The Sports Psychologist in eSports
Roughly two months ago the premier event of Dota 2, The International 5 concluded and the winners walked away with more than 6.5 million $ share from the almost 18.5 million $ prize pool. Prize pools in eSports have risen annually since before the new decade, from the slump in 2009 of roughly 3.5 million $ total eSports prize pools to the record breaking total prize pool of 46 million $ of 2015, a year that still has a lot coming up in the coming weeks and months. The eSports scene has never been as competitive and teams will look find any possible advantage to turn the tide in their favor.
When it comes to the supporting staff surrounding the players one might think of Tang “71” Wenyi, the coach for the legendary DotA team EHOME that won 10 straight tournaments. Perhaps you think of Park Yong Un also known as “Coach Park” who in StarCraft: Brood War led his team SK Telecom T1 to four consecutive Pro League grand finals. Having a coach is the norm in high tier eSports and in the League of Legends Championship Series there is even monetary support for the purpose of hiring coaches and support staff.
As stated above, teams will look to find any possible advantage to turn the tide in their favor and Ninjas in Pyjamas are no different as we have reached out to an expertise that has yet to become common in eSports, that of the sport psychologist.
“Sport psychology is a proficiency that uses psychological knowledge and skills to address optimal performance and well-being of athletes, developmental and social aspects of sports participation, and systemic issues associated with sports settings and organizations.”
– American Psychological Association –
Robert Szasz is a master graduate in Sport and Science who got his start in eSports in his high school years through the Warcraft 3 mod DotA, a game he played semi-competitively. Through Muay Thai Robert discovered the field of sport psychology which he started to study at Halmstad University and for his master thesis he wanted to write out of joy and decided to write about eSports.
The master thesis titled “Investigating e-Sport from a sport psychological perspective” showed signs that individuals who used sport psychological practices like imagery training and concentration training perceived themselves as having improved in the game while a placebo group that was told that physical exercise would improve their game play instead showed negative results in self-confidence.
Robert is currently working with our Dota 2 team on their various boot camp sessions and is helping them with making practice more qualitative, how to evaluate games among other things. He has previously worked with some StarCraft 2 players and it was with that experience he realized how much use a sport psychologist could have within eSports.
Robert Szasz with our Dota 2 players after qualifying to the TI5 European Qualifier Playoffs.
The Korean domination of StarCraft 2 came as no surprise, StarCraft: Brood War had been a huge hit and the game was still being played competitively at the time of the StarCraft 2 release. Western players in the shadows of Korean icons like MVP and MMA tried to copy the recipe of the Korean dominance, be it team houses or the hours upon hours of grinding game after game, but despite this the results could never came close to matching the Koreans. Robert witnessed the grinding of game upon game regimen while working with a western StarCraft 2 player and he saw a lot of problems with it.
In the case of StarCraft 2 it’s very important to take more things in consideration beside the game itself, the professional players try to practice as much as possible because that is what the Koreans are doing and they are the most successful. The problems arise when you for some reason can’t play those 14 hours a day and you start to look down upon yourself. If your view of success is that it correlates with how much time you play the game your perception of yourself will be damaged when you lack even short amount of playtime.
Robert continues problematizing the grinding of game upon game practice regimen.
Imagine that you win 7 out of 10 games and evaluate that as a good practice day and leave it at that, your effort has more or less been in vain. Let’s say there is a pattern of losing the first and last game of the day and that you realize that you are not warmed up enough the first game and that you have a hard time concentrating the last game, knowing this you can focus your efforts in getting better at concentrating, warming up and staying in the zone. Pair this issue up with the constant grinding of games with too few and short pauses and you have a real issue in tournaments where you will never have to play non-stop for hours but instead have long breaks. Has your training really prepared you for this scenario or will you have a hard time to adjust since you need to be constantly playing in order to remain in the zone.
MVP, the greatest SC2 player to date. Photo courtesy of GOMTV
The International 5 grand finals featured Evil Geniuses and CDEC, a western power house with many tournament victories against Chinese matchmaking stars who going into the event had lost seven out of seven grand finals. While one might say CDEC never were the favorites in those grand finals they were still able to beat better teams in the earlier stages of a playoffs bracket but lost to the same teams in different tournaments in the grand finals. The match history between CDEC and LGD paints the picture pretty well as CDEC eliminated them in ECL 2015 Spring in the semifinal, lost to them in two consecutive grand finals (WCA 2015 CN Qualifiers and G-League 2015) and most recently winning against them 2-0 in the upper bracket round two of TI5. While CDEC as a team can’t be described as anything less than a success story their poor performances in grand finals is noteworthy and got me thinking about how new players are discovered in eSports.
The six million dollar Echo Slam, the defining moment in the TI5 grand finals.
Headlines like “From mom’s basement to packed arenas” is something that we have grown accustomed to in eSports when it comes to the mainstream media coverage, but said headline actually does paint a good picture in the sense of how fast and sudden a competitive gamer’s career can be launched. Where the biggest sports of today have a very structured ladder for the aspiring competitor with junior leagues to small amateur teams into the big professional teams there is clearly a lack of a similar infrastructure in eSports where what can be perceived as your past time hobby can become a high stakes profession in a day.
How are teams supposed to know if their newest roster acquisition is going to perform in the high pressure moments when they recruited the individual/s in question based on performance in either in-house leagues, matchmaking or semi-professional competitions? Is there any way to simulate a high pressure moment? Robert answers.
One of many ways to stimulate stress is by having the players perform rough physical exercise, which stimulates similar substances in your body to the ones created when you are stressed. You will have similar feelings when you are late to a flight, your dog has passed away or you haven’t had anything to eat and then you are supposed to perform in a tournament. By exposing your body to these substances you will gain more resistance, even if you don’t believe it. It is however important to understand that the training is not the physical activity itself, the training is being able to perform during a scrim with these substances activated in your body.
Robert also talks about imagery, a proven technique where you try to create/imagine an experience as vividly as possible. For example imagining the first few minutes in laning stage as a solo mid Shadow Fiend on Radiant where you would creep block perfectly, get a fast bottle, time the Razes for the rune spawn and transition efficiently between the jungle camps and the lane.
If I had a client that choked often, felt down in general and had the right personality I would definitely recommend imagery. But if the individual in question is an extrovert imagery training might not be as effective as it could be with an introvert, however a part of psychology is understanding both the strategies you implement as well as understanding the person you're facing.
Robert responds to how difficult it is to make a player perform on a high level regardless of setting.
As an advisor I see my task as a first step, the player has to continually struggle to overcome his/her issues. It’s about the player going through with what we have talked about and how I as a sport psychologist has given the right recommendations. It’s about how much you want and how much you believe, there has to be some form of consensus because I can’t help someone with the first step if they don’t believe in me and if I am unable to provide a tool that the player doesn’t believe in I have failed. If you hire a sport psychologist it’s about getting good tools that you can use, not as a quick fix but that relatively soon will give a smaller effect and in time can develop a sound behavior that excel the performance.
I’ve always been optimistic in terms of what sport psychologists can offer the eSports scene but definitely even more so after talking to Robert, not only by providing tidbits about how to simulate stress but also how someone despite working hard might be wasting their time. It’s not really a question of if sport psychology and sport psychologists will become common in eSports but rather when and with the increasing numbers in viewership and revenues it's sooner rather than later.