Esports

NeuroTracker Reveals the Secrets of Pro Gamers’ Brains

November 16, 2020

In recent years neuroscience has taken a keen interest in eSports. It seems that gamers' brains are quite special, and understanding why, may provide answers to the broader nature of the human mind. In this blog we’ll take a look at a brand-new eSports study by neuroscientists who used NeuroTracker as their microscope into the grey matter of both pro gamers and casual gamers.

Gaming Experience Versus Expertise

Many past studies have found that video game players are better than non-players in many cognitive domains, with some of the top elite players having supercharged brains. However, until now, video gaming research has mainly classified players according to how many hours of play they have completed, rather than focusing on video game expertise. Though not as much as pro gamers, casual gamers can still rack-up a substantial amount of gaming hours. So a key question is, how does gamer experience weigh-up against expertise?

The Neuropsychological Profile of Gamers

Funded by a Canadian science grant, 4 neuroscientists and eSports experts from different universities collaborated to pit the pros against everyday gamers on a series of neuropsychological tests and NeuroTracker. The paper, titled ‘The neuropsychological profile of professional action video game players’, was published this week. NeuroTracker was selected because of its unique ability to measure the functional neuroplasticity of the gamers, through their capacity to learn and adapt to this 3D multiple object tracking task.

A previous landmark paper which featured on the homepage of Nature.com, demonstrated that NeuroTracker’s scores clearly classified elite from amateur athletes across multiple sports. This was revealed in their superior learnings over 15 sessions – the elite athletes not only started off faster, they also improved faster. This new gaming study took a similar approach, to sees if the pros had the same kind of edge.

Being Put to the Test

The pro gamer group was composed of 14 grandmasters of the popular eSports game called Overwatch - a fast paced first person shooter (FPS). 16 casual gamers were selected who had also played FPS games for up to 20 hours per week, for at least the last 6 months. The next step was to use a battery of tests to see if any actual brain functions differed between the groups. After completing demographics and video game experience questionnaires, the following cognitive abilities were assessed.

• 15 NeuroTracker tests for attention and functional neuroplasticity

• WMS-III spatial span test for visual working memory

• WAIS-IV visual puzzles test for perceptual reasoning and perceptual manipulation

• WAIS-IV coding test for speed of processing

• WAIS-IV digit span test for auditory short-term and working memory

• D-KEFS towers test for executive function and planning

• D-KEFS color-word interference test for executive function, inhibition and task switching

• Grooved Pegboard eye-hand coordination test of perceptual motor-skill dexterity

What Was Found

One of the biggest differences between the pros and the amateurs was found in visual spatial memory, with a large performance advantage for the elites. The also had a significant edge in their selective and sustained attention, along with auditory working memory. This showed that these cyber athletes can perceive and process aspects of what they see and hear at a higher level than their novice counterparts.

Then across the other tests, the pros generally showed advantages, but with less significant differences. One surprising takeaway, is that results on the neuropsychological tests were almost completely uncorrelated with gaming experience across both groups. Expertise trumped over experience in terms of how strongly related it was to these brain functions.

Results of neuropsychological profiling (black = amateur, red = pro)

The NeuroTracker data provided a deeper window into the brain, because it measured how the gamer’s brains adapted with training over time. The first few sessions showed that the pros had around a 50% advantage in their baselines. These scores represent speed thresholds, so the elites showed a hugely superior abilities used to track many different targets moving dynamically in 3D space, at the same time.

Interestingly, the training over time did not allow the amateurs to catch up the difference. Instead, as the amateurs got better day by day, the pros improved at an equal or slightly greater rate. This is similar to what was found previously between elite and amateur athletes, though the sports stars showed an even larger learning capacity than cyber stars.

NeuroTracker measures of functional neuroplasticity and learning over 15 distributed sessions

Wired to Perform

This study discovered that eSports professionals have a cognitive edge across the board, and greatly superior abilities when it comes to NeuroTracker’s 3D multiple object tracking demands. This suggests their exceptional skills on the virtual battlefields are closely tied to brains that are overlocked to perform – and that NeuroTracker is sensitive at measuring this. However, future longitudinal research is now needed to investigate if this advantage in mental prowess is due to nature or nurture.

If you're are interested in finding out more about the fascinating world of eSports, then check out this blog.

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