How science is making esports athletes better

LeBron James isn’t the best player in the NBA because he shoots hoops all day. LeBron James is the best player in the NBA because he has a well-rounded routine that includes a variety of different fitness exercises and healthy eating, on top of being extremely talented and practicing with his team. Esports stars could learn a lot from him.

It’s no secret that being in peak physical condition is beneficial to athletes. The ancient Greeks were among the first to study sports science and to plan training regimens for competitors in the Olympic games. But in the mid-20th century, the field of sports science really took off. Research facilities were created specifically to study athletes, and sports nutrition began to receive more attention. One research team eventually developed a simple drink that is still around to this day: Gatorade. Since then, the sports nutrition business has been booming. In fact, it has created an entire industry.

Sports Training for Esports Athletes

The marriage between sports physiology and proper nutrition has spawned a new type of super-athlete, like LeBron James. Athletes are stronger, faster and more mentally flexible than ever before. It is clear that esports athletes can benefit from a proper training and nutrition regimen as well.

In May 2016, compLexity’s Call of Duty team participated in a training boot camp at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. IMG Academy “is the world’s foremost authority in athletic, academic and personal development,” according to its Twitter. They are commonly visited by professional sports teams such as Tottenham Hotspur, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the United States soccer team.

At IMG Academy, compLexity players did more than just lift weights.

“Esports is a growing phenomenon in the world of athletics. What we’re doing in esports is designing specialist training in areas such as physical conditioning, nutrition, on mental conditioning, on leadership,” told David Hesse, Director of Athletic and Personal Development at IMG Academy, to Call of Duty in July.

Other esports teams, such as FaZe Clan, have also utilized IMG’s facilities to improve their performance in the virtual world. Now some organizations like Dignitas are taking training to a whole new level.

Thanks to the acquisition of Team Dignitas and Team Apex by the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, an abundance of resources are available to aid their esports stars, such as nutritionists, sleep experts, and even sports psychologists.

“In the past, we have not had access to anything like that,” Michael “OD” O’Dell, President of Team Dignitas, told FOXBusiness.com. “Sports psychology and nutrition, that’s only really starting to happen. This is a big reason for me wanting to partner with the Sixers, having access to their ability and their knowledge in that respect is really important to me.”

Are Esports Sports?

With esports players being treated like athletes, it leads us to one of the oldest questions in the esports’ history books: Are esports real sports?

Many people have tried to answer that question from a traditional sense. No, gamers are not running up and down a field after a ball, their in-game characters are. No, gamers are not burning ridiculous amounts of calories. But gamers must have a high level of dexterity and are certainly putting in long, grueling hours and become mentally, if not physically, exhausted.

When asked if they consider themselves athletes, most professional gamers will respond “yes”.

During my college days, I wrote multiple articles on why I believe esport athletes should be considered sport athletes,” Matthew “Burns” Potthoff told The Game Haus.

Potthoff is a former professional Call of Duty player who is now General Manager of eUnited, a professional esports team with rosters in a number of esports. When teams go to events, Potthoff is there to manage schedules and to coach during matches.

“A lot of different factors play in, but I would highly agree that there are many similarities [between] traditional sports and esports athletes, due to the fact that we stress our mental game every single day. We are also competing at the highest level and traveling the world to do so,” he said.

Even people from the traditional sports world see the potential, and the athleticism, in esports. Rick Fox, former NBA star, owns Echo Fox and has been educating people on esports for years. Mark Cuban, an investor and Dallas Mavericks owner, told a League of Legends crowd in 2015, “This is a real sport, and people are going to figure it out really, really quick.”

High-Stress Environment

Though he supports the scene, Cuban hasn’t invested in an esports team because of one important reason: player burnout. He is worried esports athletes spend too much time perfecting their craft, to the point where they shorten their careers from fatigue.

Esports athletes often play eight hours a day. Image: RazeOne

 

Players practice with their team for eight hours a day, six days a week, according to Potthoff. When it comes time for them to perform at LAN events, they spend 12+ hours a day playing in high-stress matches, sometimes with no break in between. Under these circumstances, it is more crucial than ever for players to be both physically and mentally healthy.

It is hard to maintain a proper diet while gaming full time. I highly encourage players to eat as healthy as possible. Not only do you feel great when playing but it can affect the smallest things from your attitude and how alert you are through the day,” Potthoff explained. “When I coach and manage players at events, I suggest bananas or oatmeal in the morning. I do my best to make sure everyone is eating small snacks and staying hydrated for long days at tournaments.”

Nutrition

Eating properly is something that is seldom talked about in esports, but it is crucial for athletes’ performance. Gamers, and some esports athletes, are stereotyped as junk-food addicts, and sometimes rightfully so. But bad eating habits can be detrimental to their well-being and this is something researchers in sports science have been well aware of for a long time.

“How you’re fueling both your body and your brain is going to allow you to perform at a high level,” explained Taryn Morgan,  Assistant Director of Athletic and Personal Development at IMG Academy.

For this reason, teams like eUnited make sure players are in prime condition to compete. Some companies in the space have even capitalized on the need for players to be on high alert, but the nutritional value of their products is debatable.

In the past, gamers were notorious for their love of sugary drinks. Products like Mountain Dew and Dr. Pepper were heavily involved in the gaming scene and the early days of esports. However, endemic brands began to appear and pushed the soda companies out of the way.

Enter G FUEL. Created with the help of former professional gamer, G FUEL is self-branded as “the official energy drink of esports”. There is no debating that it’s true, with companies in the industry and teams sponsored by the drink company.

G FUEL, sold by Gamma Labs, was created specifically for professional gamers, and those aspiring to be. 

G FUEL is the “energy drink of esports”. Image: Blazy Designs

Milliseconds mean the difference between life and death, winning and losing, failure and success,” their website states.

The formula has even made its way into sports like MMA and weight lifting.

While energy drinks like Redbull and Monster are still prevalent in the esports space, G FUEL’s lack of sugar sets it apart. However, sugar isn’t the only unhealthy ingredient in energy drinks.

In 2015, New York Times published an article on the dangers of adolescents consuming energy drinks containing high levels of caffeine.

The American Academy of Pediatrics that recommended that children and adolescents should never consume energy drinks because of caffeine’s potential to disturb sleeping patterns, increase heart rates and slow brain development,” the article stated.

The good news is, the vast majority of esports pros are over the age of 18, and for adults, the Mayo Clinic recommends not to exceed 400 mg of caffeine per day. A serving of G FUEL contains 150 mg of caffeine, among other energy stimulants. However, while a boost of energy is great, no drink will leave you more hydrated than water. Ask any doctor.

More companies with products like G FUEL have sprung up in recent years. One company, Runtime, was created specifically with esports fans and players in mind.

“We saw that there was a huge opportunity when it comes to complete nutrition in esports,” Runtime’s CEO Aleksandrs Zavoloks told The Game Haus. “Our goal is to create comprehensive nutrition products specifically focused on esports players and fans, not just slap an esports label on an existing product and market it to a new audience.”

Runtime is interested in high-quality nutrition. They currently sell two nutrition products: a low sugar “Performance Drink” and a nutrient-packed food supplement they call “Buff Food”.

“We are not an energy drink company; we focus on performance nutrition,” Zavoloks reiterated.

Research in Esports Science

Companies like G FUEL and Runtime benefited from years of sports science research, but now they are forging their own path.

“Our goal is to educate our audience on proper nutrition and the benefits, not just to push our product in their face,” Zavoloks explained. “Nutrition products are just the first step. In the future we plan to create supplements that solve other esports issues. For instance, we are working on a solution to lessen the stress that is being caused to a player’s eyes when he or she sits in front of PC for too long.”

With help from researchers like Dr. Lutz Graumann, a sports medicine and nutrition expert, Runtime wants to create products that specifically benefit esports players. To do this, they are involved in actual laboratory testing and analysis, because as Zavoloks told The Game Haus, the importance of nutrition in esports has been neglected for too long.

“There are certain qualities required for performing well (endurance, reaction time, concentration, wakefulness, stability). You cannot achieve either of those with sugary carbonated drinks or pizza,” he said. “We’ve noticed that some pro teams have started paying attention to this, hired nutrition experts, diet professionals – these are all steps in the right direction. We will see more of that in the future, and Runtime plans to be part of this revolution.” 

Besides those focused on nutrition, other types of tests have been performed on esports athletes.

At the German Sports University in Cologne, Professor Ingo Froböse has worked with esports athletes in multiple games and notes the high physical and mental demands imposed on them. In one experiment, Froböse tested players’ stress levels by measuring the release of a hormone called cortisol.

“The amount of cortisol produced is about the same level as that of a race-car driver,” Froböse told Deutsche Welle. “This is combined with a high pulse, sometimes as high as 160 to 180 beats per minute.”

Though they experience highly stressful situations daily, Froböse stated that the esports athletes he worked with were not in better physical shape than the average person. He believes there is a lot they can do fitness and nutrition-wise to improve. Otherwise, we may never escape the days of esports athletes retiring in their 20s, after only a few years competing professionally.

The good news is that more teams and esports athletes are paying attention to their health and well-being. Esports have become a lucrative career path for many young players, and the only way to make the most out of it is to stay healthy, just as in traditional sports. With the combination of research in esports nutrition and physiology, esports athletes may be able to extend their career to their late 20s and beyond.


Image: KQED Science

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Josh Billy can be contacted at joshuatbilly@gmail.com or you can follow him on Twitter.

Esports writer and chemist. Formerly owner of eSports Guru and editor for GAMURS. Call of Duty player since 2005.

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