The Effects of Different Types of Training on Cognitive Performance in Professional Esports Players

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The Effects of Different Types of Training on Cognitive Performance in Professional Esports Players

As esports continues to evolve, so does research on the role of different types of training as effective tools for in-game improvement. In this study, the authors reviewed the existing data, summarized the literature to date, and made recommendations for future research.

The authors utilized the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) standard for this review. Studies were selected using PICOS criteria, as shown in the table below, sourced directly from the paper.

Table 1

PICOS Model of the Systematic Review

PICOS elementsDescription
PopulationYoung esports players (age ≥16 and ≤26 years) regularly playing action video games (as they have improved cognitive and motor skills).
InterventionAll physical, motor, cognitive, or combined interventions conducted using a pre–post design.
ComparisonAll studies with pre–post baseline measurements or compared with no intervention group.
OutcomeTo be included, the studies had to assess the performance of the esports players. Studies must include, but not be limited to, at least one of the following variables. Physical performance: heart rate, HRV, grip strength; self-reported performance: perceptual effort (RPE), enjoyment, anticipation of sessions; motor performance: visuo-haptic coordination, fine motor skills; cognitive performance: cognitive flexibility, decision making, task switching, memory (long term and visual), information processing, planning, sustained and divided attention, task switching, inhibition, spatial orientation, reaction time, accuracy; or finally in-game performance: Kill-Death-Assists, target accuracy, minions killed, victory/defeat.
Study designStudies published in peer-reviewed journals, and we applied a language restriction, limiting ourselves to articles written in French, English, or certified with an English translation.
Note. PICOS = Population, Intervention, Comparison, Outcomes, and Study Design; HRV = heart rate variability; RPE = rating of perceived effort.

However, after rigorously applying these criteria, the authors found that there was only one study that met the standards out of the 479 they originally identified through their literature search. They attribute this deficit to several causes.

First, as esports is still a fairly new field, let alone esports performance, there is a scarcity of trained esports performance specialists including coaches and staff. As a result, it is difficult to establish intervention studies as there are few individuals capable of designing appropriate interventions. Second, the professional esports competitor field is fairly small, limiting potential research subjects. Third, esports is novel enough as a field that best practices for training have yet to be established. Previously, a “grind yourself into the dust” model was fairly standard; in more recent years, both players and researchers have more consistently identified the value of nutrition, sleep, lifestyle management, and physical and mental preparation in player performance.

The existing research has explored the impact of physical and cognitive-motor training on cognition in non-gamers, but studies focusing on professional esports players are lacking. Initially, physical training in esports was introduced for health reasons due to the sedentary nature of video games, which can lead to musculoskeletal disorders and obesity. A recent systematic review by Toth et al. highlighted the cognitive areas involved in esports and suggested that aerobic exercise could enhance cognitive abilities. However, there is a lack of studies on other types of training such as coordinative, resistance, and high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Three years after the systematic review mentioned above, the literature research indicates a need for more studies. Only one study on HIIT among League of Legends players demonstrated acute improvements in game performance and cognitive well-being. However, this study had limitations, such as focusing on the acute effects of HIIT, not including chronic effects or professional players, and only examining unimodal physical training. The literature gaps suggest a need for further research with a focus on professional esports players and a consideration of various types, frequencies, and modalities of training.

The authors advocate for a clearer distinction between professional esports players and recreational gamers in future research. They define professional players as those with contractual arrangements overseen by esports organizations, receiving compensation for gameplay at an elevated proficiency level. These players engage in about 80 gaming sessions weekly and belong to the top 0.01% of players. Accessing and studying this population is challenging due to obstacles such as scarcity of subjects, limited availability, and concerns about intrusive data collection. Researchers face methodological concessions, impacting scientific rigor. The authors call for increased collaboration between professional players and organizations with researchers to address these challenges and advance knowledge on professional esports performance.

The neurophysiological effects of training vary based on frequency and type; high-intensity aerobic training demonstrates a more significant increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor and greater improvement in working memory compared to low or moderate-intensity training (Jeon & Ha, 2017). The text suggests that future research should precisely define the frequencies and types of training, distinguishing between chronic and acute sessions and considering physical (e.g., HIIT, resistance training) or cognitive/cognitive-motor focus. The authors have plans for a Single-Case Experimental Design project to investigate the effects of chronic and acute High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and cognitive-motor training on cognitive and physical performance in professional esports players. The study aims to determine the optimal training schedule for esports athletes, considering the type and frequency of training, and to explore the connections between cognitive, physical, motor, and physiological improvements and esports performance during training and competition.

The authors also offer some suggestions as key to improving the current dearth of high-quality esports performance research. Rather than summarizing this information, we will quote these clear, well-sourced action steps directly from the paper, and strongly suggest that EHPI readers consider the implications for their own areas of practice.

  1. Involve professional staff and players in drawing up the protocols, and in interpreting and concluding the research project jointly with the researchers.
  2. Integrate knowledge translation models (Boland et al., 2020), which would engage practitioners within a research process, through shared concepts and coproduced knowledge, to strengthen the ability to link, exchange, and cocreate knowledge.
  3. Propose a collaboration based on exchange, communication, and dialogue between the various parties (academic and esports players) involved in the project to identify areas of overlap and ultimately lead to more effective collaboration and improved esports performance. Also, emphasize researchers’ esports experience, for smoother interactions with practitioners, maintaining regular communication with staff and players, as well as postgraduate scientific background, to address inquiries effectively while enabling the recognition and adoption of evidence-based practices for impactful decision making in surrounding esports performance (Brocherie & Beard, 2021).
  4. Promote constant communication between researchers and esports stakeholders to develop research issues that are valid according to scientific evaluation criteria adopted by scientific institutions for publication (i.e., control groups, randomization, statistical tests, sample sizes) but also directly useful for professional esports organizations and their staff.
  5. Explain that the primary objective of the research is to improve performance, rather than to use the results solely for publication purposes. Indeed, there is skepticism or wariness among teams about the potential contributions from academic entities, stemming from concerns about their detachment from practical realities. This is about academics and researchers helping and working with professionals and practitioners.
  6. Make compromises between research and performance, as in academic settings, constraints arise from scientific demands and peer evaluation, while practical constraints relate to intervention, customer satisfaction, and problem-solving, and where the collaboration between parties with diverse constraints leads to tensions (Delalandre, 2009).
  7. Conduct qualitative research, such as case studies, to bridge the research practice gap by fostering relationships between practitioners and coaches, which may result in mutual interests and more demanding research such as laboratory-based experiments (Fullagar et al., 2019).
  8. Foster the recruitment of staff with a scientific background (BSc, MSc, PhD) within esports professional organizations to facilitate dialogue with the academic world and roll out evidence-based training programs.

Thillier, C., Besombes, N., Agbangla, N. F., & Vitiello, D. (2023). The Effects of Different Types of Training on Cognitive Performance in Professional Esports Players. Journal of Electronic Gaming and Esports, 1(1), jege.2023-0022. Retrieved Jan 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.1123/jege.2023-0022

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Dr. Jennifer Thai

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