2017 is shaping up to be the year of the veteran. Between franchising deals for the North American LCS and the Overwatch League, and the average age of players creeping upward, it seems as though the sky's the limit for players who want to buckle down and make a career out of playing. Even though things seem more sustainable than ever, there’s one barrier in a way the of pros who are in it for the long run: their own bodies, which are shockingly apt to crumble after years of playing.
Red Bull eSports sat down with Taylor Johnson, an expert who's worked with collegiate and professional sports teams including the San Francisco 49ers as an assistant strength and conditioning coach. He is a consultant for esports organizations and players, teaching them how to create and implement high-performance models to enhance their overall gameplay, health and wellness. We spoke with Johnson about the challenges unique to pro gaming, and why teams might not be doing quite enough.
Esports have made massive strides over the past few years, including building health infrastructure for their teams. Recently, LoL Esports ran an article about the NA LCS’s eating schedule, and how teams are starting to control their diets a little more than the halcyon days where players were left to their own devices with a microwave and packet of ramen. We’re starting to see teams post gym selfies and videos of players running to their social media — a sign that they are taking fitness seriously.
Is that enough? Johnson thinks it's a fantastic start, but he doesn’t look at what would be healthy for your average North American. Instead, he has his eyes on the models of traditional sports. “[In this profession,] you take these high performance models that you would see in any elite sporting team,” he said. “You have programs that encompass nutrition, health, wellness, psychological preparation, sleep, recovery, all of the big building blocks that go into these elite programs.”
Healthy mind, healthy body
That sounds like a tall order, but it may be necessary for ensuring players are able to enjoy their entire career. Hai Lam, currently of FlyQuest and best known for his time on Cloud9, went through a public struggle with his wrists while trying to maintain the mechanical rigors of mid lane. Cloud9’s Ray recently spoke candidly about his depression during the 2017 Summer Split, and other players have experienced health troubles, both physical and mental.
Johnson’s profession is largely about influencing all parts of a player’s development. “First and foremost, there’s recreating the structure systems and scheduling that you would see in a successful organization in traditional sports,” he explains. This part is familiar to esports fans; players in team houses are on a strict schedule, working with coaches and team staff for practice and then (ideally) eating and sleeping on a schedule that best allows this. “Then, we apply that practice, in context with the training and recovery for esports.”
Some of the training is physical, including workout routines and ergonomics. This is the primary focus of Johnson’s work, and the idea is to not only to keep players comfortable, healthy and prepared for the big game, but ensure that they can show up to the tournament after that, and so on, for years to come. “First and foremost, the primary objectives are to enhance your overall performance, health and wellness, reducing the risk of injury and extending game longevity,” Johnson explains.
Once you have those basics down, it’s time to move onto something a little more difficult and easier to pin down: “Then there’s promoting health and wellness to the entire gaming community,” Johnson said. One of the biggest challenges of his work is the conception that esports don’t require physical endurance or challenges like traditional sports, something that would make his work unnecessary or redundant. This misconception can lead to player injuries and careers ending early. “I think there’s this stigma behind esports and video gaming where you imagine people just sitting behind computer screens and TVs with horrible diets and no real structure, but I think it’s quite the opposite. When comparing to other traditional sports, I see more similarities rather than differences.”
There are already massive strides in esports toward this model, as opposed to the early days of North American league. While smaller teams still often have to cope with the struggles of young men living together — often without real world experience — larger teams are starting to invest in health and safety infrastructure. There’s obviously a moral component to it as well; it’s the right thing to do for those players under a team’s care.
Often, players don’t have the understanding to implement this in their own lives, and they shouldn’t have to have that understanding — that’s what the experts are for. When you put players in a team house for the first time without proper infrastructure, and they’re competing at the highest levels, of course players will push themselves. It’s human nature to ignore small aches and pains that come about from overuse of hands or bad posture, but this damage adds up.
There’s a pressing need to take care of these players, and the right infrastructure and experts are the solution. There’s also, of course, an immediate bonus in terms of preparation and gameplay. “Those who take [physical and mental health] very seriously are starting to adapt these models of understanding how their health and wellness can improve the gameplay,” he said. “There’s starting to be this paradigm shift in how players are going go about preparing for the games themselves.”
The four pillars of performance
This isn’t an easy field, especially for people unfamiliar with physical health and fitness, but Johnson has a handy way to boil the topic down. “I think there’s four pillars of performance that can be addressed: Nutrition, Recovery, Psychological and Physical. Those are the four big ones that I think could most easily be impacted.”
Esports may not seem like a physical sport, but players who dedicate themselves to the game can find themselves shocked at the toll it takes on their body. Not only are there the physical risks of largely being sedentary, but the fine motor movement necessary to succeed at the top levels adds up. Melee players, for instance, have inflicted damage on their hands that adds up. Initially, the damage may seem like something players can live with, but it quickly compounds on itself.
“You must develop specific training and corrective exercises to address certain problematic areas, as well as know not only the individual needs but the collective needs of the team,” Johnson said. Every esport brings its own challenges. “Take Dota, for instance: you could be playing best of three or five, and each game could extend beyond an hour. Knowing this, you can set up your training and scenarios to reflect these types of dynamics and stressors that would be seen in high-level competition.”
It’s not just the team and their coaches that need to know the battle, but physical health staff need to be aware of each game and the challenges it brings. “Creating different scenarios and periodizing your training could give you an upper hand when preparing for tournament play when a lot is on the line," Johnson said. A League player, Melee player and Starcraft player are all going to bring different challenges to the table.
The long game
Health and safety is important for keeping players in the game, but when the game becomes more competitive than ever, these professionals can also give players an edge. “There’s been research and studies showing the benefits of physical training and nutrition to improve cognitive function, increasing blood flow, processing speed and reaction times.” A good routine and professional advice could be the difference between going home empty-handed or going home with the trophy.
Mental health is a pressing need for esports organizations; the players they work with are often at or approaching the age where disorders tend to manifest. Having experts on staff who can deal with depression and other disorders that set in during young adulthood is critical.
Mental health goes beyond just warding off problems like depression and other disorders that set in during young adulthood. Part of a healthy routine is being able to handle smaller challenges and everyday life, especially when you’re under the spotlight. “With psychological factors, you have guys who tend to tilt, so there are different mental training programs that are important as well, to keep players balanced and improve their resiliency,” Johnson said.
2017 looks like a fantastic year for veterans, but if these psychological issues aren’t addressed, players could find themselves dropping out of the game altogether.
“If you look at just the longevity of the gamers themselves, I think the chance of burnout increases rapidly,” Johnson said. It’s a common perception that players age out of the game, losing the reflexes that come with age ... but Johnson suspects burnout and mental fatigue may be a bigger culprit. “When looking at players from a psychological standpoint, the more emotionally reserved and controlled they are will lead to less mistakes and potentially more games won.”
It all ties together into one neat package, physical and mental health tying together. “Looking at the emotional stability that is gained from proper nutrition, recovery and training can definitely play a role in the bigger picture of how well they function day to day.”
With franchising on the horizon, we can expect organizations to step up their game regarding infrastructure, coaching and staff. However, it’s important for them to make sure the right health professionals are on board. The North American LCS and Overwatch League are both going to reward teams who can maintain successful rosters and hold onto key players. If they burn out, or drop out due to injury, that’s going to be incredibly difficult. While key professional staff can help, it’ll ultimately come down to the team to hire these professionals, the leagues to encourage this, and the players to engage in active, ongoing care. After all, it’s their careers on the line.