like a professional athlete in respect of nutrition, health, sports psychology, and therefore his success thereon.
One of the key factors that separates professional athletes from us normal people is their individual skill level. Each individual sport requires players to develop a particular set of skills in order to succeed.
Esports is similar in that there are a range of games which require different skill sets and are played on different consoles. For example, two of the most popular titles, CS:GO and League of Legends, are both played on PCs, whilst other titles such as FIFA and Call of Duty are played on consoles. However there are some key skills that can be found in most professional esports player which determine success, including:
In 2016, ESPN analysed some of the skills of professional League of Legends player Pobelter. Before entering a game, Pobelter’s heart rate climbed to 140 BPM, however, when the game started, he was able to control his heart rate and bring it down to 90 BPM. Whilst playing the game, Pobelter consistently moved his eye to different parts of the screen. He averaged only 0.07 seconds on a visual fixation of one location. The average person takes 0.22 seconds to comprehend a word!
Professor Ingo Froböse of the German Sports University in Cologne, also found similar results. Froböse was one of the first scientists to study esports players and through his research found that esports players achieve up to 400 movements on the keyboard and the mouse per minute. That is four times as much as the average person! Most notably, this level of strain had never been observed in any other sport, not even in table-tennis players, who require a high level of hand-eye coordination.
Every sport requires a unique set of skills, and a successful athlete in any sport will have spent time honing and developing their skills in order to perfect their craft. As more research studies into esports players are completed it will become clear that professional esports players, like professional athletes, have specific skills which allow them to succeed at the highest level.
Most will remember the feeling of stress and anxiety that comes over when you’re on the verge of winning an extremely tight game against an old rival in your favourite video game. At the time it can feel like one of the important things. However you’re unlikely to argue that it is the same pressure that professional athletes feel at the highest level.
However a study (1) revealed that professional esports players competing in major tournaments actually do face the same kind of stressors as professional athletes. Those stressors include fierce competition from opposing players and teams, and various psychological pressures such as fear of failure and performance anxiety.
The games themselves are often challenging too, requiring a high degree of tactical understanding for a player to defeat his or her opponent. Research aimed at determining the demands placed on the athletes’ minds, found that professional esports players produced the same levels of cortisol (2) as race-car drivers, further emphasising the similarities in the psychological skills of top athletes and esports players.
Unfortunately there are other, less positive, likenesses between professional esports players and athletes, including overuse injuries and burnout. The most recent example was the retirement announcement of legendary bot laner, Jian “Uzi” Zi-Hao, from competitive League of Legends at just 23 years old. In his retirement post on weibo, Uzi wrote:
“Last year, during a physical examination, I found out I had the type 2 diabetes, caused by perennial stress, obesity, irregular diet, staying up late and other reasons,”.
His team Royal Never Give Up (RNG), also noted that prior to his retirement, Uzi had been advised by medical professionals to take a break from competitive esports in order to recover from injuries accumulated over eight years of high intensity training. However RNG also said that they would be “by his side to help him on his journey to injury recovery. We are here to help him recover 100 percent”.
Understandably, esports players often have a shorter career span than professional athletes. Consequently a number of organisations, including FaZe Clan and 100 Thieves, have sought to better support their players by hiring physical trainers, sports psychologists, massage therapists, medical doctors, nutritionists and even chefs to help build lifestyle plans. Other organisations have encouraged players to remove sugary energy drinks, fast food and unresolved physical tension, and replaced them with healthy eating and exercise to ensure that they are the best versions of themselves; whilst also keeping their coordination and reflexes from degrading.
Some organisations are going further and turning to specialist sports science companies such as G-Science. G-Science utilise sports science, psychological skills training, mindfulness, nutrition, and exercise as part of their holistic approach to enhance a player’s life, improve performance, and give them a competitive edge.
One such organisation is GamersOrigin, a French esports organisation, who have recently announced a formal partnership with G-Science, which will see the esports performance company join as a health and performance partner. The partnership has already paid dividends, with GamersOrigin League of Legends team receiving “sport science support” from G-Science before and during their LFL Spring playoff finals win.
Jamie Kiff, co-founder of G-Science said:
“It has been amazing to have been able to support the team throughout this process and we’re delighted to officially announce the performance partnership ahead of the European Masters. This will be an increasingly stressful time for the players with several games being played over a short period against formidable opponents. As such, the goal of the partnership will be to ensure that the players are physically and mentally prepared for whatever is thrown at them and provide them with the gold standard of sport science support.”
G-Science also worked with LDN UTD’s #ROADTOYANA FIFA gamer, Dennis, ahead of him competing in his first professional tournament. Dennis was introduced to some of the sports science that G-science use with pro players, including:
It’s clear that organisations have recognised the benefits of treating their players like athletes. With more people learning and understanding the pressures and skills required to become a professional esports player, it should banish the misconceptions and negative stigmas that surround esports players.
Nutrition is such a key element, and at all levels. So much so, that LDN UTD recently announced an Official Nutrition Partnership with health and wellness company, BioSynergy, to support our League of Legends team that is competing in the UKEL.
So should professional esports players be considered athletes?
To the general public, the idea that those who play video games for a living having much in common with high level professional athletes might be laughable. However, those involved with the scene understand the unique talent, skill and determination of the players mirrors that of “real” athletes, even if their physical fitness is different.
Furthermore, organisations have already demonstrated that they will not ignore the impact of adopting similar techniques to those used to support athletes in traditional sports, if it could benefit their teams overall success.
Ultimately, the debate around whether professional esports players should be considered athletes may never end. However as gaming becomes more popular with mainstream culture, and as esports continues to gain more viewers, the argument that esports are a sport, and professional esports players are therefore athletes, may become less contentious; particularly when the players’ salaries are rivalling top sports’ athletes!
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(1) Smith, Matthew & Birch, Phil & Bright, Dave. (2019). Identifying Stressors and Coping Strategies of Elite Esports Competitors. International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations. 11. 22-39.
(2) A hormone that is released as a physiological response to increased stress.