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Abstract

Over the last decade, Esports, defined as a form of organized video game competition, has emerged as a global phenomenon. The professional players who compete in Esports, namely, Eathletes, share many similarities with their traditional athlete counterparts. However, in sharp contrast to traditional athletes, there is a paucity of research investigating the factors that influence the performance of Eathletes. This gap in the literature is problematic because Eathletes are unable to make informed and empirically supported decisions about their performance management, unlike traditional athletes. Sleep is an important factor that influences athletic performance in traditional sports, particularly those that require a high level of cognitive demand. Research is yet to examine whether sleep also plays an important function in optimal performance and success of Eathletes in Esports. Accordingly, the aim of this opinion piece is to review the broader sleep and sports medicine literature and provide theoretically grounded suggestions as to how existing findings may apply to Eathletes competing professionally in Esports. Overall, it appears that Eathlete performance may be vulnerable to the deleterious effects of sleep restriction. Furthermore, Eathletes are likely at risk of sleep disturbances due to the unique situations and conditions that characterize Esports.
Running head: SLEEP AND PERFORMANCE IN EATHLETES
Sleep and performance in Eathletes: For the win!
Daniel Bonnar1, Benjamin Castine2, Naomi Kakoschke2, Gemma Sharp3
1College of Education, Psychology and Social Work, Flinders University,
Adelaide, South Australia
2 School of Psychological Sciences & Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health,
Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria
3Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria
Corresponding Author:
Naomi Kakoschke, School of Psychological Sciences & Turner Institute for Brain
and Mental Health, Monash University, 18 Innovation Walk, Clayton Campus,
Wellington Road, Melbourne, VIC, 3800, Australia; Phone: +61 (03) 9905 1402, e-
mail: naomi.kakoschke@monash.edu
orcid.org/0000-0002-7394-5668
SLEEP AND PERFORMANCE IN EATHLETES 2
Abstract
Over the last decade, Esports, defined as a form of organized video game competition,
has emerged as a global phenomenon. The professional players who compete in
Esports, namely, Eathletes, share many similarities with their traditional athlete
counterparts. However, in sharp contrast to traditional athletes, there is a paucity of
research investigating the factors that influence the performance of Eathletes. This
gap in the literature is problematic as Eathletes are unable to make informed and
empirically supported decisions about their performance management, unlike
traditional athletes. Sleep is an important factor that influences athletic performance in
traditional sports, particularly those that require a high level of cognitive demand.
Research is yet to examine whether sleep also plays an important function in optimal
performance and success of Eathletes in Esports. Accordingly, the aim of this opinion
piece is to review the broader sleep and sports medicine literature and provide
theoretically grounded suggestions as to how existing findings may apply to Eathletes
competing professionally in Esports. Overall, it appears that Eathlete performance
may be vulnerable to the deleterious effects of sleep restriction. Furthermore,
Eathletes are likely at risk of sleep disturbances, due to the unique situations and
conditions that characterize Esports.
Keywords: Esports, Eathletes, sleep, performance, video games, cognition
SLEEP AND PERFORMANCE IN EATHLETES 3
Sleep and performance in Eathletes: For the win!
Over the last decade, Esports, defined as a form of organized video game
competition, has emerged as a global phenomenon. Once considered a niche
subculture within the broader video gaming industry, Esports now has an annual
viewership of 380 million and is expected to reach a market value of 1.4 billion by
2021 (1). Professional leagues have been established globally in a variety of formats,
with a particularly strong presence in Asia, Europe and North America (2).
Concurrently, the number and scope of Esports tournaments has increased
significantly, with 588 major Esports events in 2017 (1). In the context of accelerating
business, consumer and professional growth and development, Esports is legitimizing
itself as a true form of sporting competition (2).
The professional players who compete in Esports, namely, Eathletes, share
many similarities with their traditional athlete counterparts (2). For example, Eathletes
train rigorously, compete in tournaments, must abide by competition, association and
governing body rules, and can receive salaries and sponsorship (2). However, in sharp
contrast to traditional athletes, there is a paucity of research investigating the factors
that influence the performance of Eathletes. This gap in the literature is problematic as
Eathletes are unable to make informed and empirically supported decisions about
their performance management, unlike traditional athletes. Furthermore, empirical
research focusing on performance management research is critical given the
importance of constant performance improvement for success and the high stakes
(e.g. prize money, prestige) for which Eathletes now compete.
Sleep is an important factor that influences athletic performance in traditional
sports (3), particularly those that require a high level of cognitive demand, such as
SLEEP AND PERFORMANCE IN EATHLETES 4
basketball and baseball (4). Recently, there has been a surge of interest from athletes,
coaches and trainers regarding the importance of sleep in sport and the
implementation of sleep enhancing strategies (5). Research is yet to examine whether
sleep also plays an important function in optimal performance and success of
Eathletes in Esports. Accordingly, the aim in this opinion piece is to review the
broader sleep and sports medicine literature and provide theoretically grounded
suggestions as to how existing findings may apply to Eathletes competing
professionally in Esports.
Sleep and Performance in Esports
Whereas athletic performance in traditional sports is determined by a variable
combination of physical and cognitive abilities (Fullagar et al., 2015), Eathlete
performance is more heavily reliant on cognitive abilities (2). This reliance implicates
sleep as a potential key determinant of Eathlete performance given that cognitive
deficits are common following sleep restriction (i.e. reduced sleep duration) (6). In
this section we discuss the conceivable relationship between sleep and the cognitive
abilities that underpin Eathlete performance.
In terms of more rudimentary cognitive processes, Esports involve rapid
presentation of new information, and competitive performance depends upon the
ability to process this information quickly (i.e. intact information processing speed).
For example, Esports can involve rapidly changing information from multiple other
human players, together with other in-game elements (e.g. game controlled
players/bots). Relatedly, players need to make quick motor movements (which
depends upon processing speed) in response to this rapidly changing information.
Movements are enacted through visuomotor functioning, the processing of visual
SLEEP AND PERFORMANCE IN EATHLETES 5
information and subsequent enactment of an Eathlete’s on-screen avatar movement
via physical movements (e.g. keyboard and mouse). An important component of
visuomotor functioning for Eathletes is fine motor control, which involves precise
manipulation of the smaller muscles in the hands. In other words, Eathletes need to be
able to quickly and efficiently process information and then respond appropriately,
often with precise, fine motor movements. Importantly, the impact of sleep restriction
on more basic cognitive domains is well documented within the literature. There is a
broad consensus that sleep restriction results in decreased reaction times (4,7),
reduced processing speed (8), and slower processing of visual information (9) leading
to impaired visuomotor performance (10). Taken together, sleep restriction could
essentially ‘slow down’ an Eathlete, putting them at a competitive disadvantage in the
fast-paced world of Esports.
Two additional key cognitive processes involved in Esports are attention and
working memory. Given that many Esports matches often go for upwards of 40
minutes (11), Eathletes are required to sustain their attention for extended periods of
time. Thus, effective sustained attention is necessary for competitive Esports
performance. Furthermore, to maintain focus on important in-game aspects, Eathletes
also need to employ efficient selective attention strategies. Selective attention is
needed to focus on both relevant in-game elements and to reduce the impact of out-of-
game environmental distractions (e.g. spectator noise at arena events). Further
complicating gameplay, Eathletes must build a mental model of their opponent to
determine and respond to opposing strategies and tactics. Mental models require
efficient working memory, as multiple pieces of information need to be stored and
analyzed in real time. Working memory is also needed to effectively manage goals
both in the short-term (e.g. I must retreat from the current battle as I’ll die otherwise)
SLEEP AND PERFORMANCE IN EATHLETES 6
and the long-term (e.g. playing consistent with a predefined battle plan). Sleep
restriction appears to result in performance decrements in selective (9) and sustained
attention, as well as working memory (6). The resultant errors from brief attentional
lapses and distractions, and impaired tactical awareness, may mean the difference
between success and failure in Esports, particularly for close matches or comparably
skilled Eathletes.
In addition to more rudimentary cognitive processes, Eathlete performance
also depends upon higher order executive functioning. Executive functioning is a
broad term describing a constellation of separable but related cognitive skills,
including cognitive flexibility, problem-solving, decision-making, and metacognition
(12). These skills are often employed in service of goal-directed behavior, such as
competing to win in Esports. For example, cognitive flexibility is needed as Eathletes
are required to anticipate and adapt to continuously changing variables during Esports
gameplay. Moreover, Eathletes must organize, plan, decide and then implement
strategies and tactics to achieve their respective objectives, and often coordinate
effectively within the context of a team. Simultaneous to all of these cognitive
processes, Eathletes need to monitor their own performance (i.e. metacognition) and
regulate their emotions (e.g. if performing poorly). Parallel to the effect of sleep
restriction on impairments in lower order cognitive domains, evidence suggests
executive functioning is also adversely affected. A recent meta-analysis demonstrated
that sleep restriction consistently negatively impacted executive functioning (6). Thus,
sleep restriction may compromise Eathletes’ ability to effectively engage and
modulate aspects of performance related to the aforementioned complex elements of
Esports participation, once again highlighting that adequate sleep may be particularly
important for optimal Eathlete performance.
SLEEP AND PERFORMANCE IN EATHLETES 7
Potential Risk Factors for Sleep Disturbances in Eathletes
Despite the need for adequate sleep, sleep disturbances amongst traditional
athletes are common, with a range of possible contributing risk factors (13). Eathletes
are likely exposed to many of the same risk factors as traditional athletes, although
others may be unique to the situations and conditions that characterize Esports. In the
following section we outline risk factors for sub-optimal sleep that may be pertinent
to Eathletes.
Caffeine use. Caffeine is a well-known ergogenic aid (14) used by traditional
athletes across a wide range of sports (15). However, increased caffeine levels post-
match have been correlated with longer sleep latency and decreased sleep efficiency
(16). Hence, athletes need to take a strategic approach to caffeine use, and regulate
consumption appropriately, to maximize performance gains while minimizing harm to
subsequent sleep. Although it currently remains unknown to what extent Eathletes
consume caffeine, major energy drink brands such as Red Bull and Monster Energy
have been prominent sponsors within the Esports industry for some time (17-18).
Thus, Eathlete exposure to marketing of caffeinated products may be high, but
evidence is needed to support this idea.
Air travel. Sleep disturbances related to air travel can occur due to the effects
of jet lag or conflicting habitual sleep-wake schedules and travel times (13).
Importantly for athletes, sleep disturbances related to air travel have been found to
compromise athletic performance (19-20). With the continued growth of the Esports
industry, competitions have become more widespread around the world. Although
Esports competitions are unique in that it is not always necessary for Eathletes to
travel to compete (i.e. they can compete remotely via the internet), major
competitions are centralized and require competitors to be physically present (2).
SLEEP AND PERFORMANCE IN EATHLETES 8
Hence, many Eathletes are forced to travel long distances to compete, often by plane
across multiple time zones.
Pre-competition and competition nights. In their recent meta-analysis,
Roberts and Warmington (13) found evidence of reduced sleep duration and
efficiency on competition nights. This finding was largely attributed to a delay in
bedtime, due to a range of potential factors such as elevated cortisol and sympathetic
hyperactivity. In comparison, equivocal findings were observed on pre-competition
nights, although the authors noted that individual and female athletes might be more
prone to pre-competition sleep disturbances due to anxiety. Eathletes may be
susceptible to similar issues experienced by traditional athletes on pre-competition
and competition nights, resulting in sleep disturbances.
Evening use of light emitting devices. Evidence from the general population
suggests that evening use of light-emitting devices can interfere with melatonin
secretion and consequently negatively impact sleep and daytime performance (21). In
contrast, preliminary results from studies comprising traditional athletes do not reflect
these findings (22,13). However, further research with larger sample sizes and a
broader range of cognitive measures is needed before firm conclusions are drawn.
Given that light-emitting devices are a core component of Esports, Eathletes may be
at an increased risk of sleep disturbances compared to traditional athletes, especially if
training or competitive matches occur in the evening.
Sleep disorders. Sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and insomnia, can
significantly degrade sleep quality and quantity (23). The prevalence of sleep
disorders among traditional athletes varies between sports, while athletes with
particular physical characteristics (e.g. American footballers with high body mass
index) may be at increased risk of developing a sleep disorder (13). Interestingly,
SLEEP AND PERFORMANCE IN EATHLETES 9
given that Eathlete performance is minimally influenced by physical ability, the
physical characteristics of the Eathlete population are likely more heterogeneous than
traditional athletes. Thus, Eathletes may be less at risk of sleep disorders with specific
physical risk factors. However, given the broad range of diagnosable sleep disorders
and their diverse etiologies (24), sleep disorders remain a plausible issue for Eathletes.
Performance enhancing substances. A report by the Esport Integrity
Coalition (25) determined that doping was a moderate threat to the integrity of
Esports. The report noted that Adderall and Ritalin, both stimulant medications used
to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, have instead been used by some
Eathletes in an attempt to enhance performance. Although ESIC has developed an
anti-doping policy (ESIC, Anti-Doping Code), there is no systematic detection and
enforcement regime currently in place (26). Hence, no empirical data exists that can
provide further insight with respect to doping prevalence or the types of substances
used. From a sleep perspective, some performance enhancing substances, particularly
stimulants, could lead to sleep disturbances (27).
Conclusions and Future Research Directions
This opinion piece is the first to highlight the potential importance of adequate
sleep for Eathlete performance. It is well established that sleep restriction impairs
cognitive functioning, which may not be conducive for optimal Eathlete performance
and therefore compromise the likelihood of competitive success. Indeed, cognitive
deficits following sleep restriction may occur across the full spectrum of cognitive
abilities that underpin Eathlete performance. Concerningly, similar to traditional
athletes, Eathletes likely experience a high level of risk for sleep disturbances, due to
the unique situations and conditions that characterize Esports. From a practical
SLEEP AND PERFORMANCE IN EATHLETES 10
perspective, these provisional findings have implications for the performance
management of Eathletes at all stages of their training and competition schedules.
Our conclusions are limited in that they are based on existing findings drawn
from the broader sleep and sports medicine literature. Hence, rigorous scientific
research is required to investigate and test our propositions with Eathletes specifically.
However, at a time when the Esports industry is experiencing significant growth and
popularity, research is notably lagging. We strongly encourage researchers in the field
of sleep and sports medicine to invest the time and energy needed to further develop
this emerging area of the literature. As a logical next step, future research should
focus on the following three areas, i) evaluation of Eathlete sleep patterns, ii)
identification of risk factors for sub-optimal sleep in Eathletes and iii) understanding
the consequences of sleep restriction on the cognitive abilities that underpin Eathlete
performance. Conducting such research would further align Eathletes with traditional
athletes professionally, helping them to perform at their peak potential, thereby
providing spectators with the best viewing experience possible and enhancing the
public profile of Esports on a whole.
SLEEP AND PERFORMANCE IN EATHLETES 11
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