June 16, 2023
Esports is a tremendously popular activity, rapidly outgrowing traditional sports. Success requires high levels of attention and cognitive abilities, perhaps more so than any other domain of human performance. That said, cyber athletes notoriously train for excessively long hours, typically at the cost of their physical health. Surprisingly, how these lifestyle factors affect these professional players’ cognitive prowess has previously gone unstudied. A new study carried out by researchers at Texas A&M University sought to establish the diet and sleep qualities of a large number of elite Esports gamers, and to investigate the effects on their high-level cognitive abilities. Here we will reveal what was discovered.
Though some research has found certain physiological demands of Esports competition to be equivalent to the demands of professional rugby play, excellence in Esports requires exceptional mental skills to succeed at the highest level. This is especially so for professional action-based video gamers, who need to possess superior situational awareness and decision-making abilities, as well as execute complex actions with blisteringly fast mental processing speeds and lightning quick motor-skill reflexes.
Previous research has found Esports athletes do not meet well established criteria for healthy diet and sleep, yet the effects of these on cognitive performance has not been sufficiently studied. And so the influence of nutrition and rest on Esports performance has been a lingering question. A group of researchers specialized in sports science, nutrition, and sleep, designed a comprehensive study to shed light on this question.
The cognitive abilities of gamers have traditionally been assessed through a series of tests that separately assess specifically isolated cognitive functions. However, how well these measures relate when integrated under the extreme demands of Esports performance is not clear.
For this reason, the researchers selected NeuroTracker as a cognitive benchmark that integrates a range of high-level cognitive functions. It has been demonstrated in previous sports science to be a highly relevant assessment, yet still provide well controlled testing environment for study purposes. NeuroTracker has also been used in Esports research to characterize the unique abilities of professional gamers, as well as to compare them against athletes in different sports.
384 elite Esports athletes enrolled in the study, with a total of 119 participants (103 males and 16 females) completing a rigorous battery of assessments over an 8-10 day period, meeting the criteria for statistical analysis. The majority of participants included in the study findings were players of action-based video games, such as Fortnite and Valorant.
The assessments covered 4 areas:
1. Surveys – these included the Gaming History Questionnaire, a demographic survey, a medical history survey, a vision screening assessment, the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI), the Modifiable Activity Questionnaire, as well a daily pretesting survey which included reports on body composition, hours of sleep, and the Stanford Sleepiness Scale.
2. Nutrition – diet, fluid intake and urine color were recorded over 10 days through a comprehensive and detailed 24-Hour Dietary Recall software reviewed by a professional dietician.
3. Sleep monitoring – participants wore a biometric device which collected continuous data heartrate and sleep activity.
4. NeuroTracker Cognitive Assessment - using the NeuroTrackerX remote training application, 20 training sessions were completed by each participant over 8 days. This included baseline assessments incorporating 3 Core sessions and 1 Sustain session (used as a cognitive stamina and resilience assessment) on the first and last days, with 2 Core sessions per day in-between.
The detailed assessments revealed the following findings on the gamers’ activity levels.
Participants averaged 6.3 days of gaming per week with 4.8 hours of gameplay per session, and up to 14 hours gameplay per day.
Participants slept for an average of 7.4 hours, taking around 10 minutes to get to sleep. Average sleep quality was found to be in the range of moderate to severe sleep disturbance.
Waking state was measured on a scale from 1 (very alert) to 8 (barely conscious), with participants averaging a score of 2.8.
Average intakes over the 10-day period were analyzed against established recommended intakes. Most participants did not meet USDA guidelines for magnesium, zinc, folate, omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and choline.
Similarly, most participants exceeded cholesterol, sodium, and saturated fat recommendations, and overall were way below guidelines for consumption of healthy quantities of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and dairy intakes.
The speed threshold results of the participants averaged 1.52. Improvements in NeuroTracker scores over the 20 sessions averaged around a 50% increase in speed thresholds.
Comparative data analysis showed that the participants matched the levels of elite sports athletes on NeuroTracker, but not the level of world-class professional athletes.
Significant positive associations were found between overall NeuroTracker scores and the following nutrients: magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, sodium, zinc, selenium, thiamin, niacin, vitamins B6 and B12, folate, cholesterol, saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fat, omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, and choline.
Additionally, and although there were variations in levels consumed, overall inadequate consumption of vitamin D, riboflavin, phosphorous, vitamin B12, and selenium was also associated with reduced performance on NeuroTracker.
Of particular interest, throughout the NeuroTracker training program, participants who met the recommended amount of protein consumption performed significantly better than those that did not. As NeuroTracker learning rates are an indirect measure of neuroplasticity levels, this suggests that a lack of protein hampered their ability to neurally adapt to the cognitive demands of this task.
This may have implications for the broader influence of dietary protein levels on neuroplasticity and learning abilities.
The Sustain session measures correlated strongly with the Stanford Sleepiness Scale score, with lower scores equated to increased sleepiness. Less average sleep showed a similar relationship with lower scores, but to a lesser degree.
The researchers concluded that Esports athletes have a clear need for nutritional interventions rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals to improve cognitive abilities relevant to their performance needs. Likewise poorer sleep quality, as measured by the Stanford Sleepiness Scale, had a clear negative impact on cognitive performance.
Overall, this first study of its kind provided convincing initial evidence that healthier lifestyle modifications can allow esports athletes to further optimize their performance.
Lastly, as NeuroTracker learning rates may correlate well with how efficiently Esports athletes can benefit from their rigorous training regimes, it would be valuable for future research to investigate if improved intake of certain dietary components, such as protein, can enhance responsiveness to conventional Esports training programs.
Nutrition, lifestyle, and cognitive performance in esport athletes (open access paper)
Jenna B. Goulart, Logan S. Aitken, Saman Siddiqui, Marisa Cuevas, Jacqueline Cardenas, Karen M. Beathard and Steven E. Riechman.
Department of Kinesiology and Sport Management, and the Department of Nutrition, Texas A&M University.
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