Think “high-performance athlete” and a fairly typical ideal probably springs to mind. The classic media representation of an elite athlete embodies physical prowess built on a foundation of continual conditioning and fitness. While it puts some emphasis on the mental aspects of athleticism, its main focus is all about the body.
Compare that to the media’s traditional representation of “gamers,” more often portrayed as slackers than high performers, hiding out in their game caves with a cold pizza at their side. Not exactly the picture of the typical top athlete. The stereotype is ready for a significant upgrade, thanks to the rise of competitive esports and the elite players who are putting them on the map.
Its popularity is rising as quickly as its legitimacy as a true sport. According to Matthew Humphries in PC Magazine, the 2024 Olympics is considering adding esports. The announcement is reminiscent of the inclusion of snowboarding in the Winter Olympics, which firmly positioned snowboarders into the ranks of elite athleticism.
And just like those top shredders, esports pros are in fact real athletes. The German Sports University in Cologne recently completed a five-year study that found that top esports competitors faced exposure to the same kinds of physical strains that plagued traditional athletes.
Myths about physical fitness and the esports athlete
Esports competitors are increasingly focusing on their physical conditioning, especially endurance. According to Darren Heitner writing in Forbes, the new Sandbox Esports Training Center facility in Thousand Oaks, California, has opened to meet the training needs of these athletes, with training regimens carefully tuned to the needs of pro gamers. He states, “a strong core, perfect posture, hand-eye coordination, and strong forearms, hands, wrists and fingers. Additionally, professional gamers should be training with cardiovascular exercises, focusing on nutrition and partaking in cryotherapy, according to [facility co-owner Happy] Walters.”
Social media conversations highlight the aggressive training regimens that would-be elites can expect, like this article about the NBA’s new esports league. One pro gamer, Michael “Flamesword” Chavez, posts lifestyle advice on popular fitness sites, including tips on falling asleep after a gaming session, and prepping himself for deep relaxation. For the gaming community, the physical needs of the top athletes are intense and taken quite seriously.
How pro esports athletes maintain peak mental fitness
Beyond the physical, there’s a second aspect to achieving elite esports status. Attaining the proper level of mental fitness — focus, wakefulness, reaction time, and clear, strategic thinking – is crucial. Nutrition plays into this, and esports athletes have requirements that are not being met by most traditional sports supplements and nutritional products.
Sugar levels in the bloodstream, for example, present a unique challenge for endurance. Many sports supplements aren’t properly balanced to give long-lasting energy; they will provide a fast boost, followed by the devastating fast crash. Runtime.GG, a performance nutrition provider aimed at the esports market, recently ran an experiment to show how blood sugar levels impact your state of mind, productivity and performance, key criteria for top competitors.
“Most of the products out there are not good for this kind of athlete,” said Runtime CEO Alexander Zavoloka. Their product focuses on the specific needs of the esports athlete — using slow acting carbs that actually balance blood sugar levels. “The more stable your blood sugar is, the more likely you’ll be able to keep up your concentration and your focus, both in the live game and in practice,” Zavoloka says.
Along with this kind of nutritional support, esports athletes are also turning to a mental training component. Many high-level competitors are finding that they are subject to frequent emotional swings that aren’t seen as often in traditional athletes. “The good news is that the nature of esports, being a computer-based online activity, enables coaches and performance psychology professionals to follow, monitor and provide immediate, as well as moment-to-moment, post-performance feedback,” writes Dr. Itzik Zur, Ph.D., who studies the subject. “We can learn which situations cause an egamer to experience anxiety or anger and then provide the tools necessary to either utilize that emotional response towards better performance or prepare strategies to regulate their response. For example, in my Ph.D. research, I demonstrated that anger could increase a performer’s response-time when channeled correctly.”
Pulling it all together
For Epsilon’s Callum “Swanny” Swan, achieving the right balance is key for optimal performance. And it’s critical to being able to step away and relax. “Maintaining a separate social life is crucial,” Swan notes, especially important in light of grueling training regimens. He stresses that while friendships inside the gaming community can be great, “it’s important to keep in touch with other interests in order to create a retreat for when you need to relax from gaming. … Make sure that it doesn’t compromise any aspect of your health.”
That health — of body, mind and spirit — is the foundation on which these gamers build their careers. It’s a brave new world out there for elite and would-be elites in esports. As they continue to rise on the world stage, we’ll see even more focus on not just the physical but the mental and emotional needs of these athletes, and an industry that is rising to meet them.