A Billion for Your Thoughts: The Science of Unlocking an Esports Athlete’s Mind

As esports’ global market value booms towards $1 billion, its most valuable asset remains an uncharted mystery:  the esports athlete’s mind.

Esports today rakes in $906 million a year (on track to $1.4 billion by 2020), paying its highly-trained athletes 6-figure salaries to compete in more than 400 tournaments in new stadiums popping up all over the world. By 2019, an estimated 427 million people worldwide will be watching esports in a global boom that is inspiring traditional sports teams to invest and even get in on the action.

Credit: Tmv23 – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0

Like traditional athletes, esports athletes train hard daily. They sweat for victory and fame, dreaming of huge salaries, lucrative sponsor deals and thousands of fans under hot lights screaming their names.

Yet, unlike halfbacks, goalies, sprinters or athletes in any traditional sport, esports athletes rely far more on their minds. Quicksilver reflexes are critical, to be sure; the wrong finger-tap or wrist-flick can doom your avatar, your team or your entire league to staggeringly humiliating (and costly) defeat.

The esports athlete’s head is where true stardom is forged, however – tested and honed in every second of every game – by how smartly he can strategize, move, attack, adjust and react in sync with his teammates.

Hour after hour, he trains, and his physical game is obvious: Performance stats in his data-rich domain reveal every build, every buff, every dive that has shaped his record in LoL, DOTA2, PUBG, H1Z1Overwatch and more. His mental game – and the psychological traits that drive it – remain a mystery, though, as they do for his peers and opponents across Europe, Asia, North and South America.

This intersection of data and mystery make the psychometrics of gaming fertile ground for the new research project that Veebit has just launched.

Across the world – particularly in Northern Europe, where esports are especially popular and lucrative – organizations and academics have been exploring the detriments and benefits of competitive gaming. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization officially classified “gaming disorder” as a disease, describing it this way:

[It is] characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.

So, educators are working to balance heavy gaming’s developmental and cognitive (and, obviously, commercial) benefits against its potential negative side effects.

This little-understood link between the esports athlete’s mind and performance has pushed higher education institutions all over the world to invest in esports curriculums as heavily as brands and fans do:

From Southwest Baptist University in Missouri to University of California, Irvine – nearly 80 U.S. universities now offer scholarships to esports athletes.

Two U.S. startups are working to formalize high-school-level esports competitions: The High School Esports League has signed up thousands of players to its league and is offering a summer free-agent tournament for Fortnite players; And newcomer PlayVS is signing up players, teachers and recruiters to a mailing list with the goal of launching a tournament season in October, 2018.

Meanwhile, educators in Europe (which accounts for some 32% of the global esports economy despite its relatively small size) are weaving esports directly into their course lists:

Staffordshire University in the UK this fall will offer a master’s degree program in esports business.

Credit: Kirill Bashkirov

Germany has its own college league – University Esport Germany, representing student gamers at 30 colleges – and a number of German universities offer scholarships.

After debating for several years whether esports is a proper sport or more of a competition (like chess), Germany itself stands on the brink of officially recognizing esports as a sport.

Meanwhile, a 2016 study at German Sports University in Cologne determined that esports athletes are just that – athletes, who undergo neurophysiological stress in the course of athletic performance:

“We were particularly impressed by both the demands placed on the motor skills and their capabilities,” [lead researcher Professor Ingo] Froböse said. “The eSports athletes achieve up to 400 movements on the keyboard and the mouse per minute, four times as much as the average person. The whole thing is asymmetrical, because both hands are being moved at the same time and various parts of the brain are also being used at the same time.”

The study further found that physical training and nutrition can be just as important to reaction time, strategic judgment and overall health as hours of gaming at the keyboard.

This goal of training the whole esports athlete has led some European high schools to embed esports directly into their curriculums.

Sweden and Denmark, with more esports athletes per capita than any other country, rank second and third in Europe (after Russia) in the size of their esports economies. Across Sweden, (home to the Minecraft phenomenon and some of the world’s top-earning esports athletes) more than 20 high schools and institutions offer esports curriculums.

For example, the Yrkesinstitutet Prakticum secondary school near Helsinki, Finland offers esports training with this purpose:

The purpose of e-Sport in education is to feel better, to understand the importance of caring for and nurturing their body to ultimately become a better e-athlete. That students understand the relationship between physical exercise and effective screen time, to get better you have to probably reduce the active gaming and instead exercise more (think of the body and health, routines and sleep).

By Alper Çuğun from Berlin, Germany – GeForce GTX AllStar Tournament, CC BY 2.0

In Denmark, Hoejer DesignEfterskole offers an entire esports academy.

While training and fielding tournament teams for League of Legends and Counterstrike: Global Offensive – the academy also teaches its students tactics and strategy, social media literacy, online communication, conflict management, physical exercise, nutritional counseling and teambuilding.

This is where Veebit has engaged: We are launching a groundbreaking research project in Northern Europe to explore the hidden psychological and environmental factors that turn average video-gamers into high-performing esports athletes.

Questions abound:

  • Which mental traits make an avid gamer into a esports superstar?
  • What makes a brilliant Overwatch player fail more often in League of Legends?
  • Why do some teams click and others falter?
  • Which physical habits (such as sleep and diet) help or hurt performance?
  • How can players hone certain mental skills to improve their stats?

Watch this space.

If you are interested in having your esports school, academy, team or league join the study to get customized psychometric results reports for your athletes, please contact us




Mack Reed is Veebit’s Head of Product and oversees the information architecture, use case strategy and user-experience design for the company’s products.