Is eSports really a sport?
With an annual audience hitting the hundreds of millions and tournaments with prize pools reaching millions of dollars, eSports doesn't have time to be a sleeping giant – from day one it started sweeping the globe. Yet there continues to be debate over the merit of calling it a ‘real’ sport. So what defines 'sport' and does eSports qualify? Or is it just over-hyped gaming?
Professional gamers are expected to combine an emergency room doctor's mental toughness with a rugby player’s ability to manage stress.
Toss in an elite level of hand-eye coordination, a training regime that includes game time as well as gym work, and an active heart rate comparable to that of a Wimbledon tennis champion, and surely you’re starting to get the picture of an activity that’s more than worthy of being deemed a ‘sport’.
To get a better idea about the skill, commitment and talent required to be a world-class gamer, the//flux spoke to Jonathan Brown, performance director of Dire Wolves, reigning League of Legends Oceania champions.
What defines 'sport'?
To the immediate question of whether eSports should be classed as a sport or just a game, Jonathan believes that the difference between a sport and a game is around the level of physical skill needed, and how much physical effort you have to put in.
“If there’s no physical effort, it’s a game, if there is, then it’s a sport,” Jonathan says.
“I just think this goes to another level really, because the mental skill you need is comparable to chess, but you have to do it at a hundred miles an hour.
“There’s a significant hand-eye coordination challenge as well – some of these guys are pressing buttons 300 times a minute, which is excessive,” Jonathan continues.
But when pressed on whether top-level gaming is sport, Jonathan had a refreshing take on the whole issue:
“Frankly mate I don’t care. It’s just the most intriguing and fascinating contest I’ve ever seen!”
Isn't it just athletes that suffer injuries – and work out?
Mashing a button 300 times per minute works out at five times per second, in a game that takes around 40 minutes to complete.
While a gamer isn't going all out for the entire game, there’s significant strain on the body.
“We’ve got welfare programs for the players to help them deal with long-term and endurance injuries, just to keep them all safe,” Jonathan says.
Jonathan is even talking to top sports doctors about player welfare, which he says is another argument for eSports being more than a game, “because I don’t think many bridge players worry about how their hands are, or many chess players think about RSI [repetitive strain injury], which is something we have to worry about a lot.”
With injury being a real concern, Dire Wolves’ training is more than just hours a day of gaming, and gym time has become a daily component of their regime.
“Our players work out every day – some more than others, some really like it – but everybody needs to work out. You need to have a level of physical fitness just to maintain mental function,” Jonathan explains.
Doesn’t sport require physical exertion?
That mental function is where top gamers are under serious strain.
“With League of Legends, you’ve got mental energy – cognitive load – which isn't dissimilar to that of a doctor in the emergency room. As a professional eSports player, you need to be able to respond under pressure and still think about what you’re doing,” Jonathan says.
“I was listening to some stories about Pete Carroll, the Seattle Seahawks coach, and the decision-making that the coaching staff have to make during a game is not dissimilar to what our players have to do themselves.”
Intriguingly, this intense mental exertion translates to serious cardio action as well, as has been proven by putting heart rate monitors on gamers.
“Some of the research they’ve done in competition is that their heart rate is as high as an athlete in intense, physical competition,” Jonathan says.
“The heart rate is running anywhere between 170 and 195–200 beats per minute – it’s just off the charts!”
For the sake of comparison, according to his fitness trainer, Andy Murray could sustain a heart rate of 200 bpm in 2013 (the year Andy won his first Wimbledon title).
Obviously that’s not to say a top gamer is ready to pick up a tennis racket and take on Roger Federer in a five-set epic. In fact, the lack of physical exertion while competing actually makes life even tougher for a gamer compared to a more traditional athlete.
“The benefit a rugby player has, if they’re getting battered, is that they’re able to run off the stress hormone, so that it never builds up,” Jonathan explains.
“So when you talk to a player in a game, they’re usually much calmer than the coach, because they’re running around and they're using the energy the body’s producing for this stressful situation.”
The only thing that eSports players are moving on stage is their two hands. So they have to have an intense stress response, still keep thinking and have extraordinary hand-eye coordination.
Don’t sporting superstars retire young – and rich?
Teams train for up to 16 hours a day – something Jonathan is trying to combat, saying, “Everything I’ve learnt from working with top teams and athletes is that the shorter the practice, the better.”
Given the intensity of training and competition, it’s probably no surprise to learn that the retirement age for eSports is shockingly young.
“The requirement for learning is so intense that guys just don’t last that long, so the retirement age is early 20s at the very latest. If you’re 22–23, you really are quite an old player,” Jonathan says.
But this early burnout might also be down to economic factors.
“So far the funding available has only been at a level of a part-time job. Our hope is that’s now changing, in which case the average age of the players can go up to what would be mid-to-late 20s, early 30s even,” he says.
And the money is absolutely coming – this year’s edition of The International, a global tournament for the game Dota 2, had an overall prize pool of over $24 million.
The trickle-down to Australia could take a few more years, but when you consider the first edition of The International was held in 2011 for a total prize pool of just $1 million – which was serious coin for eSports at the time – it's exponential growth, which is showing no sign of slowing.