The Mental Demands of eSports are Equal to Pro Sports

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New research into the minds of eSports athletes has revealed that they encounter a wide range of psychological stressors when competing in professional tournaments. This puts performance in the cyber domain on par with the mental pressures experienced by pro soccer and rugby players. Adding to the new but fast-growing body of eSports science, this study adds another level of equivalency between eSports and traditional sports. Here we’ll dig into what the research revealed.

What Was Studied?

Published in the International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, researchers at the University of Chichester focused on elite esports professionals competing in major Counter Strike contests. A hotbed of research, the University of Chichester actually has BA (Hons) eSports degree on the science of gaming.

The researchers investigated the stressors top-tier gamers face and the associated coping strategies they use to cope with them, something never-before studied. They used in-depth psychological based interviews with deductive analysis to delve into the minds of the cyber athletes, comparing the findings to similar research in pro sports.

What Was Found?

51 different types of psychological stressors from competitive play were uncovered. Some of the obvious stress factors included being on the big stage amid the roars of huge crowds or millions of online spectators, as well as all the ensuing media attention and interviews.

But rather than these external type of factors, internal sources of stress were more significant. In particular this included faces pressures within the team. For example, when up against the wall, breakdowns in communications could result in players becoming overly aggressive with each other, or simply shutting each other out. This effect was amplified when the team’s goals became divided through different opinions in strategy.

Just like in traditional sports, a single error in eSports games like DOTA 2, Counter-Strike or Starcraft 2, can have dramatically negative impacts. With today’s increasingly substantial prize pools, such mistakes can literally cost a player and their teammates tens of millions of dollars. The added pressure is that eSports stars tend to have high rates of burnout with extremely short career spans, typically retiring in their early twenties.

The takeaway is that eSports stars would have a lot to talk about if they met sports stars like Ronaldo, Steph Curry or Tom Brady.

Coping Strategies

For the first time eSports professionals discussed in detail their methods for coping with the pressures of the major competitions. These strategies fell into four categories.

Emotional regulation – using self-regulation techniques like breathing control and relaxation, through to positive affirmations like ‘we can win this’ when the going gets tough.
Problem management – using intra-team communications post-matches to debrief, review what happened, and resolve team issues.
Approach methods – clearly defining and delegating player roles and responsibilities, and getting the most out of team camps.
Avoidance strategies – consciously attempting to minimize the impact of stressors such as team communication problems during the heat of competition.

Member of the research team Dr Phil Birch, commented on the significance of the findings.

“We have discovered that gamers are exposed to significant stress when competing in top-flight contests. By isolating these stressors, we can help esports players develop effective coping strategies to deal with such stressors and optimize performance while playing at the highest level.”

Stepping Up the Game

With eSports exploding in popularity in recent years, the pro gaming industry has taking many steps to professionalize performance to the level of elite sports. In particular this has included the physical demands of esports, including nutrition and fitness.

The next trend is doing this on the mental performance level, which is why eSports training camps are looking more and more like sports science facilities. As you can see here, this includes using NeuroTracker and other cognitive training tech.

This new research shows that the psychological domain is just as important, providing another parallel with traditional sports. Rob Black, Chief Operating Officer at ESL, the world’s leading esports company, said,

“As an industry we’ve known for a long time that stressors on top level players can negatively affect their performance. This study proves this and reinforces what we have been saying for years. Further developments are needed in this area, and that will be key in ensuring the number of professional players continues to grow worldwide.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the fresh phenomenon of eSports, then check out this blog compilation.

4 Blogs on Why eSports are Impressive

Study reference: Matthew J. Smith, Phil D.J. Birch, Dave Bright. Identifying Stressors and Coping Strategies of Elite Esports Competitors. International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, 2019; 11 (2): 22 DOI: 10.4018/IJGCMS.2019040102

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