Professional computer gamers are becoming increasingly hard to distinguish from conventional athletes – they perform live in front of thousands, sign with Europe’s best football clubs and even burn out in their twenties. Intrigued? Men’s Health went behin
“MORE PEOPLE SAW THE LEAGUE OF LEGENDS FINAL THAN THAT OF THE NBA”
Most athletes would consider hitting the gym before a day of intensive training to be excessive. But for Mads BrockPedersen, better known as Broxah, it’s a way to give his afternoon performance an edge. His coaches encourage it.
Broxah is a professional gamer – or, to use the favoured term, an “esports athlete”. His current sport is League of Legends, the world’s most popular computer game, which he plays for a team called Fnatic. Though he won’t disclose how much he earns, his pay is reported to be in six figures. “I make more than my parents do,” says the 20-year-old.
In 2018, the line between “real” and e-athletes is narrower than a hyphen. Last year’s League of Legends World Championship – which took place over six weeks in several cities across China, not unlike a football World Cup – generated more than 49.5 million hours of viewing time on the streaming service Twitch. Amazon bought Twitch for £710m in 2014, after its share of peak internet traffic in the US surpassed even Facebook’s. Twitch now averages a million viewers at any one time, which puts it in the same league as the sports broadcaster ESPN. Broxah argues that little now separates his world from that of conventional athletes. “They do something physically, while we sit in front of the screen,” he says. “It’s the only difference.” That’s assuming you don’t consider clicking a mouse 300 times in a minute, or five times a second, to be physical.
League of Legends is what’s known as a “multiplayer online battle arena” game. It makes speed chess look slower than dial-up internet: competitors must process an overwhelming amount of information. Just as kicking a ball or picking up a tennis racquet helps us to appreciate the skills of Cristiano Ronaldo or Roger Federer, casual gamers are thrilled by the sight of the world’s best players demonstrating their mastery on stage or screen.
Legends is just one of many esports, alongside Overwatch and Starcraft, as well as football game Fifa and basketball’s NBA 2K. Last year, 588 major global events generated an estimated £43m in ticket revenues. The Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) series – an “annual Olympics” for esports – drew 173,500 fans to Katowice in Poland. (More than 46 million viewers watched online.) Intel also happens to be a partner of the actual Olympics and hosted an IEM tournament alongside the Winter Games in Pyeongchang this year. The Paris bid team has even discussed the inclusion of esports in the 2024 Summer Games.
Esports athletes comfortably out-train their meatspace counterparts. Broxah might wake up at a leisurely 9am, but he typically plays for 10 hours, on and off, until midnight. During tournaments, players can clock up 14 hours. “In physical sport, at some point your body is just done,” he explains. “But – in theory, at least – you can game constantly.” Between training and tournaments, he spends months away from his native Denmark, with “maybe a week” at home. Before the World Championships, he attended a boot camp in South Korea, the leading esports nation, where the booming pastime is televised.
The apartment in central Berlin that Broxah calls his office is the antithesis of the scruffy gamer’s bedroom stereotype: it’s bright and airy, with high ceilings and wooden floors. On the wall is a cleaning rota and a list of sanitary instructions, one of which urges bathroom users: “Focus on aiming!!!” Black, ergonomically designed Dxracer chairs with orange piping and thick padding stand in front of souped-up PCS; the players’ team shirts hang above each, with names on the back, just like in a football club changing room.
The BBC has dubbed Fnatic the esports “equivalent of football super-team Real Madrid”. As it happens, Fnatic’s Fifa squad is partnered with the Italian club AS Roma. More than 20 European football teams, including Man City and Ajax, have signed up gamers to compete in Fifa tournaments, aware of both esports’ revenue forecast – £664m in 2018 – and the way in which young people develop attachments to clubs through the game. In 2016, the NBA’S Philadelphia 76ers bought two esports teams, Apex and Dignitas, after the League of Legends final’s audience exceeded that of Lebron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers winning the championship.
“We’re Real Madrid, the New York Yankees – you name a team – all in one,” says Fnatic’s founder, Sam Mathews. Sitting across from Mathews in his industrial-chic base in east London, known as the Bunkr, is Nick Fry, former CEO of the Mercedes AMG F1 team. A couple of days before this interview, Fry was announced as Fnatic’s new head of commercial strategy. Mathews likens esports more to F1 than to football: “You have to master the technology as well as the racing and the camaraderie.”
Now 33, Mathews founded Fnatic in 2004, when he was 19. He says online games gave him “the same thrill” as playing rugby for Harlequins’ under-21s. He sold his car and borrowed £5,000 from his mother to send his first team to a tournament in Las Vegas. It won £20,000.
Last year, esports prize fees broke the $100m mark for the first time and reached $112m – small change compared to football, say, where Ronaldo alone earned $93m, but a significant amount nonetheless. The first prize in the League of Legends World Championship was $1.9m; Fnatic scooped almost $200,000 for making the quarterfinals. “Nowadays, though, we don’t even make a profit from prize money,” says Mathews. Fnatic’s revenue is split three ways: sponsorship; league participation and broadcasting rights; content (including a reality TV show for unsigned Counter-strike players, like the UFC’S The Ultimate Fighter) and merchandise. Most of the prize money goes straight to the players. Many of them now have agents.
CHASING THE EDGE
Despite their amateur beginnings, esports are turning into a professional, “well-oiled machine”, says Mathews. As the stakes get higher, and the winning margins narrower, any edge for the players
becomes invaluable. “So you’re having them train and eat well,” he says. “As each game gets more competitive, the players take it more seriously.”
The Ronaldo of Fnatic is Martin Larsson, AKA Rekkles (pronounced “reckless”, not “reckles”). One of the best League of Legends players in the Western world, the 21-year-old Swede harboured ambitions of becoming a footballer until he tore a ligament at 14. “It was my fault, because I was over-aggressive, but I wanted to win,” he says. By 16, he was an esports prodigy. With his dyed blond hair and tattooed arms, he shares Ronaldo’s attitude, if not appearance. “He has the right idea on how to be an athlete,” Rekkles says of the footballer. “In a way, I want to be the same.”
Like Broxah, who also played football before esports took over, Rekkles goes to the gym every morning. He has given up smoking and Coco Pops, subsisting instead on chicken, spinach and rice when he isn’t eating the meals prepared by the team’s chef. Over time, he has added 20kg to his naturally lean build. “Before, I was shaky,” he says. “After a week or two [of this diet], I was able to perform better and had more energy.”
Fnatic also encourage their players to meditate. “It ties into the wellbeing of the mind, and it focuses you,” says Mathews. If it’s proven to elicit even marginal gains, it’s worth it. “Like F1, it’s a race,” he says. “One team gets an advantage and, before you know it, others have copied it.”
“As esports grows, I think everyone will start to train hard physically,” says Simon Fitchett, performance coach for the virtual racing team Esports+cars. Fitchett
“NOTHING ELSE REQUIRES YOU TO THINK SO FAST AND MOVE YOUR HANDS SO FAST”
used to work with F1 drivers such as David Coulthard. Then he became involved with GT Academy, an ambitious televised project by the makers of the Gran Turismo game series to see if the best players could translate their skills to a real car. Lucas Ordoñez, the inaugural winner, was subsequently signed by Nissan IRL. In 2011, he finished second at Le Mans.
Fitchett now puts Brendon Leigh, the current F1 esports champion, through his paces with the same principles he applied to Coulthard. Cardio and basic “lean, green” nutrition help to combat the weight gain caused by hours spent sitting down. (Leigh has lost several stone.) An emphasis on strength and endurance also helps to fight muscle fatigue. “If they’re thinking about their physical situation, they’re not 100% focused on driving,” says Fitchett.
To accelerate their reactions, Fitchett employs the kinds of drills used in football training: speed ladders, or setting up two cones 10m apart and having the driver try to run through while another man blocks him. But what’s most similar about gaming and conventional sport is the pressure. “That’s something they won’t have experienced playing in their bedrooms,” says Fitchett. Ahead of the F1 esports world championship in Abu Dhabi, he uses techniques such as neurolinguistic programming and has drivers mentally rehearse every turn of the circuit.
Broxah has also been coached to calm his nerves by visualising every phase he’ll go through: “Being here and relaxing beforehand, then being in the shuttle, sitting backstage waiting to play, being on stage,” he recites. Meanwhile, Rekkles tries to make his game day as similar as possible to his training days, in order to minimise his body’s stress response.
“Your fine motor skills deteriorate when your heart rate goes above 115-120 beats per minute,” says Jonathan Brown, the performance director of Dire Wolves, an Australian League of Legends team. “These guys have been clocked at 170-190bpm on stage. No other endeavour asks you to think so fast, to move your hands so quickly, and to stay calm while doing it.”
A specialist in handling pressure and burnout, Brown was working with financial traders when he was invited by Dire Wolves’ managing director, Dave Harris, to inspect his team. Brown found the players hunkered down in an apartment overlooking Sydney Harbour, with the curtains drawn.
“The problem with our guys is making sure they practise less than they’re motivated to,” says Brown, who bemoans the “bullshit grinding idea” that predominates in esports – you don’t build muscle in the gym, after all, but on rest days. To ensure sufficient recovery, Dire Wolves have instituted athlete assessments at the start and end of each day, in collaboration with the University of Technology Sydney, which boasts a shiny new sports science facility shared with Australian Rugby Union in the Sydney Cricket Ground precinct – a couple of hundred metres from the Esports High Performance Centre.
The centre houses hi-tech equipment, but another benefit is that it separates the players’ work from their homes. “In that apartment, they couldn’t get away from the game,” says Brown. Dire Wolves have introduced bedtime rituals to offset the sleep-disrupting effect of blue light from screens. Players are also coached in how to cope with mistakes and how to give feedback, irrespective of their own performance or status. As with any sport, gains come not from just practising mechanical skills but from reviewing. “That’s what an athlete is – you’re not a performer, you’re a learner,” says Brown.
If the pace of change is fast in conventional sports, it’s doubly so in esports. Elite League of Legends players must master at least five of the game’s 130 or so characters, and know the best strategy for each in any number of situations: less a playbook, more a Wiki. “No sport demands that cognitive load,” says Brown. Nor is coaching permitted during League of Legends games, which can last over an hour. Even toilet breaks are controversial. To compound the difficulty, characters are frequently updated; one of the weakest was recently changed into one of the most powerful. “I had four days to become good enough to play it on stage,” says Broxah.
If Broxah and Rekkles talk like seasoned veterans, it’s because they are. League of Legends players retire as early as 24. The reasons for this are partly economic. Not all will make enough money, and many will go back into education, anxious about their career prospects (although this, too, is changing with esports’ swelling coffers and the creation of new jobs as coaches and pundits). There’s also a slight drop-off in co-ordination that occurs in their midtwenties. But Brown insists that by taking “a Ryan Giggs approach” and relying more on experience than on speed, players should be able to compete at the top level into their thirties: “There’s no reason why it shouldn’t mirror physical sport.”
More often, players end up as “burnt toast”, in the common expression, exhausted by esports’ relentlessness – something that Brown hopes his interventions will alleviate. Most players don’t have girlfriends, but that has more to do with logistics and their workload than a clichéd lack of social skills. Broxah met his at a tournament; she lives in London and he sees her once a month, if that. Others have decided to prioritise their career. Rekkles has “quite a few” female fans, but doesn’t welcome the distraction. “When I’m done playing,” he says, “I’ll have more than enough time for that.”
WORDS BY JAMIE MILLAR – PHOTOGRAPHY BY PHILIP HAYNES
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