To some, the words “esports” and “athlete” don’t belong side by side. Video game players, they argue, are nothing like the disciplined athletes who give their all on the football field or basketball court. Instead, or as the stereotype goes, gamers usually are pasty young men, hunched in front of a screen, subsisting on ramen noodles.
But that long-held stereotype doesn’t reflect the reality of today’s serious gamers. Just like traditional athletes, college athletic departments are recruiting them. They join professional teams and earn millions. They compete in front of the world on online sites like Twitch or mainstream channels like ABC and ESPN. They suffer from overuse injuries that will quickly sideline a career. And they’re connecting their fitness level with their ability to perform.
“There are a lot of definitions of sport, but the one I go back to is sport is an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual team competes against another for others for entertainment,” says Taylor Johnson, who a strength and conditioning coach for a decade at the college and professional levels, including for the San Francisco 49ers, before moving into esports.
“If you take the labels out of it, you have five vs. five, playing highly strategic games,” Johnson says of an esports competition. “The physical exertion is there. Your actions on the keyboard are 200 to 400 actions per minute. It’s very fine motor skills, but it’s still exertion.”
Stressors and Injuries
New research backs up the view that gamers are like athletes involved in any other sport. According to a 2019 study published in the International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, competitors in major esports tournaments experience the same stress levels that other professional athletes face on the grass or the court.
A common issue for both is the pressure of performing in front of live audiences. Johnson says more professional teams are bringing on sports psychologists to help gamers build their performance mindset.
And another study of competitive collegiate gamers that was published in 2019 in a sports and exercise medicine journal found that, just like conventional athletes, they can suffer from overuse injuries, including eye fatigue and neck, back, wrist and hand pain. The paper concludes that esports should be part of clinical sports medicine curriculums.
Focusing on Recovery
Because of the growing understanding about the physical and mental strength required to compete at the highest levels, gamers are heading to the gym and, after big competitions, focusing more on their physical recovery.
During Esports Stadium Arlington’s first major tournament, for example, Johnson put together a performance and recovery lounge where gamers could take advantage of massage tables, dine from a buffet line that highlighted smart food options and use foam rollers on tight muscles.
“As prizes have gotten bigger, people are taking their training more seriously,” says Matt Wilson, vice president of sports and events of the Arlington CVB and executive director of the Arlington Sports Commission in Texas. “If you’re going to be at the peak of your ability, you can’t eat Cheetos and drink Red Bull all day.”
Johnson, who is chief performance engineer at Statespace Labs, a neuroscience and artificial intelligence gaming company, is thrilled to see the growing emphasis on fitness among professional gamers. It’s just more proof that they deserve the title of athlete too.
“They’re becoming more and more fit,” Johnson said, “and that’s what’s been so cool to see in the last three years is the transformation of players starting to realize that if I want to perform at my best, it’s going to take more than just playing the game.”