VIR­TU­ALLY ATH­LETES

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

Men's Health (UK) - - Time -

“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.

MA­JOR LEAGUES

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.”

UN­DER PRES­SURE

“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.

GAME OVER

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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