Gaming the system

Professional eSports players have a lot more in common with traditional athletes than you might think.

Illustration by Alexis Lee

Illustration by Alexis Lee

Let me preface this by saying: I’ve never been much of a sports fan. In Australia, this can be seen as something almost sacrilegious. When my friends start talking about their favourite footy players, my eyes have a habit of glazing over. This isn’t to say I don’t like going to sports events. The spectacle, the energy of the crowd, and the excitement of watching a game live, unfailingly draws me in. I may not understand all the rules, but the athleticism and dedication of the players is still something that inspires me. But I’m not here to discuss what most people imagine when they think of sport. Today, I want to talk about eSports: competitive video games. 

I have very fond memories of watching my friends play video games as a kid. With only one remote control, we were forced to take turns. But watching others play games was just as much fun as when my turn rolled around, and I could try and beat the next level of Crash Bandicoot. So it wasn’t much of a surprise to me when I first heard about eSports. Of course people want to watch others play games, it’s exciting! 

Apparently though, there’s still a large portion of mainstream media that seem to have a bit of trouble grasping this. In an interview on Sky News, one reporter laughingly remarked: “I can’t think of anything less interesting.” 

This might be due to some sort of cultural idea of who the ‘gamer’ is. There’s a persistent, outdated image of a nerd living in their parents’ basement, addicted to their computer. Funnily enough, video games aren’t quite so niche anymore. It’s possible that around 1.2 billion people are playing games around the world. And a fair few of them have been able to make a decent living out of it.

The professional gamer

There are many different games that are played professionally, including FIFA football, the first-person shooter Counter Strike, and the multiplayer game League of Legends. One of the most played, with some of the highest earnings, is called Dota 2, and is classified as a MOBA game (multiplayer online battle arena). In 2015, the prize pool for The International – Dota 2’s annual world championship – was over $18m, with the winning team (Evil Geniuses) taking home $6.6m between them. Admittedly, this is currently the largest prize pool in eSports history. But many of the top players in the world can now count themselves within the millionaires club. And this isn’t even taking in to account major sponsorship deals from big brands like Coke, Intel, and Nissan, expanding the players’ piggy banks. 

It is estimated that around 4.6 million people watched The International championship online in 2015. In comparison, the NRL grand final in Australia last year peaked at around 4.4 million viewers. The heavyweight of eSports audiences, though, is League of Legends (LoL). The 2015 LoL World Championship had a total of 36 million viewers, whereas the NBA finals in the same year averaged 20 million viewers.

The International 2014 was hosted by KeyArena in Seattle.   Jakob Wells/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

The International 2014 was hosted by KeyArena in Seattle. Jakob Wells/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


And it’s not just people watching online. Tournaments are now filling up major sports stadiums around the world, as fans want the electrifying experience of watching a match live. The 2014 LoL World Championship sold out Seoul Stadium, with 40,000 fans turning up to the event, and in 2015 the first eSports arena was opened in London.

With big money, big stadiums and big brands, eSports certainly look like any other more traditionally defined sport. So, why are some people so against calling pro-gamers athletes?

Athlete or gamer?

A research group from the German Sports University are some of the first people to look at the physical side of eSports. In particular, they have been comparing players’ physical attributes with those of more generally defined athletes. Led by Professor Ingo Froböse, the team studied the training habits and physical stressors of professional players.

Pro-gamers need to have excellent hand-eye coordination, and very fast fingers. Players were tested for actions per minute (APM), a metric used to measure the amount of keystrokes and mouse clicks a player makes. Professional eSports players have been compared to pianists in the way they play the game, hands moving in a blur across their keyboards, as it is not just speed that is required, but accuracy. Professor Froböse found that pro-gamers have up to 400 APM, but other studies have shown that players can reach around 500 to 600 APM, averaging about 10 actions per second. To get to this elite level takes an enormous amount of training. Teams will practice anywhere between eight and 12 hours a day to improve their APM.


Professional gamers need to have extremely fast reflexes.


One physical element Professor Froböse’s team looked at was the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, within the body during competition.

In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Professor Froböse said: "The amount of cortisol produced is about the same level as that of a race-car driver. This is combined with a high pulse, sometimes as high as 160 to 180 beats per minute, which is equivalent to what happens during a very fast run, almost a marathon. That's not to mention the motor skills involved.”

Unfortunately, there is a downside. Sticking to extended training times, players also experience the negative health effects of sitting for long periods of time, as well as the impact on sleep cycles from exposure to blue light

And here, I think, lies the problem. Athletes are generally considered to be in peak physical condition, and eSports athletes don’t necessarily fit that bill. That isn’t to say that this won’t happen over time. In order to improve on physical performance and mental acuity, adjustments may be made to a player's training regime. 

For example, research has shown that an athlete's performance is heavily influenced by their sleep cycle, with a 7% to 26% variation in physical performance dependent on what time of day they are working. Adjusting the play times and exposure to blue-light from eSports training could potentially affect not just their physical health, but their competitive performance. Although, this remains to be studied. 

Some players are already taking steps to improve their health to further develop their game: supplementing their diet with vitamins, and taking regular breaks to combat problems such as repetitive strain injury (RSI).

Kurtis Ling, here with the team Cloud 9, went on to join the Evil Geniuses and came first at The International 2015.   Dota 2 The International/Wikimedia Commons  (CC BY 2.0)

Kurtis Ling, here with the team Cloud 9, went on to join the Evil Geniuses and came first at The International 2015. Dota 2 The International/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)


Dr Michael Kasumovic, a senior lecturer at The University of New South Wales, is an evolutionary biologist who uses video games to explore human behaviour. “If we define sport as a competition between individuals that relies on skill more so than luck, then eSports would fall in line with any of the other competitions that we currently consider to be sports,” he said. 

For Dr Kasumovic, the level of skill shown by eSports players outweighs their potentially negative fitness level. “Personally, I do see them as athletes because the skill they demonstrate in playing these games is much higher than an average individual's level of skill,” explained Dr Kasumovic. “Additionally, the stress that these individuals experience during a competition or during practice is likely comparable to other sports. eSports is still very young, and as a result, the competitors haven't realised what it is that's necessary to keep themselves in shape. That will change with experience.”

The virtual experience

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year, virtual reality (VR) company Virtuix hosted the first VR eSports tournament. Moving players out of the chair and onto something resembling a treadmill changes the experience for both the player and the spectator. 

The faster you run on the Virtuix Omni, the quicker your player moves in the game. This adds a physical element to eSports, making it imperative that the players focus more heavily on fitness than currently required. As this is a relatively new development, effects on the eSports industry are yet to be seen. While it could change the way the general public imagines the ‘gamer’, it could also potentially bring in a whole new audience to the sport. New spectators may find it easier to understand the link between the player's physical movements and actions in game, so there will be less of a learning curve for beginners.

Good Game

So, are eSports players athletes? Whether you believe eSports is a real sport or not, it doesn’t really matter. The players are still going to be just as dedicated, and the fans are going to be just as passionate – which means that big brand sponsors are going to be just as invested. 

It is estimated there are currently 256 million eSports fans, and that this figure will rise to 345 million by 2019. eSports are only going to get bigger, and with new technology such as VR being integrated, it’s impossible to know how the sport will evolve into the future. But as players strive to improve their performance, they will also need to work on their health and fitness. Maybe by 2019, when 345 million of us will be tuning in to the World Championship, it won’t be such a stretch to see eSports players as true athletes.

Edited by Nicola McCaskill.