Suddenly found yourself with a lot more time to play video games and intent on making the most of it? You'd be wise to listen to Dr Matthew Barr...
An academic at the University of Glasgow’s Centre of Computing Science, and Vice Chair of the British Digital Games Research Association, Barr examines how video games can be used to develop skills, adaptability and critical thinking.
Here, with additional input from Christopher 'Duffman' Duff, Head Analyst for League of Legends superstars G2, Michaela 'mimi' Lintrup, one of the hottest names on the female Counter-Strike scene, and Topson of Dota giants OG, Barr reveals how you can hack the brain into improving your own gameplay.
Your path to greatness has begun...
1. Break up your day
It's all well and good gearing up for an eyelid-battling, all-day session with friends, but are you really maximising your potential? Not according to Barr: "If you’re gaming for six hours a day, you’d be a much better player if you space that out as much as possible." He says. "Taking regular breaks from anything that’s cognitively exercising is an effective way of allowing the brain to unpack more information and recharge itself."
Taking regular breaks from anything that’s cognitively exercising is an effective way of allowing the brain to unpack more information and recharge itself
Duffman wholeheartedly agrees: "Burnout is a big risk, especially when it comes to training for a game such as League of Legends. When you have to balance team play with individual practice it can quickly get to a point where you are over-practicing. To try and combat this we approach the season in a more relaxed manner earlier in the split [season]. We usually need two to three weeks to get ourselves into our best shape before playoffs and international tournaments."
Fatigue of the mind is also something that other major esports outfit, OG, are very conscious to avoid during training "It happens often when you end up playing for too long without taking breaks," says Topson. "We usually play two games and then have a break for an hour before playing again. The mental game plays a very big part in big tournaments. Weaker teams will lose focus and confidence and start overthinking things."
2. Mentor a N00b
Best start looking for the Luke to your Yoda. According to Barr, teaching somebody else to play is an excellent mind hack for self improvement: "There’s a phenomenon called the protégé effect, whereby those who tutor their peers become much better at recalling information and applying it more effectively – we see a lot of this with students during research.
The protégé effect sees those who tutor their peers become much better at recalling information and applying it more effectively as well
"Another fresh pair of eyes could even highlight the weaknesses in your own strategy, particularly in games such as League of Legends where tactics are particularly crucial." adds Barr.
Danish CS:GO sensation mimi believes that even elite players aren't immune from forgetting the basics, and being asked questions by newer players can help them to stay sharp. "When mentoring others about basic knowledge of the game you can often realise aspects you may have forgotten about yourself. It will also make you think about all the different outcomes of certain tactics, which you probably wouldn't have thought about had somebody not asked you."
3. Open the window
"Nature can help restore our attentional abilities," reveals Barr. "Even if you can’t get outside for a walk around, the simple act of cracking open a window and having a room well ventilated and getting in that natural light is a great subliminal and physical boost," says Barr. "Vitamin D is one thing, but your body expects that natural light during the day. And if you don’t get that, it’s going to affect your sleep at night and in turn your cognitive abilities. If you want to be a consistently good gamer, don't let it be an issue."
If you don’t get sunlight, it’s going to affect your sleep at night and in turn your cognitive abilities
It's not exactly done two-time TI winner Topson any harm: "I always want to have natural light coming in when I’m playing and I prefer to have my PC near a window. If I don’t get sunlight for a day I start feeling drained and my focus gets worse. Im also struggling with it but my advice is to sleep early and wake up early so you get more sunlight."
But do ensure you do regularly get outside, too. G2's Duffman credits a regular dose of the great outdoors for keeping the players sharp and successful: "We have even seen the benefits of a quick 15-30m walk outside during our trips to the gym at the start of this split. It’s clear to see some players going from being sluggish and slow at the start of a day to instead being full of energy and ready to go from game one after some exercise and sunlight."
4. Analyse your play sooner
Given the glut of streaming services and in-game highlights packages now available on consoles and PCs, watching gameplay back is easier than ever. Though perhaps you need to be analysing your performance sooner rather than later: “We don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience. Going back and rewatching your performance is a great way to improve your gameplay. If you leave it too long, your brain will still be processing stuff at the back of your head but not so clearly. So recall and reflect while it’s fresh. And thanks to Twitch, you can even ask other players to watch your performance and give you instant feedback."
You can learn a lot from simply watching your mistakes again – what opportunities you failed to capitalise on, or the mistakes that punished you – without emotional bias
And if there's one person who knows the importance of instant analysis, it's the data-driven Duffman, who believes it's best to take on feedback with an open mind in a relaxed atmosphere: "Most of our analysis comes in the form of reviews immediately after games. We have a two to three minute period where players can walk about, get a drink, relax, and then come to the review the game with as little emotion as possible.
"Mostly this consists of looking at things we did well as a team, or that we did poorly depending on the training goals of that week. You can learn a lot from simply watching your mistakes again – what opportunities you failed to capitalise on, or the mistakes that punished you – without emotional bias."
According to mimi, often the best way to improve your game is to spot patterns in your play, and traps you're prone to falling into: "By rewatching your games you may find you keep making the same mistakes, which even for those who play in big tournaments can be a round changer! Even if I’m just casual gaming, I try to figure out what I could have done differently to not die, or to kill more in the round."
However, when it comes to scouting your competition, mimi, who currently represents WRTP on the GC:GO scene, believes time management is key: "Going into tournaments, we are simply just a lot better than many teams, so we focus on the teams who have a better chance of beating us. It sounds a bit arrogant, but it’s all about spending your time wisely."
5. Play with randoms
Knowing when to give orders or relay a position can prove just as vital for your team’s success in Rainbow Six Siege as stylishly picking off an enemy from 300 yards. That said, Barr believes that bringing in a raft of different players or differing abilities to your team can seriously improve any team, keeping each player on their toes. "One of the reasons we found the communication skills improved in our students was because they were forced to play with people with different abilities and modify how they communicate. So if you’re playing with a bunch of people you know, there may already be a shorthand way of communicating, a lot of which can go unsaid. You improve your communicative skills when moving outside of this comfort zone."
Some players need more pushing than others, some players shut down with hard criticism – every person is different so you can’t go around like a wrecking ball treating everyone the same way
"It’s also important to remember how the gamer you are communicating with is as a person, according to Duffman: "There’s no use speaking to everybody in the same manner as you will fail to reach them all in the same ways. Some players need more pushing than others, some players shut down with hard criticism – every person is different so you can’t go around like a wrecking ball treating everyone the same way and expect it to work all of the time."
The other bonus on learning to play with others, is the chance to take parts of other people's gameplay and add it to your own, says the G2 analyst: "There’s only so much you can do alone, so taking advantage of others approaches and experience is important, whether that be from copying individual playstyles or how an entire team plays specific parts of the game."
What's more, with tactics always evolving it can be doubly crucial to see first-hand how other players and teams are approaching the meta, says mimi: "Metas will only work for a certain amount of time before everyone else starts doing the same, it's so important knowing about new approaches to the game. When playing with random players my biggest advice would be to talk directly to the person or team member your information or position concerns the most."
6. Optimise your gaming space
Slouchers be damned. Sitting upright opposed to lying back more casually will make you "more focused on the game," according to Barr, who advocates investing in a solid gaming chair to help your back. Meanwhile, research from Ohio State University has found that better body posture can also give you more confidence in your own thoughts. "The results show how our body posture can affect not only what others think about us, but also how we think about ourselves, said Richard Petty, co-author of the study. Clearly he didn't have Dragon Ball FighterZ in mind during the testing, but if it helps you master Ultra Instinct Goku as well, it's a win-win.
Good body posture can affect not only what others think about us, but also how we think about ourselves
Additionally, Barr recommends cutting out as much external noise – i.e. the radio or Spotify – around your gaming station as possible. "There’s evidence that shows students who listen to music while studying don’t actually do as well because they’re distracted. The brain’s good at filtering out what's important and what's not, but a decent set of headphones with an ergonomic fit can help a lot."
But just how should those headphones feel? Allow mimi to fill you in: "Firstly, you should feel they sit right on your head, and not move when you move your head - otherwise you won't get the optimal sound. They have to be comfortable, so you know you can sit with them on for hours. If you don't even realise you wear them you've hit the jackpot! Of course quality also helps since games such as Counter-Strike are very sound based, because you want to be able to hear the footsteps and gunshots in the game."
7. Stay hydrated
At the risk of sounding like your mum, keeping your hydration levels up could be the difference between reaching the top divisions on FUT and slipping down to the FIFA equivalent of non-league. Barr thinks so too: "There’s very strong evidence to suggest that even being a little bit dehydrated reduces concentration, depresses cognitive performance and affects our motor skills. All of which is a fairly big issue for many gamers.
If you don’t get that, it’s going to affect your sleep at night and in turn your cognitive abilities
Even in the biggest of esports tournaments, Duffman has seen the pitfalls of dehydration firsthand: "If you don't hydrate well it's big problem and it affects players physically and mentally. When our players aren’t drinking enough water it clearly shows in their energy levels and general mood."
To be at the top of your game, it's also important to stay on top of your energy levels. Time and time again, G2 benefit from drinking Red Bull. The key, Duffman says, is knowing when to use it: "We've found Red Bull is best used a short time before a game so that the energy starts to kick in as the game starts. Once that game ends, if you have another game immediately afterwards, you should take a small amount again to make sure you maintain the same level, or you risk hitting the drop."