January 27, 2022
In part 1 of this 2 part blog we covered an introduction and some of the history behind the 6 biggest types of games in eSports. As we saw they vary quite radically, for instance comparing RTS and FPS is a little like comparing say soccer to boxing – totally different! The big question to answer here is how do these eSports differ in terms of the mental loads on some of the highest performing human minds on planet earth? The goal here is to analyze each class of gaming to discover which eSports are the most demanding on high-level cognitive functions – enjoy!
First we’ll break down the each type of the 6 eSports in terms their demands on seven different high-level cognitive functions. Research shows that many types of cyber athletes possess mental abilities that surpass those of non-gamers. Based on the NeuroTracker Team’s knowledge of neuroscience, here are our selection of the particular aspects of elite gamers’ mental prowess that matter most.
Processing speed – the amount of sensory information that can be meaningfully processed and evaluated over time. Why it’s important – this literally determines how fast you can operate in any demanding situation. As this decreases throughout adulthood, it's the reason why professional gamers tend to be young.
Working memory – the total load of information that can be held in mind and simultaneously manipulated in a given moment. Why it’s important – call it multitasking or mental juggling, this form of cognitive bandwidth is essential for thriving in complex or chaotic situations.
Depth perception – the ability to perceive your position relative to the environment and objects moving away or towards you. Why it’s important – perceiving depth is the most complex form spatial awareness, and is critical for predicting where you and your opponents will be, moment to moment.
Peripheral vision – the total visual field of view that can be effectively perceived. Why it’s important – having a wider useful field of view allows more visual information to be absorbed, and is essential for being able to track many moving objects, as well as virtual motion from a 1st person perspective.
Situational awareness – the ability to evaluate the relevance of perceptual information in terms of environmental consequences. Why it’s important – it’s especially key for recognizing situational threats or opportunities, and is an essential component of any kind of tactical or strategic awareness.
Decision-making – the ability to evaluate all of the above (and more) in order to predict different outcomes and select the best opportunities in a given situation. Why it’s important – gaming involves endless concatenations of small to large decision-making events, smart choices add up quickly into large advantages, and vice versa.
Reaction time – the neurophysical response time to execute an appropriate physical action. Why it’s important – when there is only a small timeframe to execute a decision into an action, a fast response time is needed to actually make it happen, otherwise the opportunity is lost.
Now we'll evaluate each of the big eSports across these cognitive metrics on a scale of 1-100, with some explanation of how they are scored.
As we can see FPS games rank very highly on depth perception, which is essential for perceiving self-motion through the environment via optic flow, as well as the precise distance of opponents (think sniper targeting). It’s also a classic form of reaction-based gaming, where milliseconds determine who gets shot and who survives.
Working memory and decision-making are less taxing, as there are times during gameplay where players are mostly roaming the map scouting opponents or seeking defensive positions. Overall FPS players have high demands on their visual systems during the heat of action.
As we can see, RTS games place very heavy mental loads across the board apart from reaction time (mostly confined to micro managing units) and depth perception (mainly discerning the differences between flying and ground units).
Peripheral vision may seem surprisingly high, but RTS players have to constantly scan the activity of myriads of both friendly and enemy units, often across the whole screen, as well as maintain astute awareness of the all-important mini-map. Processing speed, working memory and decision-making are also maxed out, with the world’s best players executing in excess of an incredible 800 gaming actions per minute (aka APM), while also making complex tactical and strategic decisions.
Just like in martial arts, fighting games are the quintessential reaction challenge when it comes to gaming. Every attack, block and counter attack is intimately dependent on the opponent’s actions, pretty much every micro second of combat. This requires a reasonable level of processing speed to interpret and predict each action.
However outside of this, the mental demands are fairly low. Decision-making and working memory demands are quite limited in terms of the number of gameplay options. Visual focus is much more acute than peripheral, and depth perception is largely about simply judging left and right motion through parallax 3D effects, with the background moving at different speeds to the plane of combat.
When it comes to racing games peripheral vision and depth perception are absolutely critical. They also go hand-in-hand, especially when it comes to precise judgement of speed when cornering or going for inevitably risky overtaking maneuvers. These specific visual demands push the human brain to its limits, way past what it was evolutionary designed to handle.
Although reaction time and decision-making do win or lose races, they tend to only come into play occasionally during battles for position – moments which have to be timed and chosen carefully. Working memory is also not overstrained, as top-flight racing is more about acute focus and precision than mental juggling.
Sports games tend to be quite polarized in their demands. Similar to some degree to real sports - reaction time, situational awareness and peripheral vision demands are very significant. This is because tactical play is all about reading every player position moment-to-moment, in order to predict play threats and opportunities.
Depth perception is only stimulated moderately through judging ball trajectories along with minor differences in the relative motion of players that are closer, versus further away. Likewise, processing speed, working memory, and decision-making demands aren't very significant, mainly due to the limited number of play outcomes compared to other eSports.
As we mentioned in the last blog, MOBA competitions are fiercely competitive. They also have a phenomenal number of potential play outcomes in big team fights. For example in DOTA 2, each of the 10 different players can execute up to 37 combinations of hero abilities and items in synergistic fashion. This vast complexity, paired with fast-paced gameplay, rigorously tests players’ grey matter across the board, topping the charts when it comes to both challenging tactical and strategic decision-making thinking.
However, the Achilles heel for these high-level cognitive functions is the low demand on depth-perception. For the most part this just about judging the motion of occasional airborne spells or attacks across a mostly flat battle environment.
As we’ve seen, the specific high-level cognitive demands of one particular eSport can vary quite dramatically when compared to another. Now let’s take a look at the overall scores across the top eSports.
As mentioned in the Part 1 of this blog, not all games are created equal. Also it’s useful to recognize that, with the exception of fighting games, all the big eSports games have very significant cognitive demands compared to the majority non-professional games.
Although FPS, Racing and MOBA games are close contenders, it’s RTS games that come up trumps when it comes to needing superhuman brain power in order to succeed at the highest standards. Even with the light demands on depth perception, RTS games still excel overall when it comes to taxing gamer’s neurons.
In particular, there is a huge gap between high-level competitive players and the world’s best RTS cyber athletes, who execute play actions on the order of 10 times faster than their lesser counterparts. This is likely the reason why cognitive sports scientists have chosen to study Starcraft II champions to investigate what makes gamers’ brains so special. Additionally, this class of gamers were the first choice for Google to field test an astonishingly powerful evolution of Deepmind AI, dubbed AlphaStar.
If you enjoyed this two-part article, then check out our other blogs revealing why eSports deserve to be taken seriously.
And in case you missed it - Which eSports Are the Most Cognitively Demanding? Part 1
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