Watching someone else play a game may seem like a counter-intuitive thing to do. Why not just play the game yourself for the full experience? It seems, however, that watching is exactly what some people want to do.

Today, there are competitions like the League of Legends World Championship, hosted by Riot Games, held in stadiums filled with thousands of spectators. Coca Cola and Razer are jumping into the scene, sponsoring competitions and pro-gaming teams. The teams even come complete with their own enthusiastic fan base.

Could e-sports gamers be the athletes of the future?

Pilcrow League Legends Trophy
League of Legends Season 3 Finals”by artubr—CC BY 2.0

Makings of an athlete

The word “athlete” most commonly means “a person who is proficient in sports and other forms of physical exercise.” Those who oppose the idea of e-sports gamers as athletes will most likely cite this definition in their argument. Gamers spend all day sitting indoors, in front of a screen, only moving their fingers and hands to type and click. Comparing that to the image of “real” athletes, who spend hours in the gym, sweating under the sun, measuring calories and nutrient levels, all for the sake of becoming the best in their chosen sport, it’s understandable why naysayers so firmly believe that physical athletes fit more closely to the dictionary definition of the word.

However, professional gamers, like The Fnatic Team, are shaking the stereotype of a gamer — the one of Red Bull chugging, socially inept slobs. In fact, according to Fnatic’s Tal Aizik (aka Fly) and Bora Kim (aka YellOwStaR), their day-to-day is not so different from physical athletes. These pro-gamers build their lives around training, have strict dietary schedules, and even go to the gym to withstand the demands on their body and mind.

Pilcrow e-sports
eSports” by Living it Loving it Ltd—CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“What demands,” you ask? Professor Ingo Froböse, who works in prevention and rehab at German Sport University Cologne, told Duetsche Welle that e-sports players’ heart rate and cortisol levels during a game are comparable to long-distance running and car-racing. Their fingers move four times quicker, executing more movements per minute than the average person, despite having to control asymmetric movement of both hands.

Long and intense play times also mean a need for strong mental endurance to stay alert and is the key to success, much like how athletes need to be mentally strong to complete an event at peak performance.

Some in the sports industry are also starting to acknowledge the eligibility of e-sport athletes, even considering whether an e-sports category should be included in the Olympics. Like it or not, e-sports gamers are well on their way to becoming recognized as athletes in their own right.

Paving their own way

E-sports is very much a young person’s activity with many professional gamers entering the competitive scene while still in their teens. So what happens when youth aren’t just playing games for fun anymore, and start to see gaming as a potential career path? Sacrifice and isolation are involved, and it is not uncommon for pro-gamers to drop out of school to pursue their pro-gaming career full time. Hopeful pros consider the idea as well, wanting to devote more time to honing their skills. It seems education — and regular school friends along with it — is the first thing to go when “going pro.”

Pilcrow league champions
League of Legends Season 3 Finals”by artubr—CC BY 2.0

With the lure of big money and fame, all just for playing their favorite game, there’s no question why “going pro” is more attractive than studying. Some universities have started offering scholarships and infrastructure to support students with pro-gaming aspirations, perhaps hoping to encourage them to complete their education without having to give up on an e-sports career.

But since younger people have quicker reflexes and better fine motor skills, players start competitive play early and, according to the makers of League of Legends, tend to “age out” by their 20s. It’s hard to say whether anything will prevent truly talented and ambitious teens from leaving traditional education behind to pursue a life of gaming, big money, and super-stardom.